10 Things you should Know about Total Depravity
With this article I’m launching a series that will appear every Monday for the foreseeable future. It will focus on 10 things that every Christian needs to understand about particular theological truths from Scripture. I start the series today with 10 things you and I should know about the doctrine of total depravity.
(1) The issue regarding the depravity of fallen men and women is not whether we are morally responsible for our actions and choices. We are. Neither is the question, “Do people have the opportunity to believe?” The Bible declares that we do. God has made himself known to all people, either in nature, conscience, or the gospel, so that all are without excuse (see Rom. 1:18-23; 2:14-16; Acts 14:16-17).
The question, rather, is this: Do people have a free and unfettered will by which they are able to believe? The Bible declares that they do not. The teaching of Scripture is that all people are born into this life corrupt in nature and therefore ill-disposed to the gospel and to the truth. This is the doctrine of total depravity, and it must be carefully defined to avoid the confusion that it often provokes.
(2) According to the doctrine of total depravity, man in his present condition since the fall is so polluted with a principle of evil that every aspect of his being and personality is affected by it. The term depravity refers to the moral disposition or inclination of fallen man’s nature toward evil and against good. This principle of sin and moral pollution is such that man is by nature opposed to what is true and righteous. The inclination of his heart, the delight of his soul, the orientation of his will is toward wickedness.
(3) The truth of our spiritual and moral depravity does not mean that we are compelled to sin. We sin freely and willingly. We sin because that is the desire of our hearts. In our fallen and rebellious condition, we have no taste for God, but relish evil and pursue it with voluntary zeal.
(4) Human beings are not only depraved in their nature and will, they are totally depraved. Some prefer the term pervasive depravity or extensive depravity inasmuch as the term total depravity can be misleading and perhaps say more about man’s sinful condition than Scripture permits. The point of each of these terms is that man’s depravity is not restricted to just one or several parts of his personality and being. It is not that man’s mind is depraved but not his will. It is not that man’s emotions are touched by sin but his heart is somehow insulated. The moral pollution that sin brings has touched and affected the whole of the person, the totality of his being.
(5) The reality of human depravity is altogether compatible with the fact that fallen people can still perform deeds of civil and relational goodness. This is due to God’s common grace, according to which he, through the Holy Spirit, both restrains the otherwise free flow of wickedness from the human heart and also enables unregenerate people to pursue and perform deeds of kindness, compassion, generosity, and justice.
This expression of God’s grace does not convert them or regenerate them. It merely enables them to live above the otherwise downward drag of their sinful souls. In other words, God not only restrains the sinful operations and effects of the human heart, he also bestows upon both nature and humanity manifold blessings both physical and spiritual. These blessings, however, fall short of redemption itself. They save no one.
(6) The doctrine of total depravity is not meant to suggest that all people are as bad as they possibly can be. Nor does it mean that all people commit every sin of which they are capable. It simply means that the totality of their being is polluted by sin and selfishness.
Thus, when we speak of total depravity we do not mean that the depravity of the heart will always manifest itself equally in all respects at all times. Total depravity simply means that the whole of the individual, his heart, soul, spirit, and will, is affected by and enslaved to sin, thereby rendering him odious in the sight of God.
The truth of total depravity means that if left to himself/herself a person will invariably, inevitably, and without pause reject the truth of God’s revelation. Total depravity means that no matter how “civil” or “compassionate” or “industrious” or “law-abiding” he might otherwise be in his dealings with other people, he is utterly and willfully indisposed to all that Christ is and says.
(7) If total depravity is biblical, what then becomes of human freedom? To answer that question we must distinguish between “free agency” and “free will.” It is simplistic and misleading to say, without qualification, “man is free” or “man is not free.” To say that man has free agency is to say he is free to do what he wants. If he wants to reject Christ, he can. If he wants to accept Christ, he can. In brief, the human will is free to choose whatever the heart desires. However, apart from the impartation of divine grace, no one wants or wills to have Christ in his thinking or in his life.
All people freely and voluntarily and willingly reject the gospel because it is their heart’s desire to do so. A person’s freedom consists in the ability to act according to one’s desires and inclinations without being compelled to do otherwise by something or someone external to himself. So long as one’s choice is the voluntary fruit of one’s desire, the will is free. This is what I mean when I say, “Yes, all people are free moral agents.”
A man’s will is the extension and invariable expression of his nature. As he is, so he wills. A man is no more free to act or to will or to choose contrary to his nature than an apple tree is free to produce acorns.
(8) The truth of total depravity does not mean that God doesn’t give each of us the opportunity to believe. He lovingly confronts us with the gospel and says, “Believe in order that you might have life”? But mankind always, invariably, inevitably, without pause, but no less willingly and voluntarily, says No.
Likewise, total depravity does not mean that when confronted with the gospel a person cannot exercise his or her will. All of us have a will and are all capable of exercising it in the making of choices. What we are saying is that when confronted with the gospel we cannot will well. We are not kept from believing against our wills. “Whoever comes to me,” declares Jesus, “I will never cast out” (John 6:37b). The problem, however, as Jesus goes on to say, is that “no one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44a; emphasis mine).
Why is it that no man can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him? Is it because the Father prevents him from doing so? Is it because the Father or the Son or the Spirit has put an obstacle or a barrier in his way to keep him from coming when he urgently desires to do so? God forbid! Neither is it because he lacks the requisite volitional and intellectual faculties to make a positive choice. It isn’t because of some physical defect that he repudiates the gospel.
The reason no man can come is because it is not our nature to come. It is our nature, and therefore our will, to flee from Christ, not come to him. The fact is that we do not want to come. We are delighted not to come. We willingly and freely and voluntarily choose to stay in our sin and unbelief, because we find nothing at all in Jesus that is alluring, appealing, truthful, or in any way an improvement on what we already are and have on our own. Were we ever to come to the point of wanting to come to Christ for life, we may. Indeed, Jesus says we most assuredly will (John 6:37)! But such “wanting,” such “coming,” is not of our own making. It is of God. It is of the Father who in eternity past “gave” us to the Son and now in time “draws” us to faith. Simply put, no one, of himself or herself, wants to be saved. But whoever, by God’s power, is made willing shall be saved!
(9) The Apostle Paul defines total depravity in Ephesians 2:1 as being “dead in trespasses and sins.” The unregenerate are “dead” in at least two senses. On the one hand, there is an insensibility to the things of God. “The beauties of holiness do not attract man in his spiritual insensibility, nor do the miseries of hell deter him. God’s love, Christ’s sufferings, earnest conjurations by all that is tender and by all that is terrible, do not affect him” (John Eadie, Ephesians, 121). There is also, secondly, an incapability. “The corpse cannot raise itself from the tomb and come back to the scenes and society of the living world. The peal of the last trump alone can start it from its dark and dreamless sleep” (ibid.).
(10) Among the many biblical texts that affirm the total depravity of the human heart are Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Job 15:14-16; Psalm 14:2-3; 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 22:15; Jeremiah 13:23; 17:9; Matthew 7:15-20; John 3:6; 6:44; Romans 3:9-18; 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1-3; and 4:18-19.