Theologians often use the term “Total Depravity” to describe the fallen condition of man. By this they do not mean that man is as corrupt as he could possibly be (which would make every human being a devil). Instead, the word “Total” refers to the extent of this depravity in us, not its depth or degree. One theologian explains it as follows:
“[It] does not mean the absolute loss of every vestige of good, but that evil has affected every part of the nature and that nothing has remained untouched…sin has so affected [man’s] nature that he cannot do anything that is good without the grace of God.” – W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology, (London: Church Book Room Press Ltd, 1945), 165.
This definition is helpful in that it points up the helplessness of sinful men and women after the Fall. Because his mind and heart are corrupted and polluted by his sin nature, the natural man is completely unable to do anything that God will accept for merit. He “cannot please Him” (Rom. 8:8). This vain hope of pleasing God through something we do begins with what we are inside. The natural man does not understand how God sees him. His views about the extent of the separation between God and man are wholly wrong. He creates a principle or standard of “goodness” that he strives for and sometimes achieves. But it is the “goodness” of a criminal. In setting the standard for himself man displays his open rebellion to his Maker. As we saw in the last study, the essence of sin is autonomy or independence from God. This independence is never relinquished by the unregenerate sinner, even when he is at his best. Thus, “every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (Psa. 39:5). This is well put by Frame who says: “[A] good work requires a right goal, standard, or motive. If our goal is not to seek the glory of God…or if we are not activated by godly faith and love, then our best works are sinful.” – John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs To The Lord, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 111.
In truth the problem runs deeper than any of us would want to admit. In an almost incidental way, Jesus, when teaching on prayer, said to a crowd which included His disciples: “if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to them who ask Him!” (Matt. 7:11. Cf. Eccles. 9:3; Gen. 8:21). The message is clear. God sees us all as “evil.” That is the unruffled judgment of the One who came into the world to die for sinners. Christ died for evil people, not for those who just needed a little moral “jump-start.” Our hearts are natural breeding grounds and assembly points for every sin mentioned in Mark 7:21-23 and Romans 1:29-31. Whether in outward acts or in seed-form, these sins inhabit the fabric of every sinner. And the root cause is the desire not to be answerable to God (Rom. 1:18-22), even when we secretly know He is there (Rom. 1:32).
The stain of sin affects every part of man. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). The ‘heart’ (leb) here is “man’s mission control center” (George Zemek); our thoughts as well as our emotions are involved in the biblical idea. Therefore, seeing that the heart is both ‘desperately wicked’ and ‘deceitful’ clearly the unregenerate person, whom Paul calls “the natural man”; the sinner who is at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7), does not have the desire nor the ability to be inclined positively towards the living God.
The prophet asked, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” The question was rhetorical and called forth the immediate retort, “Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23). Thus the unregenerate sinner, whose heart is alienated from God, cannot by his own will and deeds do anything that will bring him to salvation (see Jn 3:13). Every unsaved sinner is completely disinclined to do what is spiritually acceptable, which is to believe in the finished work of Christ on their behalf. Not having the right spiritual apparatus to appropriate God’s offer of salvation in the Gospel, the world minimizes God’s holiness while at the same time maximizing its own of goodness in the vain hope of escaping condemnation.
But the Final Assize will prove all men guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). So the Christian has learned to put “no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3b), that is, in their natural state. Paul says in another place, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” (Rom. 7:18). The unhappy truth is: men are hostile toward God (Rom 8:7-8). They are alienated and hostile in mind (Col. 1:21); estranged from the womb (Psa.58:3); without God in the world (Eph. 2:13). It is not surprising therefore that the “righteousness” of sinners is reckoned as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). They cannot please God, because without faith it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6). Besides, “No one seeks after God, no one does that which is right – As it is written: ‘none is righteous, no, not one.’”(Rom 3:10).
So the natural man is in a severe condition and it is this severe condition which brings about a spiritual inability to think about God as God and to live life in that light. Carnal men are alienated from God in their minds, they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25), they believe that the wisdom of God is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21): and yet, in claiming to be wise, they have become fools. (Rom 1:22).
On the basis of these things, it is not surprising that in John 6, Jesus twice declares that a person cannot come to the Father except he be drawn by Him (Jn 6:44, 65. Cf. v.37). Thus, a doctrine of total depravity entails an accompanying doctrine of total inability. However, it is easy to go astray here and link verses together without paying due attention to their respective contexts. We must constantly be on the alert for stray inferences which intrude themselves within our attempts at doctrinal precision. This is certainly the case with the verses cited above from John 6, as well as John 3:3 and 5. It is also the case with three particular Pauline metaphors which we shall examine in the next installment.