Most people (Christian and non-Christian) recoil at the doctrine of total depravity, supposing that it means that Calvinists regard all humans as garbage piles with no capacity to exhibit goodness of any sort. But critics of this doctrine fail to understand its historical meaning and, more importantly, its Biblical basis. For this reason, I want to briefly examine it today, knowing that we can’t understand the Gospel without first understanding why mankind needs salvation.
I located a concise and helpful explanation of total depravity at GotQuestions.org, and I want to begin by offering it.
While often misunderstood, the doctrine of total depravity is an acknowledgement that the Bible teaches that as a result of the fall of man (Genesis 3:6) every part of man—his mind, will, emotions and flesh—have been corrupted by sin. In other words, sin affects all areas of our being including who we are and what we do. It penetrates to the very core of our being so that everything is tainted by sin and “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6). It acknowledges that the Bible teaches that we sin because we are sinners by nature. Or, as Jesus says, “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” (Matthew 7:17-18). (Source)
As this quote indicates, the doctrine points to our inability to overcome the effects and power of sin apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. I’ve found great insight into this matter through studying Ephesians 2:1-3:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (ESV)
Paul, as he usually does in his letters, gives us some extremely rich theology to sort though, and I wish time would permit me to examine the entire passage (verses 1-10). Today we’ll limit ourselves to these three verses (particularly verse 1) in order to understand the practical effects of total depravity. These introductory verses prepare us for the Gospel by reminding us of exactly why we need good news in the first place. Much like Romans 1:18-32, they describe the human condition in decidedly unflattering terms. In order to understand Paul’s indictment on unredeemed humanity, we must look at the various charges he makes.
Very bluntly, Paul declares in verse 1 that unbelievers are dead in their trespasses and sins. That word “dead” comes from the Greek word nekros, which derives from nekus–the word for corpse. According to The Complete Word Study Dictionary, Paul uses the word in Ephesians 2:1 as a metaphor of a state “in opposition to the life of the Gospel.” In short, non-Christians, being corpses, lack any ability to respond to God.
Sin caused our spiritual deadness (see Genesis 3:1-24, 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Romans 5:12-17). It makes sense, then, that unregenerate people would be completely incapable of responding to the Lord. Additionally, we understandably lack both the ability and the motivation to “make ourselves right” before a holy God.
Verses 2 and 3 go on to say that, because we are dead to God apart from the life we receive from the Holy Spirit upon conversion, we live under the influences of other sinful people, our own selfish desires and demonic forces. While we may exhibit many traits that approximate goodness, we simply do not have the resources to merit our own salvation. The sin nature we inherit from Adam affects every area of our being, making it impossible for us to meet God’s standards of holiness.
Thankfully, God has provided the means of redemption through the shed blood of Jesus. We’ll talk about His salvation often in the course of this blog, so I won’t elaborate on it now. Today let me conclude by stating that the doctrine of total depravity shows us why His blood, shed on our behalf, is so precious.