TULIP Part 2

Total Depravity


Quick quiz: Who is the most evil person who has ever lived? Is it Adolf Hitler? Josef Stalin? Saddam Hussein? Odds are these men of infamy would make everyone's top 10 lists. What about people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King Jr.? Can they be considered evil? After reading that last question, you may think it absurd on its face. Of the first list, there would be no question as to whether or not those people were evil, but the second list? These people are considered paragons of virtue. Yet, in regards to God's holy standards and the biblical witness, everyone on both lists would be considered depraved and evil. The Reformers referred to this as Total Depravity.

In our last article, we introduced the Doctrines of Grace and briefly defined Total Depravity as the teaching that mankind is utterly dead in sin. In this state he cannot and will not submit to God or his word. The Canons of Dort (the official response by the Dutch Reformed Church to the followers of Jacob Arminius) defined Total Depravity in this way:
Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.
OK, that's what Total Depravity is, but is it biblical? The bible teaches that we are all "dead in sins and trespasses" (Ephesians 2:1). We also learn we are naturally "slaves to sin" (Romans 6:17). In both cases ("dead in sin" and "slave to sin"), the bible describes our moral inability; we are unable to respond to God in faith and obedience. Furthermore, because of this moral inability, we have no desire to obey God. Our minds are hostile and resistant to God (Romans 8:7). The bible says that "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Romans 3:10-11). Dead in sin, slave to sin, hostile to God, resistant and disobedient, the picture the bible paints of mankind matches the Reformed definition of Total Depravity.

A key verse in defending Total Depravity is Genesis 6:5, which reads:
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.
We read this verse and then look at the world around us; while there is certainly identifiable evil in the world, is it true that "every intention" of our hearts is "only evil continually?" In other words, does Total Depravity teach we are as evil as we possibly can be? No. While we are depraved and corrupt, we aren't as depraved and corrupt as we possibly could be. As bad as Hitler was, we can imagine him being more evil. The reason for this is that God, in his grace, restrains our evil intentions (e.g., Genesis 20:3). Romans 1:18-32 gives us a picture of what happens when God removes his restraining influence. Depravity isn't measured in the amount of evil that is done, but by the intentions of our hearts. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is just as much sin as doing the wrong thing. The ‘good' that most people do in their lives is not done in such a way that glorifies God or gives him thanks (Romans 1:21). That is why some like to substitute the title Radical Corruption for Total Depravity. Due to Adam's fall into sin, humanity is corrupt to the core; sin permeates all we think, do and say.

Why does this matter? If mankind is not totally depraved, then there must be some part of him that can respond favorably to God and his word. This has huge implications on how we evangelize and preach the gospel. If unsaved man is not "dead in sin," but only seriously ill, there is a part of him that is able to respond to God. Yet the bible is clear, we are "dead in sin and trespasses." Dead men cannot respond to anything. Slaves cannot free themselves. God is the one who brings the dead back to life. God is the one who sets the slave free. Total Depravity teaches the truth regarding man's deadness in sin, and therefore recognizes that it is God, and God alone, who saves (Jonah 2:9).

Soli Deo Gloria!


Next: Unconditional Election Part 1

Image Credit: Thomas Totz, Germany; "5 tulips"; Creative Commons

The Series:
Introduction: What are the Doctrines of Grace and what is their historic importance?
Total Depravity: Are we all as evil as we can be? What about the good that people do?
Unconditional Election Part 1  |  Part 2: Does God choose those who are going to be saved ahead of time?
Limited Atonement Part 1  |  Part 2: Did Jesus die for the sins of the whole world or only for the elect?
Irresistible Grace Part 1  |  Part 2: How does God draw people to himself? Can we resist?
Perseverance of the Saints: What does it mean to persevere in faith? What about apostasy?

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Republished 5-20-2013