The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
As a challenge from a friend on Facebook I am writing out a brief, non academic scriptural case for the doctrine of total depravity.
The term itself means that, in a nutshell, every part of man – his desires, his emotions and his will – have been ravaged by Adam’s sin in the garden. For this reason, the doctrine of total depravity holds that unregenerate man (one who has not been born again) cannot make a righteous decision because all of his decisions are guided by a broken concept of right and wrong and by the corrupted desires of his heart.
As much as I would like to write about the doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace or the perseverance of the saints (the remainder of the acronym TULIP, which describes the five points of Calvinism), I find that those discussions are pointless apart from an understanding of the doctrine of total depravity. So here goes!
If you’re reading this blog post there’s a high likelihood that you already have strong feelings toward or against the doctrines of grace (TULIP). I certainly hope that’s the case, because the purpose of this post is to get you thinking about the issue, especially if you’re one who rejects the doctrine of total depravity!
Chances are, if you reject the doctrine, you have a very common misunderstanding of the term total depravity altogether. Many confuse the doctrine as holding that man is “utterly depraved;” meaning, he is unable to do good. That is not what the doctrine of total depravity asserts. In the case of man and his potential relationship/desire for God, the doctrine of total depravity holds that man, apart from an act of God on his part, cannot desire God or the things of God.
“So,” a person might ask, “how then did I come to God if I was incapable of doing so? I remember the day that I got saved, and I remember the feelings I had when I made my decision for Christ.” Understand that the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t negate those feelings or experiences. In fact, those feelings and experiences are quite normal for people who are born again!
Consider what God, through the apostle Paul, write in Ephesians 2:1-5,
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ
You see, you and I were actually “dead in” our sin. While the term “dead” is used in a metaphorical way, it is still a very strong term used to define a very dire state of our hearts. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and apart from something changing us, we’d still be dead in our sins.
And that’s why many of us remember a time when things became radically different between us and God. We were literally born again, only this time we had the cognitive ability to understand and remember the experience.
Prior to our conversion we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) and we hated God (Ex. 20:5, Ps. 83:2) yet something overwhelmed our hearts and we repented. Now if this were done of our own will – a natural changing of our desires, this occurrence and radical change might not be so dynamic, as we could rationalize through our situation, circumstances and thought processes at the time and come to a simple conclusion that we were saved because we recognized our need of a Savior, and Jesus was the obvious answer for our need.
Now, a person should wonder why everyone who hears the gospel doesn’t come to the same obvious conclusion. After all, when it comes to basic needs we are all wired the same, aren’t we? When a person hungers he searches for food. When a person thirsts he searches for something to drink. When he’s cold he searches for additional clothing and/or a fire or a source of heat and shelter. Our basic response to a basic need is universally consistent.
So why then, if people can come to the realization that they are in such dire straits in their lives, do we not universally respond the same way to God’s free offer of salvation in Christ? Because something supernatural must happen in us before our desires are changed. Desire for food clothing and shelter are natural, innate desires, but a desire for Christ is an unnatural, spiritual desire.
CS Lewis spoke of a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts, and the evidence of this vacuum can be seen throughout history. From stone carvings to totem poles to all the false religions of the world, man has always attempted, on his own without the aid of the Holy Spirit, to satisfy this desire. So to say that there is a general need of some sort for a god of some sort is not off base. The question becomes which god does a man choose, though it seems that man, apart from a living God acting on man’s behalf, can only choose the wrong way.
Why is that? Well, we turn back to scripture to see the state of man’s heart and mind.
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18
Note the language in that passage, and think of the times you’ve shared your faith and been ridiculed, or think of how frequently the media portrays Christ and Christianity as foolishness. The immediate, unaided-by-God response to the gospel is often ridicule and scorn. At this point you must remember that the non-believer is an “enemy of God” and “hates” God. To the non-believer the message of the cross – the gospel – is foolishness. And man is spiritually dead, and it is in this mindset that we see proof of man’s spiritual necrosis.
So can’t man just snap out of it? Can’t his circumstances be so crushing that he changes his mind toward God (repents)? Back to scripture.
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh,but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:5-9
And that is why man cannot change his own mind. Without being aided by God in some fantastic way, man cannot submit to God’s law – he simply can’t!
OK, so to this point, we see unbelieving man “hates” God and is an enemy of God, is dead in sin, and that the gospel is “foolishness” to him because his mind is “set on the flesh (sin), and therefore he “cannot please God.” Based on the above passages of scripture, you might wonder how a person ever gets saved? If a person cannot please God when his mind is set on the flesh and the gospel is foolishness to him and he is dead in sin, how can he make a good decision that would please God? We should certainly agree that someone choosing Jesus is pleasing to God! But what does the bible say about man’s desire to seek after God?
Let’s look at Paul’s word’s from Romans 3:10-12:
“None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
Paul indicates that nobody seeks for God. When Paul writes this he is reiterating the psalmist from Psalm 14:1-3, and in both instances the text is referring to the helplessness of man’s desires.
Now, if we read the above evidence and are not yet convinced of man’s total depravity and inability to make a righteous decision based solely upon his own free will, let’s go back several thousand years and consider the pre-flood account of man’s heart, mind and will.
5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Genesis 6:5
Is man any better today than he was pre-flood? I can’t see how we are any better, and a look around shows that we might well be even worse now. So the condition of the heart of unregenerate man today is no different than it was in the days of Noah, is it? Had God not promised to never again flood the earth, have we any reason to expect that he wouldn’t do it again?
Consider Israel, God’s chosen people. They were rescued from enslavement in Egypt. They witnessed the 10 plagues God used against Pharaoh. They not only saw the parting of the Red Sea – they actually walked across the floor of that sea to safety. They followed a cloud by day and a fire by night and were fed manna from heaven. All this and they could only ultimately rebel against God. Why would anyone suppose that someone who is further away from God than the Israelites were would be in a better position to desire God more than the Israelites did? And don’t forget, many of those who witnessed the miracles of Jesus desired to kill him rather than to believe he was the Messiah.
Now, there’s plenty more scripture to support the doctrine of total depravity, but I’m not aware of any scripture that disproves the doctrine. When you truly consider the condition of your own Christian heart (assuming those reading are Christian), does it ever surprise you how sinful you are? My sinfulness often surprises me! And understand, we’re as sinful as we are even though we are filled with God’s Holy Spirit. What hope would we have apart from the Holy Spirit? (refer back to the scripture references from earlier.)
No hope, that’s the answer.
Apart from being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, man can never desire God.