Total Depravity: A Critical Lesson in Seeing the Riches of Sovereign Grace

Total Depravity: A Critical Lesson in Seeing the Riches of Sovereign Grace July 5, 2022

In the first article of this series, I worked to dispel some of the common misconceptions related to Calvinism. Moving forward, I will begin addressing the doctrines individually using the commonly known acronym, TULIP, as a guide for our discussion.

The TULIP acronym represents:

T – Total Depravity
U – Unconditional Election
L – Limited Atonement

I – Irresistible Grace
P – Perseverance of the Saints

It’s worth noting from the outset that the phrasing above doesn’t always do the best job in describing what each doctrine teaches. Some of the terminologies can be a little misleading. For example, the phrase “Limited Atonement” doesn’t outline who or what is limited (more on that in a later article), and that has led to some confusion over the years. Nevertheless, because TULIP  is so well known, it makes sense to use it for our study. In cases where the terminology is weak or unclear, I will do my best to explain why and offer some supplementary phrasing that better captures the accurate teaching of the doctrine(s).

 

Total Depravity

If one wishes to understand Calvinism rightly, there are a couple of core, bedrock principles to grasp. Total Depravity is one of them. I contend that every other doctrinal point in the TULIP acronym hinges on a correct understanding and application of Total Depravity. If you miss this one, it will likely skew how you process and apply the others. Though each doctrine is fully supported in scripture, the interworkings of each form a holistic understanding of biblical soteriology. Total Depravity is, in many ways, a systematic, theological linchpin for Calvinism.

Before moving on, I want to make it clear that Calvinism is biblical before it is systematic. Many critics point to the systematic nature of Calvinism as a fault, stating that it’s a forced reading of scripture in an attempt to fit doctrine into a system. This is simply not true. Reformed thought holds scripture in the highest regard, and any observed systematic reading in scripture is read because it is simply that – observed. The reformers were adamantly opposed to forcing doctrines, traditions, etc. Scripture is, and always will be, the final rule of Calvinism.

A right understanding of how sin has impacted the positional standing of mankind before a just and holy God is elemental to biblical and reformed thought. If we think too much of ourselves and our good works, we miss the entire point of the bible. This is because the true cornerstone of our faith, our salvation, our hope, and our glory is only found in Christ. He is the focus and glory of all of human history – not us. I once heard a theologian remark, “If your sin is great, your Savior will also be great.” This is how a study of Total Depravity helps us. It teaches us, who we are and what we naturally deserve: wrath. Total Depravity is a critical, first lesson that one must learn if they are to truly grasp the depth, beauty, and richness of God’s sovereign grace.

Stated plainly, Total Depravity teaches that original sin impacts and taints every person in every aspect of our being. In other words, the whole person is affected and dead in sin – the sum total of the person. Adam’s fallen nature was passed down to all of us when he sinned in the Garden of Eden, and ever since, humanity has had a genetic disposition towards sin. Our nature loves sin and hates God.

One should note that Total Depravity doesn’t teach that we’re all as bad as we can be. This is a case where the phrasing of the doctrine can be a little misleading. Many read “Total Depravity” and understand it to refer to the extent of one’s sinfulness. This is clearly not the case. Anyone, even Hitler, could conceivably be eviler. I believe it was the late R.C. Sproul, the Presbyterian theologian and pastor, who said he preferred the term “radical corruption.” I tend to agree. This wording more aptly describes the meaning of the doctrine.

Having said that, the severity of this depraved reality cannot be overstated. In a spiritual sense, we all are born dead in sin. When Adam, our federal head sinned, we died in the garden with him, and outside of God’s regenerative works, we do not inherently possess the ability to do good. Genuine piety, faith, repentance, and the like are completely foreign to our natures. Naturally speaking, we want nothing to do with God.

Consider this for a moment: have you ever had to teach a young child to be naughty or do they simply come by it naturally? Any parent will tell you that a kid’s nature is prone to disobedience, selfishness, and disrespectfulness. They must be taught how to behave. Like you and I, their hearts are enslaved to the power of sin and radical corruption. This is what the bible refers to when it speaks of us being slaves to sin (Romans 6:6).

In and of ourselves, we lack the ability to believe, repent, or exercise any measure of saving faith. Ponder the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). Jesus is saying that no one can – or has the ability – to come to Jesus unless God acts first. Paul, in Romans 3 goes to great lengths to make this point. Citing the Old Testament, he writes, “As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (3:10-12).

Another critical aspect of grasping Radical Corruption is that we naturally cannot repent, exercise faith, do good, etc. Any time that salvation occurs or we act in ways of good faith, we can determine that this act flows fully from God and not us. Therefore, all the work of salvation belongs to God! He deserves all of the glory.

This is exactly what Paul had in mind when wrote Ephesians:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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— 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. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:1-10)

In these 10 verses, we see the stark contrast between being dead in sin and alive in Christ. We also see how salvation is an act of grace and how no man can boast. And finally, we see that even the good works which we are saved unto were created beforehand that we should walk in them. There is no good that flows from us except that which Christ gives us. What an incredible text!

Let’s look at some additional key scriptural supports for this doctrine. For some of the verses, I will offer some brief commentary to aid the reader on the text’s meanings and why it’s relevant to our subject matter. Still, in all cases, I encourage the reader to study the scriptures in their original context. Don’t take my word for it.

 

Genesis 6:5 – “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

  • This verse is only 6 chapters after the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. Notice the widespread nature of corruption and the phrasing “only evil continually.” From the very beginning, the power and evil of sin were apparent.
  • A common argument against Total Depravity is that mankind retains some basic goodness, despite the fall. It is this goodness that eventually seeks after God. I would argue this text in Genesis 6 teaches the opposite. The language used here is overwhelming and inclusive of every person. So much so, that God would flood the earth.

Romans 5:12,19 – “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”

  • This text, and much of the surrounding context, speaks to comparing the federal headships of Adam and Christ. Every human is either in Adam (death) or Christ (life).

Psalm 143:2 – “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”

2 Chronicles 6:36 – “There is no one who does not sin.”

1 John 1:8,10 – “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.”

John 8:34 – “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.'”

  • There is only one person who never sinned, and that is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Everyone else is, by nature, a slave to sin.

Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Isaiah 1:5-6 – “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.”

Psalm 51:5 – “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

  • The point of this text (also see Genesis 8:21 and Psalm 58:3) is to establish that men are not born pure. From conception, we are enslaved to sin.

Galatians 4:8-9 – “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”

1 Corinthians 2:14 – “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The natural fallen person is incapable of understanding or accepting the things of God.”

There are dozens of other verses I could continue to list out. However, the objective is not to compile an exhaustive list of scriptures, as much as it is to provide an introductory level study of Radical Corruption.

Finally, I want to remind the reader that as dreary as a study on depravity might sound. It is very theologically rich and beneficial. It is not until we have genuinely grasped the reality of who we are and what we have been saved from that we can see the riches and depths of God’s grace. A major aspect of our sanctification is learning to ourselves as Christ sees us. Let me close with this wonderful quote from John Calvin from his commentaries: “For men have no taste for [God’s power] till they are convinced of their need of it and they immediately forget its value unless they are conditionally reminded by awareness of their own weakness.”

If you wish to study this specific topic in more detail, I recommend the following reading materials:


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