The following is part of a series of blogs written for the Covenant Reformed Church website.
We continue in our exploration of the Reformed doctrines of grace. We are now three posts into what will be at least 8 in total. Since it has been a while since I have posted let me remind you of the topics of discussion; we are currently at #2 on the following list:
God’s sovereignty in salvation
Perseverance of the saints.
My goal in these blogs is to allow the truth of Scripture to speak. As we do so you will see that Reformed theology is built entirely on Scripture and follows the truth of the Bible wherever it leads. I also trust that as we go through these beautiful doctrines we will see how amazing grace really is.
This post deals with total depravity and total inability, also called pervasive depravity or radical corruption, and its implications. This is a really easy doctrine to find in Scripture and to understand, as we will see; but it is often just as easy to disagree with it because it goes against our sinful, selfish human desire to be in control and to think of ourselves more highly that we ought.
When we speak of total depravity we are talking about the position of a person outside of God’s saving grace, prior to, regeneration. In what state does such a person exist? Someone in this state is totally depraved, meaning that they are a sinner through and through and there is no part of who they are that is untouched and corrupted by sin. This corruption is so severe that we cannot, without the aid of God’s regenerative work in us, come to believe in the gospel unto salvation.
Pervasive depravity, then, means that (1) the corruption of original sin extends to every aspect of human nature: to one’s reason and will as well as to one’s appetites and impulses; and (2) there is not present in man by nature love to God as a motivating principle of his life [Anthony Hoekema, Created In God’s Image]
This doctrine does NOT mean that:
- The unregenerate person is totally hardened to matters of the conscience (matters of right and wrong); cf. Romans 2:15,
- The sinful person is as sinful as possible – there are genuine benevolent unregenerate people who show better ‘fruit’ than some believers do,
- The unregenerate person is unable to perform certain actions that are good and helpful in the sight of others,
- The sinner engages in every possible sin.
As RC Sproul identifies,
Total depravity means radical corruption. We must be careful to note the difference between total depravity and “utter” depravity. To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could possibly be. Hitler was extremely depraved, but he could have been worse than he was. I am sinner. Yet I could sin more often and more severely than I actually do. I am not utterly depraved, but I am totally depraved. For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.
Building on the latter half of the above quote we can know delineate what total depravity DOES mean. It includes the following:
- Sin is a matter of the whole person – sin permeates all aspects of what it means to be human. The body is affected (Rom 6:6, 12: 7:24; 8:10, 13); the mind and reason are affected (Romans 1:21; 2 Corinthians 3:14-15; 4:4); the emotions are affected (Romans 1:26-27; Galatians 5:24; 2 Timothy 3:2-4); the will is affected (Romans 6:17; 2 Timothy 2:25-26)
- The unregenerate person’s good acts always contain an element of sinfulness – these good acts are never done out of perfect love for God because they do not know God thus unregenerate people are ultimately seeking their own or another’s gain, but not God’s glory. Hence their acts may be benevolent, but are still sinful. (NB: Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisess – John 5:39-42)
- Sinners are completely unable to do anything about their sinful condition – the sinner cannot alter his or her life by a process of determination, will power or personal reformation (Erickson, Systematic Theology, 647); this fact is depicted clearly in the Biblical references to sinners as being “spiritually dead” (Ephesians 2:1-2, 5; Colossians 2:13; Hebrews 6:1; 9:14). This does not mean that unbelievers are totally unresponsive to spiritual matters (just look at the explosion of religion and spirituality in our society) but that they are totally unable to do what they ought to do. Unbelievers are totally incapable of doing genuinely good and redeemable works; thus salvation by works is impossible (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- When we speak about man’s spiritual inability, we mean two things:
- the unregenerate person cannot do, say, or think that which totally meets with God’s approval, and therefore totally fulfills God’s law; and
- the unregenerate person is unable apart from the special working of the Holy Spirit to change the basic direction of his or her life from sinful self-love to love for God.
- There are a great number of Biblical pictures of this inability that demonstrate this point:
- spiritual blindness and darkness (Ephesians 4:18);
- spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1-2, 5; Colossians 2:13);
- slavery to sin (Romans 6:20);
- being without strength (Romans 5:6);
- being subject to Satan, led about at his will (2 Timothy 2:26);
- as requiring a change of the character of one’s heart to produce a change in the character of one’s actions (Matthew 12:33-35)
- Our rebellion is totally deserving of eternal punishment (cf Piper) – Ephesians 2:3 says that due to our depravity we were “children of wrath.” That is, we were under God’s wrath because of the corruption of our hearts that made us as good as dead before God. God is just in condemning unbelievers to eternal hell (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Matthew 5:29f; 10:28; 13:49f; 18:8f; 25:46; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10). Therefore, to the extent that hell is a total sentence of condemnation, to that extent must we think of ourselves as totally blameworthy apart from the saving grace of God.
This puts us in a very tough spot. Totally sinful, corrupt, guilty and unable to save ourselves. So what can be done about this? Well, from our side, nothing. We are stuck. This is why we need an alien righteousness, provided for us by an alien Saviour. This is why we need the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is why we need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit according to the sovereign will of the Father. For without these acts of God we are unable to come to faith in Christ and be saved.
Before we leave this doctrine, I want to probe, very briefly the implications of denying this doctrine. Put simply, our understanding of the gospel and its application to our lives will become unbiblically defined and applied. Douglas Wilson explains the consequences of doing so:
The denial of man’s total inability will ultimately undermine our faith in the necessity of the new birth and the evangelical proclamation. How so? Scripture teaches us that faith is pleasing to God. It also teaches us that we are to live our Christian lives the same way we began our Christian lives (Galatians 3:1-6; Colossians 2:6). Now if unregenerate men, on their own, are capable of saving faith, without having been regenerated by the Spirit of God, then they should be able to continue to exercise that same kind of faith, after they are saved, without any help from the Spirit of God.
If a man can become a believer on his own, then he can continue to believe on his own. And if he can continue to believe on his own, then what did regeneration accomplish? The Bible teaches us that the Christian life begins with faith, continues in faith, and concludes in faith (Romans 1:17). The foundation of all godliness is faith, and a denial of man’s total inability means that unbelievers are capable of laying that foundation for all godliness on their own. Even if one argues that the Holy Spirit regenerates a man after he believes, such a regeneration is superfluous. What is it for? What does it do? In this view, it most certainly does not enable the man to believe or trust God. It hardly does honor to the resurrecting Spirit to say that His job is to tag along…
Put bluntly, it amounts to this: If I am saved, sanctified, and glorified through faith (which the Bible teaches), and faith is possible apart from regeneration (which a denial of total inability asserts), then salvation, sanctification, and glorification are possible without regeneration. And that reasoning undermines the necessity of the everlasting and eternal gospel.
As hard as this doctrine may be for us to stomach the biblical witness to it is overwhelming. It is massively important, then, for us to understand it and process it correctly in order that our salvation and sanctification be true and fully lived out. As John Piper notes:
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of admitting our condition to be this bad. If we think of ourselves as basically good or even less than totally at odds with God, our grasp of the work of God in redemption will be defective. But if we humble ourselves under this terrible truth of our total depravity, we will be in a position to see and appreciate the glory and wonder of the work of God…
Soli Deo Gloria