The subject of "total depravity" is not one which is generally known or confessed within the church-world of our day. On the contrary, there is the oft-repeated expression which is far more popular: "There is some bad in the best of us, and some good in the worst of us." This well-known saying points out how that the doctrine of "total depravity" is simply rejected. Therefore it is important that we understand what this truth concerning total depravity involves. The church, and the individual Christian, who loves God's Word, must hold to this important Scriptural teaching.
What are we to understand by "total depravity?" The phrase is composed of two words whose meanings are self-evident. "Depravity" means wickedness; corruption; the innate evil of unregenerate man. To add the word "total" to depravity is to emphasize without any shadow of doubt the truth that there is no good whatsoever in natural man -- in man who is born from fallen Adam. The phrase "total depravity" emphasizes in the strongest possible way the Scriptural truth that there is no good in natural man at all.
This is the plain teaching of Scripture. Turn to your Bibles, and first, to Genesis 8:21. There we read, "And the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." You will note in this passage that evil is already from one's youth. And God declares this immediately after the flood when the only people on this earth were Noah and his family.
A second passage is Psalm 51:5, where David confesses, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." You have probably heard people speak of "innocent" babes -- but the psalmist insists that he was shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin. He did not consider himself innocent at birth -- but already depraved.
Again, we read in Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?"
Turn now to the New Testament, and first to Romans 3:10-18 (which is a quotation from Psalm 14), where we read, "As it is written, There is none righteous, no not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They have all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace have they not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes." And the same thought is expressed later in Romans 7:18, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing."
These are some of the many Scriptural passages which insist upon the truth that natural man is totally corrupt. Natural man is unable to do any good whatsoever. He cannot please God. He will not obey God's holy law. He does not desire to enter into eternal glory.
Upon the basis of the clear teachings of Scripture, the old confessions of the church have insisted upon this same truth. Briefly, but clearly, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches in question and answer 8, "Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God."
The Belgic Confession declares in Article 14, "...and being become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; where St. John calleth men darkness...."
All this is sufficient proof that Scripture and the old confessions of the Church of Christ teach that man by nature is totally depraved -- that is, he is unable to do any good at all.
Yet, despite these clear teachings of Scripture, many try to evade and even deny this self-evident truth. It has been taught that man is totally depraved but not absolutely depraved. Although the phrase "total depravity" ought to allow no shadow of doubt concerning the corrupt state of man, some still insist that there is some goodness in natural man. They insist therefore that man is not absolutely depraved. The illustration is used of a bushel of rotten apples. That bushel could be described as totally rotten if each apple had some rotten spot -- yet perhaps also had some good parts. The bushel of apples would be absolutely rotten if each apple were wholly rotten. So it is said that each part of man's being is touched by the rottenness of sin -- but each part is not necessarily completely corrupt. This whole idea is an attempt to deny total depravity and yet retain the term. Man is either depraved, and that is complete -- or he is not depraved.
Other false views regarding man's natural state have arisen in the history of the church. There was the view of Pelagianism which arose about 400 years after the ascension of Christ. Pelagius, the originator of this view, said that when Adam sinned, he injured only himself -- his posterity were not affected. He suggested further that every baby born into the world is born in the same state and condition as Adam was before his fall. Every baby is born on this earth perfect and without sin. How, then, did Pelagius explain the existence of sin in all men? He insisted that we become sinners when we imitate someone else. As soon as babies begin to imitate their parents or others whom they may observe, they become sinners. And the way of changing sinners back into saints is to persuade them to imitate that which is good. It is within the capability of every man, says Pelagius, to imitate the good and merit eternal life.
This idea of Pelagianism is not foreign to the churches today either. It is the basis, in fact, of the "social gospel" of our day. Within the churches there is a strong drive to change the social conditions of our day. The churches are supposed to see to it that there is better housing for the poor and for minority racial groups; they must see to it that all men have adequate medical care and proper schooling; they must be in the forefront of the drive for integration. Then, according to theory, if we accomplish our goals in all of these areas, we will not be troubled so much with sin, evil, and all manner of corruptions. Possibly we will not need jails anymore. The number of policemen can be reduced. We will not be troubled with juvenile and adult delinquency. Gradually this world will become some sort of a utopia. But this is based on the old heresy of Pelagius that if people live in good surroundings, if they can imitate good examples, then they will be good. This whole view denies the Scriptural truth of total depravity.
