Evangelical Essentials (Part One): Total Depravity
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
The term, “depravity,” does not mean that we are all deranged fanatics living in a padded cell with long hair and nails, screaming and drooling all day. Total depravity (or pervasive sin) means that our self-centeredness has affected our hearts, wills, minds, emotions, and even our physical bodies. Our attitudes and actions motivate us to selfishness and pride. Every aspect of our lives has been marred and scarred by sin. Our bondage is so great that we cannot do anything to deliver ourselves. The effect of our sin is complete: there is nothing we can do to please God. However, we are still valued in God’s eyes. We should never see ourselves as insignificant and worthless for Christ died for every one of us. Even in the midst of our fallenness, the blessed Trinity reached out to us in love and mercy.
Total depravity does not mean that there’s absolutely nothing good about anybody anywhere. I know God’s common grace extends to everybody in the world, and the fact that there’s any good anywhere is a result of God’s sustaining and preserving and common grace. But total depravity really means that, vis-a-vis God, there’s nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, to make any contribution to our standing before Him. We are totally and hopelessly and eternally lost apart from God’s radical intervention in our lives.
Dr. Timothy George, “Timothy George on Reformed Theology”
The doctrine of total depravity teaches that my essential problem is not my parents, my economic background, my upbringing, my circumstances, or my boss, etc. No, my greatest problem is I that great trinity of me, myself and I. My selfishness, my self-absorption, my self-concern, and my self-conceit reap utter destruction. Sin is selfishness evidenced through my willful thoughts, words, or actions involving a choice in which I consider myself more important than God or anyone else. The foundation of sin is my selfishness.
“Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin,” said Bishop Ambrose of Milan. With sin this deep, a great deliverance is needed. With bondage so great, a miraculous salvation is needed. We cannot help ourselves. We are dead in sin, trapped in the ways of the world, ruled by Satan, and in bondage to our sinful nature. The only way to stop sin is kill it. Yes, put it to death. This is why scripture says that the wages of sin is death and that the soul that sins shall die (Rom. 6:23, Ezek. 18:20). We deserve judgment. We deserve God’s wrath. We deserve to be utterly and completely ostracized from God’s presence. However, the good news is that Jesus suffered my just judgment and died my death so that you and I might live. “But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by His stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:5 NKJV).
Because total depravity is the ‘T” in the acronym TULIP, which is description of Reformed thought, the doctrine of total depravity is usually thought of as a Calvinist doctrine. However in Evangelical theology, both Arminians/Wesleyans and Reformed/Calvinists believe in the doctrine of pervasive sin or total depravity.
John Wesley, my favorite theologian, wrote:
Our old man–Coeval with our being, and as old as the Fall, our evil nature; a strong and beautiful expression for that entire depravity and corruption, which by nature spreads itself over the whole man, leaving no part uninfected.
Robert W. Burtner and Robert E. Chiles, eds., John Wesley’s Theology: A Collection from His Works (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1982), 120.
Evangelicalism takes sin seriously because the Bible takes sin seriously. We are great sinners; therefore we need a great Savior.
The doctrinal term, ” total depravity,” has fallen on hard times, but truth of our fallen condition stares back at us in the mirror. Possibly, the term, “pervasive sin,” can replace the phrase, “total depravity,” which carries different connotations in today’s English than during the sixteenth century Reformation debates.