Total Depravity | Humanity’s Radical Corruption

In our first article in this series, we introduced a little of the history of the Doctrines of Grace, otherwise known as the Five Points of Calvinism. We sought to clarify some frequent misperceptions and what the goal of this series of articles will be. In this article, we’ll look at the Biblical case for the “T” in the TULIP - Total Depravity. It is an uncomfortable doctrine for many to wrestle with as it confronts us with the truly depraved nature of our sinfulness. However, if we ever had doubt that humanity was depraved, a peruse through the comments section of a controvertial YouTube video or Twitter thread should cure that in short order. It is obvious that people are sinful. The question is, how far does that depravity go?

The Arminian vs Reformed Position on Man's Sinfulness

The Arminian Position countered Reformed Theologians by asserting that man is spiritually sick. The Fall had very seriously affected man’s condition, however, people still have the ability to choose spiritual good. Man’s condition may be dire, but he is not spiritually dead and unable. Rather, he determines his eternal destiny by responding to God’s offer of grace - either accepting or rejecting His mercy.


This is often the default view for many Christians. It seems obvious that we can choose between good and evil, therefore is ultimately a matter of our free choice. However, is this what the Bible teaches?


The Reformed Position countered by affirming that man is actually spiritually dead. Because of the Fall, spiritual death came and so we are blind and deaf to the things of God. Thus, apart from God’s grace, fallen humanity is unable to choose spiritual good and determine his own destiny. John Piper helpfully comments,

"The totality of that depravity is clearly not that man does as much evil as he could do. There is no doubt that man could perform more evil acts toward his fellow man than he does. But if he is restrained from performing more evil acts by motives that are not owing to his glad submission to God, then even his “virtue” is evil in the sight of God. Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”... This is a radical indictment of all natural “virtue” that does not flow from a heart humbly relying on God’s grace."

In William Shedd’s words, total depravity means “the entire absence of holiness, not the highest intensity of sin” (Dogmatic Theology, 2:257). This is the “bad news” we must understand before we can fully understand the Good News of the Gospel - and it is indeed a quite grim picture that Scripture paints of our fallen state.


The Scriptural Support

There are five main points that Scripture clearly teaches us about humanity’s condition after the Fall.


1. After the Fall, we are all spiritually dead

In Genesis 2:16-17, God gives His command to Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit because when they do, they “shall surely die.” This was no idle threat. When Adam and Eve ate of that fruit in rebellion to God, death entered into the world. As our Representative head, Adam’s fall plunged all humanity into sin. They died spiritually and would eventually die physically as well. Paul affirms this in Romans 5:12,

"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…"

Even more emphatically, Paul describes our condition prior to salvation in stark terms in Ephesians 2:1-3,

"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."

Note what the apostle says - we were “dead in trespasses and sins”. Not sick. Not somewhat hindered but able to struggle a bit. Dead. Spiritual deadness is the opposite of spiritual life. Note also the description of what our spiritual deadness is - it is not that we do nothing, but rather that we follow the course of this world, living in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of our bodies and minds. The spiritual deadness Paul talks about is a deadness to the things of God. We were by nature “children of wrath”- set against God. This is what it means to be dead in sin. This is why God must make us alive - this is what the new birth is - regeneration.

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses…" (Colossians 2:13)

Because of our total inability to respond to God and do any spiritual good - God has to make us alive. He does this by our union with Christ through faith. If it were not for God making us alive together with Christ, the Second Adam, we would all remain dead in sins inherited from the First Adam (Romans 5:12-14). Robert Letham comments,

"It is true that fallen people can do much good of a moral, social, and cultural nature. They can show love to family, perform acts of kindness, produce great works of art, and make major contributions to civic welfare. However, apart from regeneration by the Spirit, they cannot do these activities to the glory of God."

2. Fallen man’s heart is corrupt

Not too long after the Fall, we see in Genesis 6:5 that sin had so greatly multiplied in the earth that, "the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” This is quite the sorry assessment of the state of fallen humanity’s heart only a few generations after the Fall - "only evil continually.”


However, even after God wipes the earth clean with the Flood to start over with Noah’s family, it doesn’t seem like the sinful condition of humanity has changed much. After the Flood and Noah’s sacrifice to the Lord it says,

"And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)

Even after seeing the devastating judgment that sin brought to the earth, the intentions of the heart still remained evil in unredeemed humanity. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes affirms that, "Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” (Ecclesiastes 9:3b) The prophet Jeremiah famously gives his dire assessment of the fallen human heart that, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?”(Jeremiah 17:9)


Our hearts are deceitful and wicked apart from God’s grace to the extent that we often cannot even perceive just how much so it is! Our hearts deceive us. This is why we need the Lord, who searches the heart and tests the mind, to expose it to us (see verse 10).

If that’s not enough, Jesus himself affirms this fact:

For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

Contrary to what our modern secular culture says - that all our problems are from external sources - Jesus says that the root of evil actually hits much closer to home. Evil comes from within us. The heart of our problem is that our heart is the problem. It is the radical corruption of our desires, motives, affections and intentions. So, our contemporary culture’s advice to “just follow your heart" is far off the Biblical mark. We need a new heart. As Letham comments:

"In practice, total depravity means that there is no human faculty left untouched by sin, even in relative terms. The mind, as well as the emotions and appetites, is biased against God. We need renewal in the whole person."

3. Fallen Man is spiritually blind and deaf

The Fall, in addition to spiritual deadness, also brought spiritual blindness and deafness. We cannot see or hear the things of God because our nature is corrupted by sin.


