What Total Depravity is and isn’t

Years ago, I spoke to the pastor of a tiny Reformed Church of America in Greenleafton Minnesota. I asked him which of all the points of Calvinism, did his congregants have the hardest time embracing. I was expecting that his answer would be Limited Atonement (we will discuss this in a future article). However, he flatly stated Total Depravity.

You could have knocked me over with a page of Bible paper. I wasn’t expecting that answer. However, the more I speak to Christians in Western Christian Culture the more I discover this is not abnormal. As I have mused in previous articles, Christianity has become inextricably embedded into an anti-intellectual mindset. (Something that I plan on writing about in the future.) Subsequently, this anti-intellectual movement has caused people to become pervasively shallow in their understanding of theology and doctrine proper.

When the average person in WCC hears the phrase Total Depravity they haven’t the slightest idea what it means. What it doesn’t mean is that people are as evil as they can be. I have heard that given as an ill-informed explanation of Total Depravity. No person alive is as wicked as they could be. Even men like Hitler and Pol Pot, as bad as they were, could have been worse. You, before your conversion, were not as bad as the worst person you can imagine, because God restrained you.

Total Depravity is, in the simplest way, the truth that every aspect of a person is tainted by sin. Furthermore, this tainting, affects every single action we take. Accordingly, the Imago Dei, that means all people from the womb to the grave, are touched by the effects of sin. We are all subject to the curse, being children of Adam.

Why is Total Depravity So Important?

Total Depravity is intertwined with the doctrine of original sin. Consequently, Total Depravity and Original Sin are so inextricably linked that to try and understand them separately would be to do harm to both doctrines. This is not to say that they are exactly the same doctrine.

Original sin is the doctrine that helps us understand the extent of the sin curse laid on mankind at the fall. Total depravity is the doctrine that helps us understand the effects of that sin curse on the individual person. To understand the totality of sin; its far-reaching effects on all creation, we must see these two doctrines intrinsically united. Man, sins because he is born a sinner. Man, sins against his fellow man and chiefly against God, because it is in his fallen nature to do so.

We must understand these truths at the core. If we fail in rightly understanding Total Depravity, we fail in rightly understanding everything about Christ. How can this be? What compels me to say such a thing?

It is the doctrine that motivates our apprehension of the purpose of the sacrifice of Christ. If man is basically good and capable of pleasing God on his own, then there is no need for a sacrificial lamb. If there is no need for the Lamb of God, then Christ died in vain. Additionally, if Christ died in vain, then Scripture is full of lies, and the blood of the Lamb is wasted.

You, my beloved reader, must understand this. Every time a professing Christian speaks the words, “So and so is basically a good person.” they are standing in stark opposition to the clear teaching of God. No person is basically good. Moreover, God’s Word bears witness that no one is good but God.

 Preaching the Gospel without Total Depravity

It is my contention that no person can preach the Gospel to another without preaching the doctrine of Total Depravity. Consequently, as I stated above, it is vitally important that we understand the doctrine with extreme prejudice.

Therefore, no presentation will ever truly be the Gospel without talk of Total Depravity. By-no-means am I implying that one must ask the unconverted person if they understand the doctrine. What I am stating, is that the doctrine itself must be peppered throughout your entire Gospel presentation. To fail to include this doctrine is to change the Gospel and commit a Galatian level heresy.

I can give anecdotal examples of people that truly believe they are preaching the Gospel when they say things such as:

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, you just need to believe.”

“God made you they way you are and loves because you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

“You are a precious piece of artwork made by God.”

“Jesus died for you because of how valuable you are.”

I have heard all of these and more. However, these statements are not examples of biblical good news. Moreover, they are bereft of contextual truth.

Does God love the person that you are speaking to? Yes, in a broad sense He does. However, there is a narrower scope to God’s salvific love. To blatantly tell a God-hating, Christ-rejecting sinner that God loves them, is to do injustice to the meaning of “The Good News of the Gospel.” The Good News is not good news to people who consider themselves to be basically good. It isn’t Good News to those who consider that they are God’s artwork and therefore worth the sacrifice.

Total Depravity is the springboard for the Good News.

Total Depravity Leads to Repentance

Therefore, when we understand the doctrine of Total Depravity we are more likely to preach the Gospel properly. When we focus narrowly on the sins of the person we are talking to it sheds the light of the Word onto them with pinpoint precision. All-too-often the well-meaning “evangelists” broadens the spotlight out to the wider world. Consequently, they will speak biblical truths such as “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This allows the intended to target to scamper away from the severity of their very personal sin against God.

If we think of the account of the prophet Nathan with David we see Nathan paint a powerful picture. Once David expresses outrage at the very personal sin of the rich landowner against the poor man, Nathan pounces on him uttering these chilling words, “You are the man!”

Hence, we later meet David alone in his room broken before God. The scene is set and we find David weeping so profusely his bed is soaked with tears and he cries, “Against you and you alone I have sinned.”

Nathan narrowed the focus of spotlight of God’s law tightly onto David and didn’t allow him to run away from it. This narrow focus worked godly sorrow in David and he repented.

Subsequently, we see Christ use this tactic repeatedly. No time is more profound than the woman at the well. Instead of casting a broad light on her and the other villagers, He narrows down on her adultery. She has the same response as David. She’s convicted and confesses Christ.

As tempting as it is to soften the blow of sin for the sake of preserving dignity, we cannot. We must remain on point and focused. Total Depravity has to be made real. Repentance will follow.

In Conclusion

It would be impossible to capture the importance of each intertwined doctrine that makes up the preaching of the Gospel. To do so would be to produce a theological dissertation and not an article. My desire is not overwhelm you my beloved readers. Conversely, my desire is to encourage you by narrowing my own spotlight onto individual threads of doctrine.

Please make sure that you understand the totality of the Gospel. Moreover, ensure that you have been fundamentally touched by the message of the Gospel as well. It would be a great joy to know that even one person was delivered from being a false convert if the doctrine of Total Depravity opened their eyes.

It is imperative that each of us understands that doctrine matters. Thus, we pull the thread of the multi-chromatic Gospel off of the spindles of singularly colored core doctrines. These diverse threads weave a beautiful tapestry that reflects the redemptive work of Christ on Calvary. If your desire is the salvation of souls, study the thread of Total Depravity and pull it through the heart of the sinners you meet.

Soli Deo Gloria!

-Todd