Total Depravity

Though I was never ordained in the denomination this church was tangentially connected to once upon a time, I did undergo, sustain and pass an ordination exam. At the end of the exam one of the Synodical representatives asked me “Is there anything about the Reformed faith that you struggle with or that you don’t really like.” To this day I don’t know what the genesis of that question was. I don’t know if I poured it on too thick during the exam about the glories of the Reformed faith and so the delegate wanted to know if I had any uncertainties. In this climate people who are certain are trusted less than people who claim they are uncertain. (Though they certainly are certain of their uncertainty ironically enough.) It may have been the kind of question he routinely asked all candidates. Whatever its origin I simply and definitively said “No…. There is nothing about the Reformed faith that I struggle with and don’t really like. If there were matters about the Reformed faith that I struggled with or didn’t really like I would be Reformed.

I am Reformed. This Church is Reformed and as Reformed this pulpit seeks to communicate everything it communicates from a Reformed understanding which we understand is the Christian understanding. We desire all men everywhere to become Reformed because we are convinced that the Reformed faith, as it was articulated in its origins, going back to Moses in the Pentateuch and tracing the Reformed faith all the way through the Scripture as we hear it coming from the lips of Jesus Himself is the essence of Christianity. Those who don’t embrace the Reformed faith embrace a sub-Christianity.

But of course some strands of the Reformed faith are more critical than other strands of the Reformed faith. And we come to one of those strands this morning and that is the Reformed doctrine of anthropology. Anthropology is that 10 dollar word that simply means the “study of man.” So important is the Reformed doctrine of Anthropology that the Christian faith will not be the Christian faith if we get this doctrine wrong.

And we must say that a great deal that is wrong with the Christian Church today is wrong because denominations and congregations across the West no longer embrace, teach, or understand the doctrine of and implications of the biblical teaching on the doctrine of man.

The Christian doctrine of man is so important to have a right grip on because if we do not have a proper grip on the Christian doctrine of man which presents to us Man’s problem we will, of course, get wrong in our explanation the solution to Man’s problem. One simply cannot grasp a proper solution to a problem if they do not have a proper understanding of the problem. And so the right understanding of the Christian doctrine of Anthropology sets the stage for the solution that will be proffered.

We call this doctrine of man… this Christian anthropology “Total Depravity.” Simply stated it teaches the idea that men outside of Christ…. men not in a proper relation to Christ… men who do not worship the God of the Bible are dead in their trespasses and sins as the passage here in Ephesians teaches. This is the testimony we find throughout Scripture about the nature of man who has not owned Christ.

Gen.8:21 The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth;

Romans 8:7 — The carnal mind is at warfare with God, for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so…

Gen.6:5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Job 14:4 Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.

Job 15:14 What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Job 15:16 How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?

Job 15:35 They conceive mischief, and bring forth vanity, and their belly prepareth deceit.

Isa.53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

John 3:19 And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. 

And as I am fond of saying… this is but a Whitman’s sampler of everything that could be adduced from Scripture that teaches this idea of Total Depravity.

So man who is outside of Christ is dead in his trespasses and sins. When Paul says that such a man is “dead” there he is, of course, using the term metaphorically. Clearly, physically the man is alive. He has physical life in him. He eats. He drinks. He sleeps. He awakens. But spiritually speaking he is dead.

He has no interest in the God of the Bible and His Christ. More than that the dead man is spiritually hostile to God and His Christ. Since there is no neutrality we find the Scripture teaching that the dead man’s mind is at warfare with God. So, we see that fallen man is dead to God and His Christ and the things of God but still very much alive to hating God and His Christ. He wants nothing to do with Him. He is in opposition to God. This is what the Scripture teaches here in Ephesians 2 regarding Anthropology.

in which you once walked according to the [a]course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.

So… man is dead in His trespasses and sins (dead to God) but very much alive to hating God. This begins to point us in the direction of Christian anthropology.

What this means of course is that the Scripture understands and teaches that there are only two types of men in the world. There are those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and there are those who have been raised up with God and are alive to Christ. No man is in any other category. This is an aspect of the Reformed doctrine of the antithesis. There is this divide between those in Christ and those outside of Christ that can only be crossed as those outside of Christ bow to Christ.

Every person in your family, every person among your friends, every person you will ever meet is either alive to Christ or is dead in their trespasses and sins and so is a Christ hater actively engaged in being hostile to God and His Christ.

Of course this means that the whole idea of the Brotherhood of man often taught in the Church is total skubala. Man as a unit is not constituted as a Brotherhood. Christianity teaches that man is divided along this fault line of those who own Christ and those who despise Christ.

Even the Church does no get this right. For example you can find in our own hymn books a hymn that whenever it is chosen I want to reach for my revolver. The hymn title is “Let there be peace on Earth,” and has the lyrics,

With God as our Father
Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

You see of course already that this is completely contrary to Ephesians 2:1f. God is not the Father of all and it is not the case that Brothers all are we. Those outside of Christ are not my Brother. In point of fact they are my sworn enemy and the enemy of God.

