One of the most difficult doctrines in the Scriptures is the doctrine of Total Depravity. It’s not difficult like “what does Genesis 6:1-2 mean” difficult. In other words, it’s not difficult because it’s difficult to understand. It’s difficult because it’s difficult for many to accept. So difficult, in fact, that even some true believers in the past and present have not acknowledged it as Scriptural.
Why is this so? I hope to discuss three reasons why in today’s post.
Before we get to those reasons, it would be helpful to define what I mean when I say Total Depravity. Total Depravity is the Biblical teaching that human beings since the Fall have inherited both the guilt and sin nature of Adam in such a way that absolutely everything about them is affected by sin.
This does not mean every person is as sinful as they could possibly be. It does mean, though, that every part of a person has been corrupted – the heart, mind, will, affections, desires, critical thinking, everything (see, for example, Gen. 6:5, 8:21, Isaiah 59:3, Jeremiah 17:9, Psalm 53:1-3, Matthew 15:19, Romans 3:10-18, Romans 8:7-8, Ephesians 2:1, John 8:34, John 3:19).
Now we come to the reasons why so many reject this teaching.
Human nature loves to be coddled. It loves to be encouraged. Men and women love to be told of their self-worth, self-importance, and innate goodness.
Total Depravity destroys all of that. Rather than presenting mankind as deserving people worthy of God’s grace, it shows that men, women, boys, and girls are not only undeserving, but actually worthy of the eternal wrath of God.
God is angry with the wicked (Psalm 7:11). We like that verse when we define wicked as the political candidate we are not voting for. But we don’t like it when we realize the word “wicked” describes the state of all persons outside of Christ.
Total depravity is rejected by man because it presents a low view of man. God is not gushing over us like a high school crush but “has bent and readied his bow” because “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword” (Psalm 7:12). It’s been a while since I’ve heard that sort of language in a contemporary worship song.
Another reason total depravity is rejected is because it seems to contradict what we experience in everyday life. That is, we all know unbelievers whom we would refer to as “good” people. They pay their taxes, volunteer at the homeless shelter, and seem to be moral.
Total Depravity does not mean that people never do “good” from a human perspective. It’s good to teach children math. It’s good to dig water wells in Africa. It’s good to pick up litter.
But none of these things constitute righteousness because from the heart of an unbeliever none of them proceed from faith. They are all evil in the sense that they are done from a desire for autonomy and from a heart of rebellion against a good and holy God.
My dad was not converted until he was 60 years old. I used to use him as an illustration of this. From a human perspective he was a good guy, who would help anyone he could. But “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). He lived for self, rejecting Christ as king of His heart.
The third reason so many reject the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity is because of the solution it requires. The 1689 London Baptist Confession says this,
Humanity, by falling into a state of sin, has completely lost all ability to choose any spiritual good that accompanies salvation. Thus, people in their natural state are absolutely opposed to spiritual good and dead in sin, so that they cannot convert themselves by their own strength or prepare themselves for conversion.
Total Depravity means that the common understanding of “Free Will” is a myth. Yes, people’s actions are voluntary and not coerced by external forces. But the idea that a person can simply pick up and choose when or if he’ll follow Christ, or even that he can make any decision apart from his strongest desires is complete and total fabrication.
If Total Depravity is embraced it means that the only hope for the dead heart of every human being is that it would be brought to life by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit under the heralding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Men, women, boys, and girls are so lost in sin, so in love with the world, so dismissive of all things holy and righteous that they are simply unwilling and unable to come to Christ for salvation on their own (John 6:65). R.C. Sproul further elaborated this point in his book, What is Reformed Theology?:
“The unregenerate person is not inclined to obey God. He has no love for God that stirs his will to choose God. He could choose the things of God if he wanted them, but he does not want them. Our wills are such that we cannot freely choose what we have no desire to choose. The fundamental loss of as desire for God is the heart of original sin. The lack of desire for the things of God renders us morally unable to choose the good.”
Therefore, Total Depravity demands the only way a person will ever come to Christ in saving faith is if he or she is first born again (first used in a logical sense, rather than temporal). If God leaves every sinner to himself, He displays His justice and has done no wrong to any person.
But this is not God’s plan. God leaves many sinners to their own devices. But by His sovereign grace, He opens the hearts of others (Acts 16:14), that they will receive Christ in joy, being born again only by the will of God (John 1:12-13).
The Doctrine of Regeneration will have to wait for a future post. But for today, I’ve endeavored to show you why that although Total Depravity is Biblical, so many reject it. It presents too low a view of man. It grates against people’s everyday experiences. And it requires the radical solution of sovereign grace. Though many reject this truth, may we continue to teach it with grace and love trusting the Holy Spirit to convince people of His truth through the Scriptures.
Allen S. Nelson IV is an M.Div student at GBTS and Pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, AR. He and his wife Stephanie have been married since 2006 and have 5 children. He is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness. Besides curating Grace Abounding he also writes regularly at ThingsAbove.Us. You can follow him on twitter: @cuatronelson.