Total depravity is the Reformed view of man’s sinfulness and is foundational to properly understanding God’s amazing grace and our salvation in Jesus Christ. Total depravity is the T in the TULIP acrostic and can probably be better understood as total inability. What is this inability? It is man’s inability to freely choose God.
The term total depravity lends itself to the inaccurate belief that Calvinists teach that man is totally evil and corrupt. But, that is a mischaracterization by those who don’t care to understand Reformation theology properly. While man is pretty bad, we are not as bad as we could be. God actually restrains evil so that we don’t completely destroy ourselves, which is exactly what we would do. What it does teach is that in our sin nature, we have no desire to seek Christ and in fact, we can’t even come to Christ unless the Father draws us to him (John 6:44).
Many people can agree that man is rotten to the core, but then ask, “Don’t we have free will? Doesn’t Jesus meekly knock on the door of our hearts and ask nicely to come in? Can’t we say yes or no based on our free will?” The unpopular but Biblical answer is…no.
In Romans 3, Paul writes that no one, not one person, not Jew nor Greek seeks after God. He adds that we are worthless and no one does good! Paul even writes in Ephesians that we are by nature children of wrath. So, on our own, we don’t want Jesus to even knock on the door of our heart, much less come in. On our own, we would put a trap door under the door mat and before Jesus could even knock, we would pull the lever. That’s what we do with our free will.
Within our free will, we live to satisfy our sin nature because we are slaves to sin. Sure, we may do good things like feed the hungry, give money to charity, and save the dolphins, but we do this for our own glory rather than to glorify God. Because we are slaves to sin, we turn around and lie, cheat, steal and kill (babies in particular). What we don’t and can’t do as slaves to sin is seek after God.
Anyone not on board with Reformed theology will immediately ask how we can be held responsible for our sin if we are unable to choose anything but sin. Well, If you read Ecclesiastes, it says that God created man upright. Adam and Eve were created upright, but then through disobedience, they fell(Ecc. 7:29) and now we are all are conceived in sin (Ps. 51). As “unfair” as it may seem, this is the state we are in, and in this state, we are responsible for the sins we commit. God doesn’t have to coerce us to sin and then punish us like some maniacal ruler because we naturally do what is in our sin nature…we sin.
The funny thing is, unregenerate people aren’t the ones who are complaining about the “unfairness” of God and there is a very good reason for that; they don’t care. They hate God and are at enmity with Him. It’s only the Christian who says, “I didn’t do what Adam did, so I don’t deserve to be punished.” Well, guess what? You don’t deserve what Christ did for you either.
On the topic of responsibility, look at how we mere humans practice it on others. We hold people accountable all the time for things they didn’t do. In school, the teacher punishes the whole class when she can’t determine who shot the spitball at her. At home, sometimes all the children get punished for the offense of one child. At work, the boss takes away a certain privilege from everyone due to the actions of one or two people. We seem perfectly okay when it is us making that judgment, but we balk when the sovereign creator of the universe does it.
Thankfully, God knows that I have absolutely nothing to offer him, but he meets me in my sin and regenerates me based on His awesome grace and mercy. It is nothing in me that works with God in my salvation so that I have no reason to boast. What on earth would I boast about? What could I possibly add to what Jesus did on the cross? I suppose Paul says it best:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Eph. 2:9