We must start here. He who is right on this doctrine has a good start on knowing other doctrines. He who is wrong here is bound to be wrong on every other doctrine.
The Definition of the Doctrine
The word depraved comes to us from the Latin language by medium of the French (Desk Standard Dictionary, Funk and Wagnalls). De means thoroughly; pravus, crooked.
We mean by this doctrine, therefore, that man is thoroughly crooked, wicked, and sinful by nature in himself, and by position before God. This corrupt nature he received in Adam's fall into sin, and from Adam, and is evidenced in every man's choice and practice of sin, in which he is like Adam.
What Total Depravity is Not
Lest we be misunderstood or misrepresented, it is important that we state, first of all, what we do not mean by total depravity.
First, we do not mean that man does not have a conscience.
After Adam sinned he hid himself from Jehovah God (Gen. 3:8). Adam would not have done this had he not had a guilty conscience. Likewise, though totally depraved, the accusers of the adulterous woman were "convicted by their own conscience" as Christ wrote on the ground and challenged the sinless one to cast the first stone (John 8:9).
Secondly, we do not mean that the unregenerate may not perform outward works of charity and moral goodness.
However, the unsaved cannot and will not do these works for the glory of God, but for selfish reasons.
"He bringeth forth fruit unto himself" (Hos. 10:1).
"A ruined temple may have beautiful fragments of fluted columns, but it is no proper habitation for the god for whose worship it was built" (A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 638).
Thirdly, we do not mean that the sinner performs all the wickedness he is capable of doing.
This is often misconstrued by those who disagree with us. It is most important that we be understood here. Get this: It is not strictly what the sinner does, but what he is. The Pharisees did not omit tithing mint, anise, and cummin (Matt. 23:23), and of all that they possessed (Luke 18:12), though they omitted the weightier matters of the law as judgment, mercy and faith.
What Total Depravity Is
Let us now note what we do mean by total depravity.
First, that the sinner lacks love to God.
Christ said to unbelievers: "But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you" (John 5:42). The Christless may have a "form of godliness" (outward religion), but they are "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God"—2 Timothy 3:4 (A.S.V.). Instead of love to God, the unsaved are enmity to God! "Because the mind of the flesh" (and every unregenerate person "is flesh"—John 3:6) "is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be" (Rom. 8:7, American Standard Version). The mind of the flesh is "enmity to God … It is not only an enemy, but enmity itself … An enemy may be reconciled, but enmity cannot." (Matthew Henry, Commentary, Vol. VI, p. 416.)
"God is Light" (1 John 1:5). The natural man loves "darkness rather than light" (John 3:19).
Secondly, that though the sinner possesses all moral faculties yet he is disordered and defiled in every faculty.
"Even their mind and conscience is defiled" (Titus 1:15).
"The inability … has its ground, not in the want of any faculty, but in the corrupt moral state of the faculties" (A. A. Hodge, Outline of Theology, p. 342).
"The depravity which sin has produced in human nature extends to the whole of it. There is no part of man's nature which is unaffected by it. Man's nature is all of a piece and what affects it at all affects it altogether. When the conscience is violated by disobedience to the will of God, the moral understanding is darkened, and the will is enfeebled. We are not constituted in water-tight compartments, one of which might be ruined while the others remained intact" (Denney's Studies in Theology, p. 83).
A drop of ink in a glass of water discolors the whole. Therefore even an apostle must say: "I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing …" (Rom. 7:18). The whole of the old nature is affected.
The Declaration of Scripture
"As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one." This gives us man's position before God.
"There is none that understandeth." Here is the natural man's perception. He has none.
"There is none that seeketh after God." Here is his pursuit after God. In himself it does not exist.
"They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable, there is none that doeth good, no not one." Here is the natural man's practice laid before us as God sees it (Rom. 3:10-12).
By position and practice, man is rotten to the core, in God's sight. "Cloth is first dyed in the wool, and then dyed again after the weaving. Man is a 'double-dyed villain.' He is corrupted by nature and afterwards by practise" (A. H. Strong, Ibid., p. 579).
The sinner is beyond the reach of cultivation: "there is none righteous, no, not one." You cannot cultivate a rotten apple into a good one.
He is beyond the reach of education: "there is none that understandeth."
He is beyond the reach of inspiration: "there is none that seeketh after God." Inspiring music and preaching, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, means nothing.
He is beyond the reach of occupation: "there is none that doeth good, no, not one." Inviting him to sing in the choir, inducting him into an office in the church will not make him a lover of God.
