“I have good news, and I have bad news,” says my five-year-old daughter. Of course, those are frightening words to hear from your kids! When confronted with choosing to receive good news or the bad news first, we typically shoot for the bad news. Why? Because when we hear the good, it makes the bad not seem as bad (well, hopefully). We appreciate the good news more, considering the bad news.
If the gospel is the good news of how God reconciles sinners to Himself through the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ, what then is the bad news? For something to be good news, it must overshadow some prior reality. The bad news is what we read from the Apostle Paul in Romans 3, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (v.23).” Paul says, “therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Rom. 5:12).” That’s terrible news, right?
In the 3rd chapter of Genesis, we are confronted with the ugly reality of sin and its consequences. But, as we see throughout the Scriptures, sin isn’t confined to the 3rd chapter of Genesis. We know that man is alienated from the life of God (Eph. 4:18). We see that we are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). We see what theologians through the ages have referred to as “total depravity.” This biblical truth is the reason for man’s need for redemption. Now, when you read those words (total depravity), what comes into your mind?
Depravity is defined as wickedness or moral corruption. When you put the adjective total in front of it, you may think that man is as corrupt as possible, and no good can come from him. That’s not what this doctrine teaches. I don’t have the space to get into a detailed description of this reality, but I’ll try and outline some basics. First, let’s consider what total depravity is not.
What Total Depravity is Not
First, total depravity does not mean, as stated above, that man is as corrupt as possible, and no good can come from him. Not everyone is a murderer. Not everyone commits adultery. Not everyone sins as far as others. Paul, writing to Timothy, says, “while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim. 3:13).” Paul seems to indicate that some will get worse, which suggests that they’re not as bad as can be at this moment.
Second, total Depravity also doesn’t mean that people have no awareness of sin. We read in Romans 1, “though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approach to those who practice them (v.32).” Or “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (2:14-15).” Unregenerate sinners are aware of what’s right and wrong because they are created in the image of God.
Third, the total depravity of man doesn’t mean that unregenerate sinners have no appreciation for morality. If you were to flip to the book of Acts, you would read that the people (outsiders of the church) held the apostles in high esteem (5:13). We also see in 1 Cor. 5 that not all sin is approved of by outsiders (v.1). There is some sin, which even the pagans don’t tolerate. These three points offer a brief overview of what total depravity is not. Now, the question is, what is total depravity?
Total depravity means that every part of man’s faculties has been affected by sin. As Louis Berkhof said, “there is no spiritual good, that is, good in relation to God, in the sinner at all, but only perversion.” Again, we know that unregenerate humans can do good; they are compassionate, loving, philanthropic, fighters for civil good, and even externally “righteous” (think Pharisees).
However, total depravity indicates that an unregenerate man can do no good pertaining to salvation in Jesus Christ. In other words, they cannot achieve salvation in and of themselves. Paul states that we are (before salvation) in bondage to sin (Rom. 6). The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto (WCF IX.III).”
Again, as stated above, sin renders man spiritually dead (Gen. 2:16-17, Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3). Because man is spiritually dead, Jesus states that man must be born again if he wishes to enter the kingdom of Heaven (John 3:5-7). How is this new birth accomplished? The answer is through the work of the Holy Spirit. John says, “but to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13, emphasis added).
Sin darkens our minds and corrupts our hearts. Before salvation in Christ, we are blind and deaf to spiritual truth. (Gen. 6:5; Gen. 8:21; Eccl. 9:3; Jeremiah 17:9, John 3:19; Eph. 4:17). Further, before redemption, we were children of Satan (John 8:34,44; Eph. 2:1-2; 1 John 3:10; 5:19). Therefore, we cannot save ourselves (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8-10; John 6:44; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5; Jeremiah 13:23).
How to Respond
First, I believe understanding this doctrine should produce great joy in the heart of Christians. Think about this reality. Consider who you were apart from Christ. Now rejoice in the glorious gospel and feast on its wonder! We once were not a people, but now we are God’s people. We once were alienated but have been brought near. We once were orphans but are now adopted into God’s family. We once were children of wrath but are now partakers of grace and coheirs with Christ. An understanding of the gospel should produce great joy in one’s heart. May we never grow numb to the glorious grace of God.
Second, we should be more patient and loving with unbelievers and Christians. I’m not saying that we tolerate their sin, but we should be gracious in our dealings with them. We have been given great grace. Therefore, we should show grace. The gospel is not only the foundation of Christian living, but it’s also the motivation for Christian living. We read in Matthew’s Gospel, “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd (9:36).” After calling for Christians to submit to rulers & authorities, to be gentle and to avoid quarreling, Paul says, “for we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:3).”
Third, this should encourage/burden us to evangelize. We cannot save ourselves. Therefore, we cannot save others. Understanding this takes the pressure off us to say just the right thing at just the right time. As Mark Dever once said, “We don’t fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the gospel to someone who is not converted; we fail only if we don’t faithfully tell the gospel at all. Evangelism itself isn’t converting people; it’s telling them that they need to be converted and telling them how they can be.”
Do you want the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that apart from Christ you are spiritually dead, guilty, and condemned. The good news? “Spiritually dead, alienated, and hostile to God” does not have to be the final descriptor of your life. Rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ! Praise God for His grace.
Soli Deo Gloria,
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