So, Scripture makes this distinction. It forms an aristocracy. It teaches that those in Christ are distinct from those outside of Christ and that distinction is found in the fact that men outside of Christ are dead in their trespasses and sins.

When we talk about men being dead we have to understand how dead dead is because this becomes a barrier to us and other “Christian denominations.” When we say that those outside of Christ are dead we don’t mean they are a wee bit alive, or that they are severely handicapped. When we say that they are dead we mean that they are dead. Most of Christendom does not own this doctrine. Most of Christendom will say that while men is gravely hurt man still has a pulse. When I was taught Theology in my Wesleyan days the Wesleyan church taught just this. They taught that man was just alive enough to constantly choose or not choose to cooperate with this thing they called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace was “the grace that went before” regenerating grace and if fallen men would keep cooperating with that prevenient grace at some point fallen man would know regenerating grace. The problem here though is if man is dead in his trespasses and sins how will man ever cooperate with prevenient grace? And if one man does cooperate with prevenient grace while another man doesn’t then the end consequence is that the man who did cooperate with preveneint grace has something to boast about regarding his salvation because he was smart enough to cooperate while the other chap didn’t and so God is dishonored because as the Scriptures teaches God does all in salvation. (Eph. 2:2 — “God made you alive.”)

The Lutherans also make this kind of move. They teach that man can say “no” to God’s irresistible grace that regenerates and makes alive. Well, if man can say “no” to God’s regenerating grace then obviously man is empowered to give or not give God permission to regenerate fallen man. Now, our Lutheran brethren want to cover up their skubala thinking by claiming it is all mystery but the logic of their position is not mysterious in the least. It is humanist and a misunderstanding of total depravity.

When we say that man is dead in his trespasses and sins we mean that man is dead. Just as you would not seek to coax a corpse to life by encouraging them to life by partaking in your wife’s outstanding spaghetti dinner or by giving them a shot of the best penicillin on the market so we understand that we do not coax the spiritually dead to life by theologies that allow them to have a wee bit of life. The Biblical doctrine of anthropology is that man is dead dead dead and the only thing that can bring the dead to life is the Spirit of Christ infusing life into them that they might immediately cling to Christ alone in faith alone because of God’s grace alone, to God alone be the glory.

So, the Reformed faith teaches that man is dead in his trespasses and sins and we call that doctrine Total depravity. Some prefer Radical Depravity or Pervasive Depravity. Total depravity teaches that man is dead to wanting God. It teaches that all the dead man can do is sin all the time. Every act of the dead is a dead act. Every act of the dead is despised by God and His Christ. All that the dead man does is for his own glory and his own advancement. There is nothing in what the dead man does that does not seek to exalt his own godhood status over and above God’s status as God.

Of course the totally depraved man can do works that are less wicked than other totally depraved men. Someone dead in their trespasses and sins could finance a building used to house biblical Churches and that would be better than another person dead in their trespasses and sins who would finance a molestation ring against little children but the actions of both of them are still actions that are expressed as dead men and they both will be eternally damned – perhaps one with fewer stripes and the other with more – for their sins and trespasses of doing all that they do for their own glory. Total depravity thus does not mean utter depravity in the sense that all men are equally depraved. Of course some men are more wicked than others. However, all dead men spend eternity separated from God in the eternal lake of fire.

Total depravity also means as we implied earlier… total inability. Dead men are totally unable to make themselves alive. They need a power from outside of them to reverse their status from dead to alive. They are totally unable to provide that power. They are inert. They are powerless. They are dead to wanting to be alive. They are dead dead dead and no coaxing in the world will be of any service.

“What Total Inability does mean is that since the fall, man rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God, or to do anything meriting salvation. His corruption is extensive, but not necessarily intensive. It is in this sense that man, since the fall, is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, wholly inclined to all evil. He possesses a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly and turns to evil. He is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice. The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volition, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions. And it is this phase of it which led Luther to declare that ‘free will’ is an empty term, whose reality is lost; and a lost liberty, according to my grammar, is no liberty at all.”

― Loraine Boettner

We must insert of note of application here. We can see that much of the modern Church including Reformed churches — at least as labeled by their Church signs — no longer believe in the Total Depravity of Christian anthropology. We see this by the techniques they use in Worship and by the way the Christian message has largely been informed by the technique of propaganda and advertising. This doctrine of Total depravity is not heralded from pulpits. Men are not told they are dead. Instead we craft theologies that intended to meet man’s felt needs so that eventually the dead man will realize he has a real need. However dead men don’t realize that have real need for Christ because they are dead. We preach in a user friendly way as if we think that if we could cast the message of Christ crucified in a way that doesn’t make our listeners cringe. We think by preaching in such a way our dead men listeners might become interested in life. We craft worship services to appeal to the dead man’s taste as if a worship service which met the expectations of the dead might help them come to life. We no longer believe what the Scripture teaches on Christian anthropology and it shows in our worship services and has for longer than my life time.

