Yesterday I wrote about sin, asking if sin is primarily something we do or something we are. Some questions arose in light of that article and I wanted to carry on a bit of discussion by looking further at the doctrine of human depravity. I have shared most of this in the past but felt it was well worth covering again. It is easy to see this doctrine as one that is terribly depressing and deflating, but when we properly understand depravity I think we can also find it very liberating. It gives us cause to praise God for His grace.
The doctrine of total depravity be defined something like this: “Total Depravity is a theological term primarily associated with Calvinism, which interprets the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. In other words, a person is not by nature inclined to love God with his heart or mind or strength, rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor. Put another way, even with all circumstances in his favor a man without God can do nothing but work for his own destruction; and even his religion and philanthropy are destructive, to the extent that these originate from his own imagination, passions and will” (I don’t recommend Wikipedia for theological precision, but in this case they offer quite a good definition). Because the purpose of this article is not to defend Total Depravity I will not offer biblical support for it. I hope to write such a series of articles in the future.
When we say that mankind fell in Adam, we affirm that as our federal or representative head, Adam’s sin was passed on to each of us. Adam represented the human race, and when he decided to forsake God, he did so on behalf of every one of us. This is similar to a head of state declaring war on another nation - his declaration means that each person within his nation, each person that he represents, is now at war with the foreign country. Job laments “Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) No one who has been born of man can escape this radically sinful nature. Nature tells us that like begets like; a dog can only give birth to dogs, not to cats or frogs or birds. Similarly a sinful person can only bring forth other sinful people (which helps us understand why Jesus needed to be conceived of the Holy Spirit).
Another affirmation we make in the Christian view of the fall is that there is a sense in which the first sin is ours in the same way in which it was Adam’s. While we did not actually take the piece of fruit and eat it, God foreordained our relationship to Adam long before Adam fell so that from the moment of our conception we are sinful. We are not innocent until we commit our first sin, but are condemned, sinful people from the moment our lives begin. Psalm 58:3 tells us that “the wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” Before we are even born we are already sinful, and deliberately go astray as soon as we are able.
How Sinful Are We?
And so it is that humans are sinful from the moment life begins. But how sinful are they? Like many Calvinists today, I am convinced that a term such as Radical Depravity or Radical Corruption is superior to “Total Depravity.” I believe these terms contribute to clarifying the matter, for by total depravity we do not mean that people are as depraved as they could possibly be—they are totally corrupt in some ways but not in others. It is here that it is helpful to distinguish between extent and degree.
When we say humans are totally depraved in extent, we mean that their depravity has reached every part of their being. It extends to every part of them - their mind, body and spirit are all corrupt. When we speak of a total degree of depravity, we indicate that something is exactly as bad as it could possibly be so that there is not even a tiny bit of good left. The doctrine of total depravity speaks to extent, not to degree.
Consider an illustration of three glasses of water. The first glass contains clean, pure water and represents Adam in his perfect state before the Fall. Now consider a second glass which contains this same clean, pure water. We can put one drop of deadly poison in that glass and it renders that entire glass poisonous so that if you were to drink it, you would quickly drop dead. That one drop extended to every part of the glass even though the entire vessel is not filled with poison. This represents humans after the Fall. While they are not wholly corrupt, the corruption they do have extends to every part. And finally consider a third glass which is filled entirely with poison. From top to bottom there is nothing but deadly poison. This represents Satan, who the Bible portrays as being absolutely corrupt so there is no good left whatsoever, but this does not represent humans here on earth. Humans are not as depraved as they could possibly be.
Total Depravity is the great equalizer of humans before God. Even when we compare the most sinful man to the young boy who was saved long before he even knew how to get into serious trouble, we see that all men are equal before God. The Bible teaches that we are not sinners because of the degree of our depravity, but because of the extent. The degree exists only because of the extent.
The extent of my depravity is just as great as that of the worst sinner the world has ever known. The thoughts of his heart were continually evil, and so were mine. He hated God, and so did I. As one who came to trust Christ as only a child I had little opportunity to express this hatred and resentment, yet the Bible teaches that it was there all along. Titus 3:3 tells us that “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” These words are as true of a child as they are of an adult. Even my sweet little two-year-old redhead downstairs passes her days in foolishness, disobedience and malice towards both God and men. There are none who are truly innocent before God. Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us as much where it says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Were it not for Scripture’s clear teaching on Total Depravity, I may have cause to boast or to consider myself somehow more innocent than a person who instigated and endured much pain and suffering before being drawn to the Lord. Yet the Bible teaches me that my depravity, even as a child, was as great in extent as anyone’s. It was only His grace that kept me from being as corrupt in degree. If God delights in saving us, who are depraved in extent, we know also that God can save anyone despite the degree of his sin. If I compare myself to another and find him more in need of a Savior than I, I have made the mistake of comparing my sin to his, instead of comparing my sin to God’s perfection. God does not judge us by comparing one to the other, but against His perfect Law.
Total Depravity is not “mere” doctrine, but is truth that should and must impact every believer’s life. This truth is the great equalizer, for it shows that the best and worst of men are all equally corrupt in light of God’s perfect standard. “The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23) God had to stoop just as far to grab me as He did the lowliest criminal, for we were equally dead, equally depraved and equally in need of His grace, His life. The miracle that brought me to life is the same miracle that must bring every sinful man or woman to life. We are equal as we fall to our faces before the cross. An old song by the French Canadian band The Kry says it well:
Down at the cross come and leave your pride
Lay everything at His feet
For all of us He was willing to die
Even when we were weak
When we were still without strength
When we were set in our ways
When we were filled with hatred for Him
Still He was willing to die for you and I
Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom
Let not the strong man boast in his strength
Let not the rich man boast in his riches
For all men are equal down at the cross
This is the biblical teaching on depravity. All humans are corrupt in extent—every part of us testifies to our imperfection, but thanks be to God, not in degree. And before us lies a decision. God tells us that when we die we can anticipate either becoming perfected, so once again we will be like that glass of water that is crystal clear, free from any poison of corruption or being cast out of His presence where we will become like that glass of poison, as corrupt and evil and filled with hate as we could possibly be.