Another error is the view of Arminianism. Arminianism, or free-willism, must essentially deny that truth of total depravity. Arminianism teaches that man was indeed totally depraved after the fall; but immediately after the fall, God intervened by His grace. The operation of this grace of God upon all men involves two operations which mitigate depravity. First, Arminianism maintains that, though man of himself is unable to do any good, nevertheless by a general operation of God's grace upon him he can now do a certain measure of good.
But Arminianism teaches more. It suggests that natural man, though originally totally depraved, is now capable of accepting Christ as his personal Savior. Man, through the exercise of his own will, can reject or receive the Savior. Arminianism suggests that man can receive Christ only by grace -- but that every individual man has sufficient grace given him by God to enable him to accept Christ. The difference between saved and unsaved men, according to Arminianism, is not to be found in that one receives God's grace and the other does not, but rather in the will of man himself. This false view of Arminianism denies both the Scriptural truth that salvation is not by man's will but by the grace of God exclusively, and the truth of Scripture which teaches that man by nature is so dead in sin that he could never "receive Christ as his personal Savior."
We insist, on the basis of the Scriptural passages quoted earlier, that man is by nature completely dead in sin. Apart from Christ man can do no good whatsoever before God. Man can not do any "natural" or "civil" good on this earth. Nor can any man exercise his will to "accept" Christ -- for also his will is bound by sin and death.
Some have objected that men of this world, those who are outside of the church, do also perform many good deeds. Man, apparently, is not always so completely depraved. A certain wealthy man may give a million dollars to build and maintain a hospital to help the poor and suffering of mankind. Is this sin -- or is it good? Your neighbor may not go to church nor pray -- but he has a wonderful relationship with his family. Is this good --or is it evil? A man saves a fellow-man from drowning at the risk of losing his own life. Is that good -- or evil? These questions arise, and with it, the question: is the sinner actually totally depraved?
In light of Scripture we must still maintain that any man outside of Christ sins in everything that he does. We must be so careful not to mistake what we might think is good as good in God's sight. Man either loves and serves God or he does not. He is either with Christ or against Him. He either does something in true faith and to God's glory, or he does it in the service of man and to his own glory. There is no in-between. It makes no difference if the man gives a million dollars to found a hospital or whether he has a nice family life, or saves drowning individuals -- in all of this, natural man walks not by faith but in sin and corruption. God judges his every action to be sinful.
Though all men are totally depraved, though all of their actions performed by nature are sinful -- yet there are obviously variations seen in men. All men do not sin in the same degree or in the same manner. In the first place, the type and degree of man's sin is determined by the age in which he lives. Obviously today, with our radios, television, and automobiles, man can sin in many ways that his forefathers could not. Secondly, sin is limited to a large degree by environment and circumstances. A rich man has the means to sin in many more and different ways than does the poor man. But both sin in all that they do. Thirdly the degree of sin is determined by a person's age. The little child does not sin in as many ways as does the adult. Finally, the degree and type of sin in a man is often times regulated by his own self-esteem -- his own selfish pride. Why does a wicked man live in a peaceful, pleasant relationship with his family? Not because God's law requires it, but because he understands that it is to his own benefit, for in this way he lives in a decent relationship with his fellow-man.
But why is it so important that a church emphasize this truth of total depravity? Why emphasize the terrible sinfulness of man? If one does not emphasize this, he will eventually lose all other significant doctrines of Scripture. One cannot understand the atonement of the cross aright if he does not properly grasp the Scriptural teaching on depravity. He who does not properly grasp the Scriptural teaching on depravity, he who does not properly understand depravity, surely can not correctly understand the Sovereignty of God Who does all things in harmony with His own will.
Therefore the Christian must understand this truth and teach it to his children.
And each child of God must live and walk in the consciousness of the depravity of natural man. Do not begin to admire what the world is and what the world produces. Do not begin to imitate and envy the world. Recognize that all men, ourselves included, by nature are dead in sin. In my flesh, said Paul, there is no good thing. But then understand that the believer was once delivered from such depravity, for he was redeemed only and wholly through the blood of the Lamb.