Monday, January 21, 2008

In What Sense Is Depravity Total?

by Phil Johnson@

very member of Adam's race is born utterly depraved—fallen, alienated from God, and in bondage to evil. In Romans 6, Paul calls it slavery to sin. He furthermore says in Romans 6:20 that people who are slaves of sin are utterly devoid of true righteousness. All in such a state of sin and unbelief are God's enemies (Romans 5:8, 10). They are "alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds" (Colossians 1:21).


Human depravity is "total" in the same sense death is total. You can't be partly dead. You can be really, really sick or critically injured and on life support, but you're either dead or alive. There are no degrees of death.

In fact, when Scripture describes human depravity, it's usually with the language of spiritual death.

Ephesians 2, for example, says people in their fallen state are dead in trespasses and sins—spiritually dead (v. 1). They walk in worldliness and disobedience (v. 2). They live in the lusts of their flesh, "indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and [are] by nature children of wrath, even as the rest" (v. 3). They are "separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (v. 12).

In Romans 8:6 Paul, says, "To be carnally minded is death." He is talking about the carnal-mindedness of unbelief, describing what it means to be totally depraved. He goes on to say (vv. 7-8), "The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God."

In other words, spiritual death is a total inability to love God, a total inability to obey Him, and a total inability to please Him.

Now, lots of non-Christians will deny that they are hostile toward God. But they are self-deceived. In fact, many who invoke the name of Christ and claim to love God actually do not love the God of the Bible. They love a god who exists only in their imagination—a tolerant, unholy, passive, feeble, weakling god. That is not the God of Scripture. The God of the Bible is too holy for sinners' tastes. He is too wrathful against sin. His standards are too high. His laws are not to their liking. So though they profess to love God, they do not love the one true God who has revealed Himself in Scripture. They are not able to love Him.

The inability to love God as we ought to is the very essence of total depravity. It leaves us impotent to fulfill the First and Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). So everything the sinner ever does is permeated with sin, because he's living life in constant violation of the most important commandment of all.

On the other hand, "total depravity" does not mean that all sinners are always as bad as they could possibly be. It does not mean that every unbeliever will live out his or her depravity the fullest. It doesn't mean all non-Christians are morally equal to brute beasts or serial killers. It does not mean that unconverted people are incapable of acts of kindness or goodwill to fellow humans. In fact, Jesus Himself stated that unbelievers do good to people in return for good that is done to them (Luke 6:33).

The human race was created in the image of God. Though sin has spoiled that image, even non-Christians are capable of rising to great heights of human goodness, honesty, decency, and excellence. "Total" depravity does not mean that every unredeemed woman must be an angry, slobbering hag, or that every unbelieving man is a twisted, degenerate psychopath. It does mean that unbelievers, those who are in the flesh, cannot please God.

So the word total in "total depravity" refers to the extent of our sinfulness, not the degree to which we manifest it. It means evil has contaminated every aspect of our being—our wills, our intellect, our emotions, our conscience, our personality, and our desires.

In biblical terminology, sin has totally corrupted the human heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" If the heart is corrupt, the whole person is defiled.

By describing our depravity as heart-corruption, Scripture makes it clear that the real problem with us lies at the core of our being. Our very soul is infected by sin. Nothing about us remains pure. Our tendency to sin is unrelenting and ultimately unconquerable. Sin therefore defines who we are.

Before a perfectly holy and impeccably righteous God we are profane, sinful, thoroughly debased—no matter how good we appear in human terms. Being truly righteous is not merely hard for us; it's impossible.

That is as true of someone like Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa as it was of Adolph Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer. The relative goodness of the world's best people is never enough to merit God's approval. His only standard is absolute perfection. The best of sinners do not come close.

Let's illustrate: suppose every reader of Pyromaniacs lined up at Point Dume (the closest good swimming beach to my house), and we all tried to swim to Singapore. Most of us would probably drown before anyone reached Catalina—just 26 miles away. One thing is certain; no one would make it to Singapore. We'd all be dead long before the goal was met. If I were a gambler (I'm not) I'd bet everything I have that no one would even get as far as Hawaii, less than halfway.

Question: Would those who died before swimming two miles be any worse off than those who died twenty-three miles offshore? Of course not. All would be equally dead. The goal was just as hopeless for the trained, expert swimmer as it was for the fat guy who did his training by sitting in front of a computer blogging all day.

That is how it is with sin. All sinners stand condemned before God. Even the best of Adam's offspring are thoroughly sinful at heart. No matter how good they might appear through the lens of human judgment, they are in exactly the same hopeless state as the lowest degenerate—maybe even in a worse state, because it is harder for them to acknowledge their sin. So they compound their sin with self-righteousness.

People are prepared to be called sinners in their sin, but they do not want to be labeled sinners in their religion. But this is crucial: Human religion does not contradict depravity; it only proves it. Human religion substitutes other gods in the rightful place of the true God. It is the very essence of God-hating. It is false worship—nothing but an attempt to depose God. It is the very worst expression of depravity.

Remember—it was the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned with the harshest invective He ever uttered. Why? After all, they believed the Scriptures were literally true. They tried to obey the law rigidly. They weren't like the Sadducees, religious liberals who denied the supernatural. They were the theological fundamentalists of their day.

But they refused to recognize the bankruptcy of their own hearts. They trusted in themselves that they were righteous and went about trying to establish their own righteousness, instead of submitting to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:3). Remember what they told the man born blind in John 9:34? "You were born entirely in sins"—as if they weren't.

In other words, they rejected the doctrine of total depravity, and it led to their utter condemnation. Jesus said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).

They thought all their good works made them righteous. But religion and good works do not cancel out depravity. Depravity corrupts even the highest forms of religion and good works. George Whitefield said that God could damn us for the very best prayer we ever put up. John Bunyan agreed. He said he thought the best prayer he ever prayed still had enough sin in it to damn the whole world. Isaiah wrote, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away" (Isaiah 64:6).

Unredeemed sinners are therefore incapable of doing anything to please God. They cannot love the God who reveals Himself in Scripture. They cannot obey His law from the heart, with pure motives. They cannot even grasp the essentials of spiritual truth. First Corinthians 2:14 says, "A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." Unbelievers are therefore incapable of faith. And "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" (Hebrews 11:1).

Note: The key word in all of that is inability. Sinners are totally unable to respond to God, apart from His enabling grace.

That's the starting point for a sound, biblical understanding of soteriology.

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