Phil Cox


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"Total Depravity"

20th September 2007

This column starts out a bit theological, a bit theoretical, but please read through to the end, because it does get relevant, and I think it's important.

The first of the famous "Five Points of Calvinism" is Total Depravity.

In understanding this doctrine, it's important to grasp the fact that Calvinists use this term to describe the state we were in before we were redeemed. That is, God saves us from the state of Total Depravity. We can see this clearly from these 2 passages:

Ephesians 2v1-5
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions it is by grace you have been saved.

2Corinthians 5v17
...if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

I've done a bit of research, and I've read a number of prominent Calvinist theologians. Maybe I've read the wrong ones, and maybe I've misunderstood. But I haven't found a simple, understandable definition that really relates to the phrase "Total Depravity".

The excellent John Piper, for example, gives us this definition:

In summary, total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sin, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.

I can accept most of this. I accept that, before we're saved, "everything we do in this rebellion is sin" in the sense that it falls short of God's standard. And I believe that "our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment". But I'm not convinced that my rebellion against God was ever "total". It was real. It was wrong. It was sin. But I don't think I've ever been "total" about anything. I'm too lazy and equivocating, for a start.

Douglas Wilson writes:

The doctrine of total depravity is this: man is totally unable to contribute to his own salvation in any way, because he is dead in his sins. For example, the resurrection of Lazarus was not a joint effort between Christ and Lazarus. Lazarus came forth because he was raised, not in order to be raised.

And that's all true. But "Total Depravity" seems a funny name for it. "Total spiritual death" would be better.

R. L. Dabney (1820-1898) wrote:

What Presbyterians really mean by terms such as "Original Sin," "Total Depravity," and "Inability of the Will" is defined by our Confession of Faith, Chapter 10, Section 3: "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto."

Again, this is true, but it's a statement about our inability caused by our sin. Dabney goes on to say (in the same passage):

By calling it total, we do not mean that men are from their youth as bad as they can be. Evil men and seducers wax worse and worse, "deceiving and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3:13). Nor do we mean that they have no social virtues toward their fellowmen in which they are sincere. We do not assert with extremists that because they are natural men therefore all their friendship, honesty, truth, sympathy, patriotism, domestic love, are pretenses or hypocrisies. What our Confession says is, "That they have wholly lost ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation."

Dabney says explicitly here that we are not as bad as we can be. So our depravity is not total! At least, not in any sense in which a modern reader would understand those words. Thus, from the viewpoint of a normally educated 21st century Christian, the term "Total Depravity" is rather misleading.

And we should remember that mankind was created good. The begining of Genesis makes that clear. At the fall (Genesis 3) sin entered into mankind. Thus we know that man is fundamentally good, but polluted. He is a person made in the image of God, not just the pollution.

So what can we say about this doctrine in today's language?

  1. Firstly: Because of each person's sin, that person is spiritually dead, until redeemed by Jesus Christ.
  2. Secondly: A person's sin permeates and pollutes every aspect of his being.
  3. Thirdly: Everything a person without Christ does is unholy, because it is polluted by sin.
  4. Fourthly: Before salvation, we are spiritually dead, and cannot bring ourselves to spiritual life - only Jesus Christ can do that for us.

In discussions in my church, the question arose "Before salvation, are we totally sinful?". As so often happens, I only found a good answer to this question after I'd left the meeting. The answer is (I'm afraid) "It depends what you mean".

  • If by "totally sinful" you mean "if a person has not been born again, then there is nothing of him that is not polluted by sin" then, yes, we were totally sinful.
  • If by "totally sinful" you mean "if a person has not been born again, then there is nothing of him that is not sin" then, no, we were not totally sinful.

Am I a Calvinist? I think I am. But I believe that we are more than the sum total of our sin.

Why am I labouring this point? Because God knew we were worth saving. God saw beyond the sin - He saw the human being suffering from the pollution. He saved us to heal us of our sin. He knows that we were - and are - much more than our sin. The sin is the (self-imposed) disease that we carry - it's not who we are.

Whether you've already come to know Jesus or not, remember that God believes in you whether or not you believe in Him. Jesus died to set you free from sin. And there is a "you" there to be set free.

People used to complain about Jesus befriending sinners, but:

Luke 5v31-32
Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Jesus sees Himself as our spiritual doctor - healing us of the disease of sin, making us spiritually well and setting us free - because He knows that we are more than just our sin.

Let Him heal you.

If we take an extreme view of total depravity, then we must see ourselves as worthless. And we're not. Jesus was willing to pay for us with His blood. And if we believe that we're worthless, then we must also believe that our neighbour is worthless. And that attitude is totally contrary to Biblical teaching.

And there is a dangerous and, I believe, false teaching that comes from a wrong view of "total depravity". I've heard people preach that we should pray that there be "all of Him and none of me" - that somehow we should be reduced to nothing. That sounds rather spiritual, but I think it's nonsense. Jesus didn't die for us in order to make us nothing - He died to set us free from the sin that pollutes us. He wants to grow us, not kill us.