Total Depravity

by Josh Liu

During seminary, I was presented the following scenario and question:

I have heard a lot of talk lately about the doctrine of “total depravity.” What is total depravity? I have some neighbors who are not Christians but they actually seem pretty nice. Are they totally depraved? They are actually nicer and more gracious than a lot of Christians I know.

Unfortunately, the experience that some unbelievers are “more gracious” than believers is a scathing evaluation of how many Christians are not living in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. It’s true that many non-Christians are genuinely nice! However, that is not what the doctrine of total depravity refers to.

Total depravity refers to the fallen nature of man. Man (or mankind) is completely polluted by sin in such a way that sin affects everything that he does, says, thinks, and desires. As such, man cannot change himself. There are two parts to this doctrine.

First, every person, both non-Christian and Christian, is born totally depraved–sin has corrupted every part of man. Every person is sinful. The Bible attests to this fact. Genesis 6:5 says, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” This assessment of man is true of every unregenerate person presently. In 1 Kings 8, Solomon, addressing Israel after the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the Temple in Jerusalem, makes a comment that “there is no man who does not sin” (v. 46). Even the New Testament affirms this teaching. The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The Apostle Paul drives home this teaching in Romans 1:18-3:20, where he declares Jews and Gentiles are sinners. He emphasizes this reality by declaring, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). No on escapes this condition. King David recognizes that he was born depraved: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). The reality of man’s total sinfulness is also seen in Ephesians 2:1-3,

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

Man is ultimately dead in his depravity to the extent that he lives according to his depraved nature (e.g. disobedience, indulging the desires of the flesh). The only way this can be changed is God’s merciful intervention to transform man’s nature:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27; cf. Eph. 2:4)

Second, man’s depravity touches every aspect of humanity; hence, “total” depravity. Man’s will is polluted by sin (cf. Rom. 1:32; 7:18-19; Eph. 2:2-3). Man’s intellect is polluted by sin (cf. Rom. 1:21; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:17-18). Man’s heart is polluted by sin (cf. Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Mark. 7:21-23). Man’s actions are polluted by sin (cf. Is. 64:6). As a result, man cannot please God. Romans 8:8 declares, “those who are in the [sinful] flesh cannot please God.” “Niceness” is not enough. If you aren’t part of Christ, which is only through repentance of sins and faith in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to transform your depraved nature, then you can’t be good before God (cf. John 6:44; 15:5).

All of this is not to say, however, that every person is as evil as he could possibly be at all times. Depraved sinners can manifest some “goodness” at times, which is attributed to God’s common grace and restraint of sin. Also, this is not to say that sinners can’t “do” good things. Unbelievers can certainly contribute positive things to society, relationships, and so on. Yet Scripture is clear that such “good works” do not please or honor God since they are not in right relationship with Him (cf. Matt. 7:21-23).

The doctrine of total depravity recognizes that there are varying degrees of manifestations of one’s sinful heart, as well as varying degrees of the seriousness of individual sins. So, you can’t conclude that someone like Adolf Hitler was necessarily more depraved (in the doctrinal sense) than someone like Mother Teresa. Every person is totally depraved, in the sense that no part of their material or immaterial being is exempted from the influence of sin. It is by God’s grace that not every person manifests that evil in every way possible, or to the greatest extent possible. In other words, it is by the grace of God that we fail to live up to our evil potential…but we all still have it.

For your non-Christian friends that seem like good people, remember that they are not “good” before God. Remember God’s perfect standards. He, being the perfect, righteous judge has declared “for whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). Yet we have not just stumbled at one point in God’s perfect law, but our offenses are perhaps uncountable. Even more so, we ourselves have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). You may commend good works in others, but don’t confuse that with equating it to being good before God. Remember Christ’s warning that those who did “good works” but aren’t in a right relationship with God will be cast away in judgment (cf. Matt. 7:21-23).

For your Christian friends, encourage and exhort them to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, which will manifest the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (cf. Eph. 4:1; Gal. 5:22-23). May you live as salt and light, bearing testimony to the transforming power of the gospel so that those who see will give glory to God (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). Praise God for His mighty power and lovingkindness to transform a depraved sinner to a new nature, covered by Christ’s righteousness!