What Total Depravity Is, and Is Not

By Jonathan McElrath

Total depravity is a foundational doctrine for most of Christendom, and it is almost universally accepted within conservative evangelicalism. It is at the root of many of our favorite sayings, such as “the only good in me is Christ.” The doctrine is the problem to which God’s grace is the answer. For as much as we talk about being saved, we need to have a firm grasp of what we’re being saved from, and that ultimately boils down to our own sinfulness and the penalty thereof.

As foundational and obvious as the depravity of man is to anyone with a Biblical worldview, it is very much a strange doctrine. Think of that saying—there is nothing good in me apart from Christ. How believable is that? There are many people who are apart from Christ; is there no good in them? Surely there are non-Christians who are decent, pleasant people—perhaps even more so than many professing Christians. Not everyone is constantly walking around murdering, lying, cheating, and stealing at every opportunity. There are many acts of kindness and bravery in the world, and they’re not all done by Christians. A moment’s reflection on this should make us realize that the truth of the doctrine may be obscured for someone without a firm grasp of what it actually means. With that in mind, what do we mean when we say man is totally depraved?

Depravity refers to a moral corruption or deviance. Man is morally corrupt, deviating from God’s standard of righteousness. When we say man is totally depraved, what we mean is that the totality of the man is morally corrupt. In other words, every aspect of his being is tainted by his sinfulness. This is the clear testimony of scripture. The prophet Jeremiah tells us “the heart of man is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). Romans 8:7 tells us that “the mind set of flesh is hostile to God.” John 8:34 tells us that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Romans 3:23 explicitly states that all have sinned. Nobody is exempt from this description—Jews, Gentiles, Europeans, Asians, Liberals, Conservatives, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has sinned and is therefore a slave to sin whose mind is hostile to God and whose heart is set on the desires of the flesh (Ephesians 2:3). Another way to say it is that the natural inclination of a man’s heart, mind, and will is toward sin, not God.

When reading the condemnation of man, it is important to keep in mind the standard by which he is being judged. The biblical standard by which man is judged is not other men. The standard to which he must conform is not some ideal level of altruism, equality, sincerity, or agreeability. The standard by which man is judged is the righteousness of God Himself. This much is made clear in Romans 3:23 when it tells us “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We talk a good deal about man being created in the image of God, and that is certainly a wonderful truth. However, when a man walks around bearing the image of God and commits sin, he is essentially a walking blasphemy. The key to realizing the depth of man’s predicament is to have a proper understanding of the greatness of the God against whom he sins daily. This is the presupposed standard in the scripture’s overwhelmingly negative view of pre-converted man. Understanding this causes the problem of the moral atheist to evaporate immediately, as the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37). Clearly, someone who does not believe in God in the first place, or someone who believes in a false God, is incapable of doing this.

Total depravity does not mean that man is currently as bad as he could be. We know that sin grows over time, with the end result being death (James 1:15). In this life, we will never meet someone in whom their sin has already wrought its full work. The trajectory of a person’s life without Christ is not closer conformity to God’s righteousness, but rather further rebellion against it. However, there are means by which God restrains the evil in man’s heart for a time. God has placed a conscience within man. While it can be seared, it does serve as an internal testimony to the righteousness of God and hinders man’s rebellion against it to a degree. God has also ordered the world in such a way to make rampant immorality disadvantageous to most people. Life becomes miserable for people living in societies where violence, dishonesty, and oppression are the norm. God ordained two institutions to restrain societal evils, those being the family and the government. Both of these are very much corruptible, but they do indeed serve to curb evil to some extent. This common grace of God is by no means a credit to the inherent goodness of man apart from Christ.

Men do “good” things all the time without any regard for the glory of God. Therein lies the problem. They might obey several of the commands in his word, or exhibit many qualities demanded of us on some level. They may show kindness, forgiveness, courage, self-control, generosity, concern for the poor, etc. Even so, they do not do these things for the sake of glorifying God. Therein lies their guilt, even in their “good works” they are in violation of the greatest commandment. Moreover, in order for a person to be righteous before God, they would have to conform perfectly to all of His law at all times, not just a lot of it most of the time. Nobody can live up to that. This is why we must realize that when it comes to standing before God, Jesus is not only all we need, but also that Jesus is all we have. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.

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2 thoughts on “What Total Depravity Is, and Is Not

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  1. This article tells us some of what total depravity is not but unfortunately misses the mark when it comes to what it is.

    The key that is missing here is the term “inability” which is only hinted at in the article and never stated. In theology “depravity” refers only to the spiritual condition of fallen man’s separation from a holy God and does not invite or involve discussion of degree. In life it may be so, but not in Christian doctrine. Depravity is our nature, our inheritance, as children of Adam and bond-servants, with him, of the prince of this world. No one is able, in any way, to find his way back to God.

    The law was given, not as a guideline for righteousness, but to show us our depravity (sin) in our attempts to keep it. Gal 3:24.

    As R.C. Sproul says; “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” Original sin, something else that is not in the article, attaches to us as humans Psalm 51:5 and is impossible to get rid of this side of heaven. More impossible than passing a camel through the eye of a needle. We die because we are fallen.

    The word “Total” modifies this condition most of all to point out the absolute impossibility of reconciliation unless acted upon from outside of ourselves by our Maker. As humans we are as irreparable as a corrupt computer code and the only solution is wiping out the old and replacing it with the new; in our case regeneration. Col 3:9-10

    Total depravity does not mean utter depravity. Further, it does not propose to comment on whether or not we have the ability to fall as far into the depths of sinful behaviour as any man in history. This may be true but it is irrelevant. It simply states that we have no ability, on our own, to get back to God.

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  2. I’m glad Geoaffleck mentioned the key word “inability” to describe what total depravity means .Sadly and tragically, many Christians, do not believe (or do not understand) what they read clearly in scripture concerning the natural moral inability of the sinner to believe the Gospel (trust in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior from sin) apart from the grace of God–the enabling power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration or new birth . That is why they would rather give themselves the credit for believing, as if sinners “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) spiritually blind (Ephesians 4:18; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:3-4) and spiritual enemies of God (whose minds are “at enmity with God” –Romans 8:7) all have the ability at any time to receive (believe ) or trust in Christ for salvation without the necessary ministry of the Holy Spirit in “quickening” (Ephesians 2:1, 5) and giving moral ability to enable them to believe. If repentance and saving faith are man’s own work ( man’s own contribution to salvation) and not a part of God’s gift of salvation, as scripture clearly shows (Ephesians 2:8-9; Acts 11:18), then salvation ultimately depends on man himself and all the credit (and glory) must go to him (not God) for being saved rather than to the three great saving acts of the Holy Trinity–election by the Father (Ephesians 1:4-5; 2 Thess. 2:13; Acts 13:48), redemption by the Son (Colossians 1:14; Matthew 1:21) and effectual calling and regeneration (new birth) by the Holy Spirit (John 1:13; 1 Peter 1:23; 3:3; John 6:44; 63; 65) to enable unregenerate sinners to believe in Christ for salvation.

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