Total Depravity

John Calvin wrote, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”  This first sentence in his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, directs our attention to the vital nature of a true understanding of man and his nature.  Of all other true elements in man’s nature, man consistently avoids the concept of his own depravity.
Depravity does not mean that every man continuously exercises all the depths of sin.  Rather, it means that all the depths of sin reside within us, waiting for an opportunity to express themselves.  We are not fundamentally good.  We are fundamentally bad.
If man would understand his sinful nature, he must first understand the effects of the fall of man which accrue to himself.  When Adam disobeyed God by direct rebellion, that sin corrupted his whole nature and made him opposed to God.  The Bible tells us, “There is none righteous, no, not one:  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” (Ro.3:10-11)  This absolute statement conveys the universal aspect of sin.  No one is free from its absolute corruption.  Man is not merely “sin-sick” and in need of a doctor to help him get over the flu.  Man is dead in sin.  “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1)
While we may pay lip service to this reality (we often say that we are dead in sin and continually sin), we remain convinced that we are fundamentally good people.  These two ideas cannot stand together.  Logic tells us that an assertion and its negation cannot be true in the same sense at the same time.  Either we are totally depraved (bad people) or we are good people.  The Bible stands firm that we are depraved.  (Ro.3:23 “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”)  The sin nature does not vanish when we are saved, either.  We still must fight the old man.  (Ro.7:24 “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”)  We still struggle with sin.
There are three areas where our failure to acknowledge our depravity manifests itself.  The most obvious occurs in the public square.  Two news stories from the past year will demonstrate this failure.  An eight-year-old boy killed his father in Arizona.  The police are baffled.  They cannot figure out why he would do this.  The family went to the local Catholic church.  The boy had no disciplinary problems in school or in his catechism class.  He was thought of as a good child.  The police chief stated, “we’re certainly going to look at the abuse part of this. He’s 8 years old. He just doesn’t decide one day that he’s going to shoot his father and shoot his father’s friend for no reason. Something led up to this.”  Something did lead up to this: the boy is depraved.  This is the result of sin.  The depraved heart leads to murder.  People have a hard time understanding this calamity because they have not understood the horror of sin.
The second story relates to the state of Nebraska.  The legislature passed a “safe haven” law.  This law allows parents to abandon unwanted infants without fear of prosecution.  Many other states had enacted similar provisions.  Nebraska’s problem arose from the legislature’s inability to agree on an age limit.  Thus, they did what most political people do when they cannot obtain consensus – they did nothing.  The law passed without an age limit. For a month, there was no issue.  Suddenly, parents started dropping off teenage children.  One parent dropped off his nine children ages 1 to 17.  Nebraska realized it had a problem.  People began questioning how this could happen.  One paper summarized the consternation well.  “The sudden surge in abandoned teenagers has raised questions about the adequacy of counseling, respite care and psychiatric services for troubled children and overstressed parents.”  People were asking why these parents were choosing this way out.  “We need more counseling and support services,” they thought.  Not so.  Why should we be surprised at this failure?  It is only a demonstration of man’s sinful nature.
The reality of man’s depravity needs to return to our collective understanding.  The concept that we are all good people will inexorably lead to poor public decisions.  Our forefathers knew this reality and created a system that included a separation of power to prevent evil from corrupting the entire working of the state.  They understood that we cannot count on people to act correctly.  We may always count on them to behave sinfully.  This reality should not only influence the system of government but also the way in which our leaders govern.  Until we accept the reality of pervasive sin, we will continue to see the frustration of public efforts at social advancement.
The second area where our failure to acknowledge our depravity becomes apparent is in our own self-consciousness.  We fundamentally consider ourselves good people.  As difficult as it may be to consider that others are depraved, it is exponentially harder to consider ourselves sinful.  Our love affair with sin causes us to redraw the boundaries of sinful behavior.  Even those who accept the notion of sin (that there are some things one ought not do) define those boundaries largely by that which they do not want to do or have happen.  Thus, we all become fence builders.  Our boundary circumnavigates the activities that we enjoy and excludes all the activities that we find offensive.  One excludes smoking because he does not appreciate it in his life, the other includes it because he does. Both think themselves righteous and the other sinful.
Is it then any wonder that we have such a sin problem in the church?  We have ejected God’s Word as the sovereign revelation of God’s boundaries and replaced it with our own conceptions.  If we would deal with sin, we must first accept the maxim that we are sinners.  We must further honestly identify the sin in our own lives.  Given two seconds, we should be able to articulate at least two sins with which we struggle. Not sins in our own minds, but sins according to God’s word.  We have legal battles over the Ten Commandments and their display.  How many of those who fight for their display violate the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day?  Let us be honest with ourselves, for we cannot deceive God.  He already possesses a comprehensive catalog of our sin.
Finally, the rejection of Reformed doctrine demonstrates our failure to appreciate the reality of our own depravity.  Reformed theology demands that we think less of man and more of God.  Man becomes a helpless corpse, enslaved to sin.  God becomes the sovereign, redeeming life-giver.  All the debates over predestination, election, preterition (not electing some), or limited atonement avoid the central issue.  If man possesses no ability to save himself, then God must do it all.  Thus, predestination, election and preterition become necessary.
The modern Christian has abandoned the reality of depravity.  He thinks that man is merely ignorant of God and needs to be informed of who Jesus is, and then human free will determines the outcome.  We have forgotten what God says about man.  “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:  Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Ro.1:20-21)  Many have concluded that this verse makes man’s ignorance inexcusable because the creation reveals God.  If only man would look at creation honestly, he would be convinced of God’s existence.  This understanding eviscerates the point Paul is making.  Look at this again.  Paul says, “when they knew God.”  Man knows God.  Our debates on evolution are not ignorant man positing a universe without God.  It is arrogant man, spitting in the face of the God he knows to be there.  We do not need to inform people about God.  They know Him already and have begun their deliberate rebellion against Him.  Even in their rebellion, they understand the necessity of God’s wrath and judgment against their actions.  “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” (Ro.1:32)  This emphasizes that there is nothing that we can do to change people’s minds about God.  It must be the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.  Man’s depravity is constantly operative.  Ignoring this reality makes our evangelism continually frustrating.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.” (Eph.2:4-5)  This is the hope of salvation.  Not that man can work his way out of his depravity.  Not that we can convince sinners of the wrath of God (they know it and hate it already).  The hope of salvation is that God, rich in mercy, loves His own, and breathes life into the dead.  This reality confounds all our logic.  In our depravity, hating God with all that we were, in that nature, God comes and makes us alive.  God’s love looks at those who hate Him to the uttermost and draws them to Himself.  Who wants an impotent God who needs us to convince sinners of His virtue?  Who wants a God who leaves us in our sin in deference to our “free will”?  I want a God who loved me in my depravity.  I want a God who knows my sin, and loves me anyway.  I want a God I can be completely honest with and know that His love will not abate one scintilla.  I want this God because He is the God of the Bible, the only one who truly exists.  Don’t you want this God too?

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