And so you see there is a need to return to the doctrine of “Total Depravity.” A need to understand again that men outside of Christ…. men who have no interest in Biblical worship … are dead and will not be raised to life by our managerial techniques, our use of propaganda, or our advertising sloganeering in our preaching but only by the power of the living God to raise up dead men walking.

What then are the implications of this doctrine?

Well, first of all it teaches us that man is NOT basically good. Indeed not. Instead, fallen man is basically sinful, and yes we would even say fallen man is basically evil. We see it all around us do we not? Man outside of Christ is hell on fire. He connives, spins, and manipulates all for his gain. Man is a walking talking Gollum. Fallen women have all the charm of Dickens’ Madame DeFarge. Man is wickedness, wrapped in spite, saturated with selfishness. This is the testimony of Scripture. And yet it is the one point that is roundly denied.

If you go to California to visit the tomb of the Conservative hero Ronald Reagan you will find on the exterior of the horseshoe-shaped monument that serves as a kind of gravestone the inscription of a quote Ronald Reagan delivered in 1991:

“I know in my heart that man is good”

Such as been the belief of men throughout the centuries. It is the belief that drives most legislation that is crafted in the halls of our Government. It is the motto of many of our philosophers. It is the theme that runs through many Novel and films. Unfortunately it is just not true.

Man is not basically good.

Well… what is the implication of not accepting this doctrine? What is the implication of thinking that man is basically good. Well, it is disaster. We see it all around us. Parents do not believe that their children are fallen and so treat them as if they are basically good. Parents do not discipline their children as little sinners and so reinforce in their own children that they the children are basically good. We call this the child centered home. Child centered homes would never exist if parents really believed in the doctrine of total depravity.

Another implication of not believing that man is dead in his trespasses in sins and instead is basically good is that one must then look for the problem of evil someplace else besides in the breast of man. As such we get the idea that man’s environment accounts for evil. This means that if man is to discover his goodness, what needs to happen is a change of environment. This then accounts for the belief in social engineering where the elites (who are themselves Totally Depraved) believe that they can create a new man by way of legislating this or that law.

If we will not believe that man is dead in his trespasses and sins that means we will look for the reason for depravity somewhere else besides fallen man. We will conclude that since man is not evil by nature therefore man is evil because of environment. And so, defining the problem wrong we will pursue the wrong solution. We will try to change man’s environment so that man who is basically good will finally become as good as he would be without the influence of evil environment. We will look to the state to pass legislation to provide man with an environment that will allow his innate goodness to blossom.

And in blaming the environment we will seek to build Utopias where the goodness of comrades and citoyens will shine through. We will look to politics to be our savior to make us as good as we naturally are.

You see my friends… getting wrong your Anthropology has serious, perfidious and malevolent consequences. Because we refuse to own God’s description of man we end up embracing Marx’s description of man. We will force men to be as good as we know him to be by nature.

Other writers have seen this. Listen to, of all people, Caroll Quigley in “Hope and Tragedy.”

The belief in the innate goodness of man had its roots in the eighteenth century when it appeared to many that man was born good and free but was everywhere distorted, corrupted, and enslaved by bad institutions and conventions. As Rousseau said, “Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.” Thus arose the belief in the “noble savage,” the romantic nostalgia for nature and for the simple nobility and honesty of the inhabitants of a faraway land. If only man could be freed, they felt, freed from the corruption of society and its artificial conventions, freed from the burden of property, of the state, of the clergy, and of the rules of matrimony, then man, it seemed clear, could rise to heights undreamed of before—could, indeed, become a kind of superman, practically a god. It was this spirit which set loose the French Revolution. It was this spirit which prompted the outburst of self-reliance and optimism so characteristic of the whole period from 1770 to 1914.

Obviously, if man is innately good and needs but to be freed from social restrictions, he is capable of tremendous achievements in this world of time and does not need to postpone his hopes of personal salvation into eternity. Obviously, if man is a god-like creature whose ungod-like actions are due only to the frustrations of social conventions, there is no need to worry about service to God or devotion to any other worldly end. Man can accomplish most by service to himself and devotion to the goals of this world.


The Christian dismisses all that nonsense of the basic goodness of man and returns to Ephesians 2:1. Returns to the idea that fallen man has a sinful nature. Returns to the idea that true anthropology begins with God’s description as man as wicked. But then having rightly analyzed the problem offers a solution that deals squarely with the problem.

It offers the power of God to heal men by raising them up with Christ. It offers the fact that God alone can save fallen men from his ugly, vile, and besotted nature. It offers the fact that there is hope in Christ if men will bow the knee and own Christ.

This is why the Reformed Church as faithful to her origins can never go away. It alone preaches like this. It alone holds these doctrine. It alone refuses to coddle and think highly of man in his original estate. It alone rightly diagnosis the problem so as to rightly provide the solution.

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

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