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.