“The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21 ESV).
One of the fundamental biblical doctrines that creates some confusion for those who are unfamiliar with it is the doctrine of Total Depravity, which concerns mankind’s guilty inability to stand before God and claim any sort of inherent righteousness. The bulk of the confusion about this doctrine centers on the name: Total Depravity. “Wait a minute!” both Christians and unbelievers alike will protest. “Are you saying that someone who doesn’t know Christ as their Savior is totally depraved? That’s not possible! Why, my Aunt Sally isn’t a Christian, but she’s the nicest person you’d ever want to meet! She volunteers at the homeless shelter and raises money for the Red Cross! Are you trying to tell me that Aunt Sally is depraved?!”
No, no, a thousand times NO! I’m not saying Aunt Sally is wholly and utterly vile. But I am saying that Aunt Sally was born with a sin nature — just like you, me and every other human being who has ever lived, for “there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46). Total depravity does not mean that men and women are completely given over to sin; we are not as bad as we could be. Even history’s most terrible mass murderers — men like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung — were not as evil as they could have been. They might well have killed tens of millions more, but they were restrained by God’s common grace.
Total depravity does not mean that we are totally evil, but rather that the totality of our being has been infected by sin. Our every thought, word and deed is tainted by sin, just as a glass of drinking water is entirely infected when one drop of strychnine is added to it. Every man, woman and child is born infected with the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. And so, in the sight of God, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
There are those who never once set foot in a church building, yet did all manner of good things. They’ve built hospitals and orphanages and libraries and sent ships filled with food overseas to help disaster victims. They are, in the eyes of the watching world, upstanding citizens . . . but apart from Jesus Christ, they are just as lost as Judas Iscariot. Their righteous acts are no more than “filthy rags” in the sight of a perfectly holy God.
Author Edwin Palmer offered a fine distinction between what the world considers “good” and what is actually good in the sight of God. Palmer explained: “The Heidelberg Catechism gives a clear definition of good. In answer to the question: ‘But what are good works?’ the Catechism answers: ‘Only those which are done from true faith, according to the law of God and to his glory’ (Question and Answer 91).
I have no doubt that Aunt Sally is a truly nice person; but I also know that, apart from Christ, her works fall miserably short of this definition of good. This is why Psalm 14:3 asserts, “There is no one who does good, not even one.”
The doctrine of total depravity is one of the great dividing lines between the unbelieving world and the Christian. The unbelieving world believes that all people are fundamentally good, only flawed because of their environments. The Bible, on the other hand, tells us bluntly that “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
When I talk about man’s sin from the pulpit, I’ll often remind the congregation that no one has ever had to teach children to sin; they come from the womb crying fiercely, “Mine!” David understood that we are born stained by Adam’s sin, and he reiterated that truth in Psalm 51:5, saying, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Back in 1996, God blessed Kim and I with the first of our four children, Brock. We had only been believers for a little over a year. We were so excited to begin our journey as Christian parents raising our “perfect” child of the covenant. Well, it didn’t take long to figure out Brock came with a “factory-installed” fallen sin nature because we knew neither one of us were teaching him to do some of the “less-than-perfect” things he was doing. Can I get a witness?
That sin represents a death sentence. The book of Romans warns that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Total depravity means that, apart from Christ, you are under a sentence of death — a dreadful death that continues for all eternity. That is the bad news that confronts us all.
But let me close with the great and glorious good news: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Those who place their trust in Jesus Christ will experience an eternity in which there will be no sorrow, no sickness, no suffering . . . and no sin. If you have never trusted in Him, I implore you to come to Him today! Only His atoning death will bridge the gap between you and God that is created by your total depravity.
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. Never forget that . . . Amen!
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.