Every man "by nature" is a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3), a child of the Devil (Matt. 13:38; John 8:44), drinks iniquity like water (Job 15:16), is depraved in mind (Eph. 4:17), blinded in heart (Eph. 4:18), cannot hear the words of Christ (John 8:43-44), cannot know the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14), cannot please God (Rom. 8:8), a slave to Satan (2 Tim. 2:26). The very center of man is obnoxious to a Holy God, who says of man: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9). Be assured from sacred Writ that every single person is totally depraved. "There is no difference" (Rom. 3:22-23).
The Damage Resultant
Since man is totally depraved he is totally deprived of all ability to please God. This is seen in that the sinner is:
Spiritually dead. He is "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). A dead person cannot do anything in the realm in which he is dead, and the sinner is spiritually dead to God. Thus he cannot repent of his sin, believe the Gospel, come to Jesus Christ, nor live for Him. We agree with C. H. Little, when he writes "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him" (Lutheran Confessional Theology, p. 12).
Secondly, the sinner is defiled. He is defiled in heart and mind. In the days of Noah "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). Have sinners improved since then? The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul says of the unbelievers in this age, that they have "the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them" (Eph. 4:18).
"No man knoweth the Son, but the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him" (Matt. 11:27).
Thirdly, the sinner is disabled. He cannot save himself, and will not turn to Christ for salvation until he is born again by the Spirit of God. (John 1:13, 6:63).
"But, what of man's free will? Can he not will to come to Christ?"
Christ answers: "Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life" (John 5:40). Man's will is motivated and controlled by his nature (Eph. 2:3). He is free to turn to Christ, but not able. I am free to make a million dollars, but so far it seems that I am not able. Turning to Christ is a spiritual act, and the sinner is spiritually dead.
"There is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11).
"Whosoever will" may come! (Rev. 22:17). But none will, "except the Father draw" them (John 6:44). "Ye would not" (Matt. 23:37).
Do we not read, "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve?" We do, in Joshua 24:15, but please read the whole verse! Notice, first, that it is addressed to those to whom it seemed evil, or worthless to "serve the Lord." Will you continue to apply this to yourself? Then, secondly, the choice is not between choosing the Lord and the Devil, or the world, or something else. The choice is now between the gods on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites! It seems evil to serve the Lord. Now choose which god ye will serve. You had better hear Christ in John 15:16.
It may be protested that man is not responsible for his sin.
Let us try such reasoning with the laws of our land. Why should a man be sentenced to prison for drunkenness when he is an addicted drinker, and cannot help it? Here is another man who cannot stop stealing. Here is another who has such a temper that he has murdered several people. He cannot help it. Are these men no longer responsible to obey the civil laws because of their inability? No, in no wise. Shall we ask God to do that which our own sense of justice refuses? To despise the laws of the land does not excuse us from the responsibility to obey them. Inability does not do away with responsibility. I am responsible to pay my debts, whether I am able or not. The sinner is responsible to keep the moral law of God, though he is unable. (1 Tim. 1:8-11). The Christian is responsible to live without sin (1 John 2:1), though unable (Rom. 7:15-25). The plea, "I am not able, therefore, not responsible," depends "on how the inability arose. If it is a created inability (the fault lies with the Creator), then there can be no obligation (on man's part). But if acquired, the obligation remains" (David S. Clark), A Syllabus of Systematic Theology, p. 213).
It was acquired from father Adam, and is embraced by all his race (Rom. 5:12-21). But the doctrine of imputation is another doctrine in itself, and deserves separate treatment.
"God did enough inn making man upright, and if he hath lost his uprightness, he must thank himself, and not blame God, who is not bound to restore it. Grace is God's own. He giveth it to whom He will" (Christopher Ness, An Antidote Against Arminianism, p. 84).
It follows then that the salvation of the sinner is wholly and solely of grace, Dei Gratia!
"God is free in consistency with the intimate perfection of His nature to save none, few, many or all, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His will" (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 71).
God chose a certain number (though innumerable to man—Rev. 7:9) to be saved, and the choice is an eternal one, made before the foundation of the world (2 Tim. 1:9; Eph. 1:4-5).
The Son of God came and took their sins upon Himself (1 Peter 2:24) and died for their sins (1 Cor. 15:3), and for them (Rom. 5:8).
In God's time (Gal. 1:15-16) the Holy Spirit comes and gives the new birth (John 1:13, 6:63) and eternal life to these dead sinners (John 3:1-16), by the sovereign will of Christ (John 5:21), God working in them "both to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).
Thus Christ comes to live in their hearts (Eph. 3:17) and they are born of God: not by their own will, but by the will of God (John 1:12-13).
The assurance that this has happened to you, dear reader, is that you once found yourself sincerely troubled and burdened with your sins and your lost condition, thus seeing your great need of Jesus Christ as your own personal Saviour; you then were graciously led to believe in the Lord Jesus alone for eternal salvation, and you now know that you "have passed out of death into life" (John 5:24, American Standard Version).
"Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God …" (1 John 5:1).