Much like the doctrine of election, the doctrine of total depravity is yet another misunderstood, lampooned, and oft-criticised doctrine in many modern churches.
Here is a working definition of this important doctrine:
The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and to reject the rule of God.
Now, there are a couple of caveats to this definition. Firstly, and most importantly, embracing this doctrine does not mean that we believe every human being in the world is as evil as they possibly could be. Rather, we assert that every aspect of our human nature has been corrupted by the fall to such an extent that none of us is capable of truly perfect behaviour and thought. People are capable of good deeds and acts of kindness, but because human nature is corrupt, this means that all motivation is questionable.
It is sometimes helpfully illustrated with a glass of water that has two drops of blue dye added to it. Not all of the water is blue dye but the whole glass turns blue as it is affected by the drops. That is the nature of sin in mankind. Whilst not all of his character is sinful, all of it is affected by sin.
Don’t Preach Bad News
There are many confused people in church circles today when it comes to this doctrine. Again, biblical illiteracy and emotionalism have taken over real debate and understanding. I believe that unless we have a correct and biblically informed view of the human race—and total depravity in particular—it will have a negative effect on every area of our Christian life and service. It will affect how we view our fellow-man and it will in fact kill evangelism and make the gospel bad news.
What do I mean by that? Consider the following exchange:
Pastor: Unless we take the gospel to all the nations, millions will die without hearing of Christ.
Member: What about the ‘innocent’ African tribesman who has never heard the gospel? Will he go to heaven or hell?
Pastor (if he’s clever): Of course, he will go to heaven.
Member: But you just said he would go to hell. So which is it?
Pastor: Your question is loaded. All sinlessly perfect, and thus ‘innocent’ people will go to heaven. That is a fact. What is also equally a fact is that there are no innocent people in our world.
The point is that we must put out of our minds the erroneous ‘noble savage’ argument, because no such people exist. We know this for a fact from Scripture. Paul is clear on this in Romans 1:18–32.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Guilty vs. Innocent
If our starting point is that innocent people need to hear the good news about Jesus in order to be saved, then we are in serious trouble. Because, instead of people being saved by the gospel, they are condemned by it! Consider the following:
Starting point: People are ‘not guilty’ until they have had a chance to reject Jesus.
Christian Response: Give them the gospel.
Noble Savage: Rejects the gospel.
How does this picture change if our starting point is that guilty people suppress the knowledge of God (through general revelation) and that they need to hear the good news in order to be saved? Consider this:
Starting Point: People are already condemned sinners.
Christian Response: Bring them the gospel.
Noble Savage: Some accept.
Result: Salvation comes to some.
To clarify, if our starting point is that people are innocent, then the gospel becomes bad news when it is brought because some of them will naturally reject it. But if our starting point is that all people are under God’s condemnation—as the Scriptures clearly teach—then the gospel becomes good news as some respond to it and are saved.
1. The total depravity of man compels us to preach Christ and to reach out to all people with the life-saving news of Jesus Christ. It ensures that the gospel really is good news. Poor people do not get a pass simply because they are poor.
2. A misunderstanding of total depravity elevates man to a state of innocence which has no foundation in Scripture. It makes the mistake of thinking that man is condemned as a result of rejecting the good news, when in fact the whole human race is born under condemnation. In other words, because of their wilful, suppressing, God-denying rebellion, rejecting the good news only confirms sinners in their state. It is not the means of their eternal punishment.
3. We must remember that the gospel brings light, not darkness; hope, not despair; peace, not fear; healing, not pain; reconciliation, not estrangement. Total depravity drives us to pursue people with the good news of Jesus Christ in all its glory.
Blessings to all as we continue in our mission to bring good news to lost souls.