The author of Hebrews says of unbelieving Israel,

"For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (Hebrews 4:2)

Because they had not been united by faith to Christ they were still spiritually deaf to the Good News of the Gospel. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that, "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.” Prior to regeneration, we are not able to understand spiritual things. He goes on to explain the source of this spiritual blindness in 2 Corinthians 4:4,

“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."

Here we see that spiritual blindness is a result of the work of the “god of this world”- Satan - over unbelievers. However, spiritual blindness is not just a New Testament concept. Even in the Old Testament we see that spiritual blindness is a result of God’s judgment on people. In Zephaniah 1:17a, God says, "I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord…” And even Moses recognized that God had to open people’s spiritual eyes and ears, saying, "But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:4) Jesus himself, Yahweh incarnate said in John 9:39, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”


Paul echoes this motif of God’s judgment over sin in giving sinful humanity over to their sins in Romans 1. There, because of their inexcusable suppression of truth (v.18-19), and unwillingness to give thanks to God, their reasoning becomes futile and their hearts are darkened (v.21). This continuing downward spiral of depravity leads to God giving them over to their lusts and passions (v.24-27) and to a debased mind (v.28), so that they not only sin wilfully but also give approval to others (v.32).


Thus, Spiritual blindness is caused by the influence of Satan and also part of God’s judgment against sinful people in giving them over to reap the consequences of their sin.


4. Fallen man is under Satan’s control and in bondage to sin

We saw that Satan’s influence over unbelievers causes spiritual blindness to the Gospel. Replying to the Pharisees in John 8:44, Jesus tells them frankly that, "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do…” Those in rebellion to Christ also follow after their spiritual father - the enemy of God and father of lies. This is why Paul said in Ephesians 2:2 that before God saved us, we "walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” and why he called us “children of wrath”. Those who are apart from Christ are in the snares of the Devil, “having been taken captive by him to do his will.”(2 Timothy 2:25-26)

The apostle John tells us in 1 John 3:10 that our works and affections manifest whether we are children of God or children of the Devil. He goes on to say in 1 John 5:19 that the whole world apart from Christ lies under the control of the Devil. Paul affirms that we were slaves to sin (Romans 6:20), and that before God saved us,”

"we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another." (Titus 3:3)

This is why none of us can boast in our salvation. Prior to God making us alive and saving us, we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:3). We were enslaved to sin, in spiritual bondage. This is why we need Jesus to set us free (see John 8:31-32).


5. Apart from the grace of God, fallen man is totally unable to repent, believe the Gospel and come to Christ

Don’t take my word for it. Take Jesus’s word. He says in John 6:44 that,

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day."

How many can come to Jesus on their own? None. No one.


Note that the Greek word - ἑλκύω - translated as “draw” here does not mean to “woo” as some people argue. We cannot simpy impose a definition on the word that is not warranted. The way the Bible uses ἑλκύω is as having the meaning of “drag” or “to pull along a dead or inanimate weight” in passages such as John 21:11 (dragging a net), Acts 21:30 (Paul dragged out), and Acts 16:19 (Paul and Silas dragged into the marketplace). Thus, the Father must “draw”, “pull along”, “carry” them to him. John 6 is one of the clearest explanations of man’s inability from the lips of Jesus himself. If it wasn’t clear enough already, he repeats it even more clearly in verse 65:

"And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

Coming to Jesus must be granted by the Father. This is a clear and unambiguous statement. Why is this?


It is because man, in his unregenerate state of fallenness, is unwilling and unable to come to God. Paul says this much clearly quoting from the Psalms in Romans 3:9-12,

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 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.”

Not even one. Those words should floor us at the realization of the depths of our depravity before God’s mercy rescued us from ourselves. We were our own worst enemy.

"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Note the emphatic repetition of the inability of the sinner - he is “hostile to God”, “does not submit to God’s law”, and indeed cannot please God. This doctrine of Total Depravity or our Radical Corruption due to sin exposes our inability to save ourselves. It removes all pride and boasting from us in our salvation. As Jonathan Edwards famously said, the only thing we contributed to our salvation was the sin that made it necessary.

The Westminster Confession of Faith beautifully summarizes the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity:

"Man by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto." (Westminster Confession of Faith IX,3)

This first point of the Doctrines of Grace is a doozy. Often, we want to think better of ourselves than what is true. However, the truth is that we’re more radically broken and hopeless than we even dared to admit. But, this also means that we’re more graciously loved and amazingly rescued by a God who is infinitely more merciful and compassionate than we dared to dream. The doctrine of Total Depravity of our Radical Corruption due to sin is the dark blackness over which the brilliant light of the Gospel shines brightest. By gazing into it and allowing our eyes to adjust, we’re overwhelmed afresh by the blazing glory of God’s sovereign grace in salvation to sinners like you and me. We realize that we have been forgiven much and therefore, we love much (Luke 7:47). As Robert Letham helpfully summarizes,

"In short, the reality of total depravity leaves no possibility of salvation by our own efforts. It points to our dire condition from the fall and the sovereign work of God in rescuing us. Only the Holy Spirit can change us and transform us into the image of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God."

In our next article coming out next week Thursday, we’ll start to look at the light of this amazing grace and consider the Biblical case for the doctrine of Unconditional Election or God’s Sovereign Choice in salvation.


If you’ve found these articles educational or edifying, please consider sharing them with others so that they may be blessed as well.


Soli Deo Gloria!


 

Articles in this series:

  1. The Doctrines of Grace (TULIP) | Series Introduction

  2. Total Depravity | Humanity's Radical Corruption

  3. Unconditional Election | God's Sovereign Choice

  4. Limited Atonement | Definite Redemption

  5. Irresistible Grace | Effectual Calling

  6. Perseverance of the Saints | Eternal Security

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