Why I Love the Doctrine of Total Depravity

February 13, 2020 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

This is part one of a five-part series where I explore the goodness of what is commonly known as the Five Points of Calvinism, summarized by the acronym TULIP. Historically, Reformed churches have looked to this acronym as a summary God’s work in our salvation. While we believe the truths are rooted in Scripture, the “five points” often solicit strong reactions. Let’s consider each, seeking to deepen our delight in the God who saves. 

Some have joked that all it takes to come to believe in total depravity is to have a child. Infants and toddlers reveal in their choices and actions that they are born corrupted by sin. But, as confessing Christians, we know that experience is not the infallible authority to dictate doctrine. Scripture alone is our authority and it clearly teaches the depravity of humankind. 

Romans 3 may be one of the best chapters in the Bible to look to for an understanding of total depravity. Paul is building his argument for salvation by grace alone. At this point in the argument, which began in chapter 1, Paul makes some summary statements that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, “are under sin” (3:9). He quotes from Psalm 14 to emphasis the pervasiveness of this condition: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (3:10-11). And this depravity is not only a condition, but also affects our ability to do what is right. Paul says, “by works of the law [i.e. by our own ability] no human being will be justified in his sight” (3:20). 

To summarize what Scripture says about total depravity, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 25 asks of what the sinfulness of man consists. The answer, in part says, “the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually.” That is total depravity in a nutshell.[1] 

Why love such a discouraging (dare we say depressing?) doctrine? 

  1. It levels the playing field. This is Paul’s objective in Romans 3. No single human being is at an advantage in winning God’s favor. We are all at the same disadvantage. Therefore, we should not exalt any human above others as more capable in pleasing God. We do this all too often. We look up to spiritual leaders; they serve and feed our faith; we become dependent on them. And when one of our spiritual leaders falls into grievous sin, we are devastated. I have friends who have become disenfranchised with Christianity and the church because of leaders who have fallen in sin. The doctrine of total depravity safeguards us from esteeming spiritual leaders too highly. 
  1. It sweetens grace all the more. Another chapter in Scripture that unpacks total depravity is Ephesians 2. In this chapter, Paul uses the truth of depravity to exalt the infinite goodness of God’s grace for saving us. Paul says, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (2:1-2). There is nothing in me that is praiseworthy or save-worthy. So Paul uses that to revel in God’s kind grace, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (2:4-5). He uses three synonyms to emphasize the foundation of God’s saving actions: mercy, love, and grace. And he repeats the phrase from verse 1: dead in trespasses. All this teaches us that believing in total depravity sweetens the goodness of God’s saving grace. 
  1. It drives me to my knees. I believe Paul is wrestling with the personal reality of total depravity in Romans 7. He confesses, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). He attributes this conflict to the corruption of sin, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:17). His conclusion is a desperate plea for help, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24). This brings him to the saving power of Christ, not only for justification, but also sanctification. Embracing the reality of the corruption of sin drives us to the only one who can help, Jesus Christ. It humbles us and makes us desperate for the mercy and grace Jesus provides (cf. Heb. 4:16).

[1] R.C. Sproul took issue with the word “total,” because some misunderstand that it means we are as sinful as we possibly can be. That simply is not true. The word “total” communicates that our entire being is corrupted by sin. There is nothing in us that hasn’t been impacted by sin. Sproul preferred the phrase “radical corruption.”


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