The Doctrines of Grace: Total Depravity

I really struggled with the Doctrines of Grace in the beginning. I rejected them outright, and then I grew bitter in denial when I began to see that they were true. Even after I reluctantly accepted them I had to wrestle with my old theologies and mentalities that were contrary to them. And this was especially true with the doctrine of total depravity. 

I grew up in church, so I don’t remember a time when I did not have a mental concept of good and evil, or righteousness and sin. At the same time, I was under the impression for the first 19 years of my life that the battle was always up to me – that is, I thought I was supposed to grope around in the dark for goodness, hoping and praying that I could find it, hold on to it, and in doing so earn a big pat on the back from God. It seems silly when I think about it now. Then again, this is what a staggering number of Christians believe about their relationship with the Lord. 

As I grew older and more acquainted with myself – my weaknesses, my thought processes, my habits, and so on – I became frustrated to the point of depression about my tendency to fall into sin. The problem was that I truly wanted to know and please God; but for all my striving and straining, I just couldn’t meet the mark. My “life verse” was not so much a typical one about joy, purpose, or perseverance. I identified more closely with Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (ESV). Let me tell you, I definitely knew what Paul meant later on in the passage when he laments, “Wretched man that I am!” I felt wretched, indeed. 

It didn’t help that the culture around me (even Christian culture) told me I was defective because of this. “People are good by default,” it said. “We become bad by choosing the wrong over the right, and eventually it changes that good nature into a bad one.” So why was I having to fight for goodness instead? Why was my battle working in the opposite order? How long did I have before God would throw up His hands and give up on me? To say that these questions haunted me is an understatement. 

When I eventually came to understand the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, all of the pieces fell into place. I was more “defective” than I even realized, yet at the same time I was no more defective than anyone else. This was liberating and humbling all at once. 

Total Depravity, the first of the Doctrines of Grace, says that human beings are not inherently good after all. Every part of them is bound by sin and corruption. They cannot do anything on their own power to please or be reconciled to a holy God. They are incapable of choosing to know and love God, or of carrying out any spiritual good without the prior regeneration of the Holy Spirit. And everyone is affected; no one human being is more or less depraved than the next – regardless of how much more openly it manifests in some people than in others. I remember feeling so relieved when I learned this, because it finally made sense why I desired to do what would please God, but failed over and over and over again to change myself to meet those standards. 

What the doctrine of total depravity does not mean, on the other hand, is that humanity is as depraved as it could possibly be, and this is just another testament of God’s grace. Even non-Christians are capable of love, generosity, kindness, and obedience. When we say that all people are depraved, we mean that they are unable – because of their inherent and overpowering sin nature – to do what is righteous as far as how they relate to God. They are not devoid of any kind of virtue whatsoever; but they are devoid, in and of themselves, of the goodness required for right relations with the Lord. If we are given the option to choose either the corrupt thing or the righteous thing, it is inevitable that we choose the corrupt thing. It is also worth noting that the doctrine of total depravity also does not work as an excuse for being slothful in the war against the flesh. Sanctification is inseparable from life as a genuine Christian. The distinction here is that God is the one responsible for the victory. 

I know, I know. If this doctrine was biblical, wouldn’t more Christians accept it? The unfortunate truth is that we’re reluctant to admit that we are powerless to save ourselves in any way. It is difficult to accept that we do not have what it takes after all. That’s the advice we’re usually given, is it not? You’re worthy. You can do it. You don’t need anyone but yourself. Yet this isn’t true of the Christian life, according to Scripture. 

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says that people have sought out evil schemes – which indicates deliberation, contrary to the idea that we simply stumble upon the wrong thing. Psalm 143:2 and Romans 3:23 say there is no one who is righteous before God. 2 Chronicles 6:36 says “there is no one who does not sin.” Ephesians 2:3 says that “we are by nature children of wrath” (emphasis mine). Genesis 8:21 says the “intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Jeremiah 17:9 says “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Titus 3:3 says that we are “bound to various passions and pleasures.” John 3:19 says that people prefer darkness over light. Romans 7:18 says, “Nothing good dwells in me . . . in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (emphasis mine). 

We do not despair, however. Our total depravity means we are in need of a perfect Savior who is able to do what we cannot do for ourselves – and the good news of the Gospel is that such salvation is available to us in the Son, Jesus Christ, who is the holy God incarnate. We may be wretched, but we can still rejoice and be sanctified. Paul affirms this in the latter part of Romans 7: “Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” I couldn’t put it any better myself. Total depravity is a doctrine of grace because the abounding grace of God Himself is the only hope that we have


* This post is part of a blog series called The Doctrines of Grace.