We don’t have to look far to see that humans want their own way. A toddler doesn’t need to be taught to throw a tantrum in the grocery store—his natural tendency is to selfishly want what he wants. It’s in our sinful nature to desire our own way. We can learn the truth about our self-serving condition throughout Scripture, namely, that we are totally depraved from the womb. Join me as we seek to define what depravity is, what depravity is not, and how our depravity reveals our absolute dependence on God for salvation.
Romans 5:12 tells us that, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” This corruption from sin that we inherited from Adam at The Fall means that we are born with a sinful, depraved nature. R.C. Sproul said, “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” The physical proof of each person’s sinful condition is that all people die (Rom. 6:23).
What is Depravity?
Not only has sin resulted in physical death for all of mankind, but spiritual death as well (Eph. 2:1-3). The doctrine of “Total Depravity” is the belief that sin has affected our entire beings; we are spiritually dead and unable to make any advances toward salvation without the regenerating work, or re-birth, of the Holy Spirit. We don’t read the word depravity in Scripture, but depravity is a principle that is deduced from Scripture. When we study the Bible as a cohesive whole, we learn who God says He is (theology). Then, in light of who God is, we can rightly understand who God says man is (anthropology). John Calvin says, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self” (Institutes of Christian Religion).
Scripture teaches clearly that sin has affected our entire beings (heart, mind, and actions), and this is displayed in contrast to the holiness and purity of God.
Depravity of the Heart:
- “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…” (Jer. 17:9).
- “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts…” (Mk. 7:21-22).
- “…Wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).
Depravity of the Mind:
- “…Darkened in understanding” (Eph. 4:18).
- “…Not able to understand” (1 Cor. 2:14).
- “…The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:5-7).
Depravity of our Actions:
- “…Haters of God, inventors of evil” (Rom. 1:30).
- “…People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn. 3:19).
- “…Carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3).
- “…Slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3).
- “…Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jn. 8:34).
- “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6).
- “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment…” (Isaiah 64:6).
The depravity of the natural man shows our absolute inability to do good according to God’s standard. God’s standard is to obey all His moral law in attitude and action as personified in Jesus—anything else is sin. Because of our depravity, the natural position of our hearts is evil, and we are not able to do any good.
Let’s imagine bad and good as debts and wages. Before God transforms our hearts, everything we do, no matter how good or bad in the eyes of man, only incurs more debt. Viewed through the lens of the holiness of God, our debt deserves eternal punishment. God commands us to love Him with our whole “heart, mind, soul, and strength” (Deut. 6:5). Those who don’t know or love God, and do not live “all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), cannot live up to God’s standard, because “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Saved, or unsaved, no amount of good, or wages, that we try to earn can make up for the debt we owe for our sins. What a Savior we have in Jesus who paid for our debt in full if we repent and believe in Him!
What Depravity is Not
Total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we could be. When we look at Adolf Hitler, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that he is the standard of evil and the epitome of total depravity. Since we aren’t as evil as he was, it is easy to think that we must not be totally depraved. But, the truth is that we all have the potential to be as evil as Hitler: even Hitler wasn’t as evil as he could have been. On the spectrum of good and evil, we are more like Hitler than we are like Christ. Our depravity can be compared to being too short to ride a roller coaster. When we measure ourselves against the standard, we are shown to be lacking, and there is nothing we can do to make ourselves tall enough. We all fall short (Rom. 3:23)– you, me, and Hitler–so it doesn’t matter who is worse than the other. None of us possess the ability to attain the required standard.
Depravity Reveals Our Dependence on God
Our depravity teaches us that we do not possess the power to make ourselves tall enough to ride the roller coaster. We needed One who met the requirements for us—namely, One who was fully God and fully man, lived the perfect life that we could not, died on the cross bearing the full punishment of our sins, and rose from the dead. Our depravity shows us our absolute dependence on God for salvation. Our weaknesses and inability show that He is powerful and able. “…By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5) and his “…grace is sufficient for you, for [his] power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Like the toddler in the grocery store, Christians still struggle with selfishness and wanting what we want over what God wants. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that our natural tendency toward selfishness goes away, but it means that God gives us a new nature and with the help of the Holy Spirit he changes our desires to be in line with His. This transformation is not of our doing, but it is a gift and grace from God to change our hearts and desires. Rightly understanding the doctrine of total depravity helps us see that our salvation is not about what we do, but it is all about what God has done on our behalf. The darkness of our depravity makes the light of the Gospel even brighter!