Our church is part of a network of churches in the Annapolis area and we get together each year for a Reformation day celebration. This year I had the privilege of giving the sermon and was assigned the topic of "Total Depravity." So, I thought I would share the manuscript I preached from with you. Sorry I don't have an audio to share but there was a problem with the recording.
October 28, 2007
The famous French philosopher, mathematician and Christian Blaise Pascal once said “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.”
That famous saying has been updated in our day by a famous American theologian who said “the heart wants what it wants.”
For Pascal his statement reflected his belief that there are things which transcend the intellect, which aren’t easily accounted for by pure rationality.
This famous American theologian I am talking about who said “the heart wants what it wants,” is Woody Allen. And he directed these words to then wife Mia Farrow in the wake of his affair with their adopted daughter. It was his justification for this very sordid affair.
I’m not here tonight to dispute with Mr. Allen, because I think he is right. Our hearts are furnaces of desire, radiating a heat that is all consuming and driving us to fulfill these desires. My only dispute with Mr. Allen is that I wish he had uttered one more statement. When he said “the heart wants what it wants,” I wish he had followed it up with the words, “and that is the problem.”
Tonight we are celebrating the Reformation, looking at the subject of “Total Depravity,” and though I will throw some quotes at you from some historic theologians and confessions I really can’t think of any better explanation of Total Depravity than Mr. Allen’s. The heart wants what it wants, and yet that is the problem.
In fact, if you only have five seconds to explain total depravity to someone you could utter those words with this little follow up – the heart wants what it wants, and the heart never wants God, until God changes the heart.
That is what we mean when we speak of Total Depravity.
I want to unpack that tonight and there are any number of ways we could do this, any of them good. But I thought it best to first give a little bit of the historical background of the doctrine of total depravity for the purpose of stating what it is, then we’ll look at several Scriptures that show the warrant for the doctrine and we’ll close with several practical implications of the doctrine.
We’ll begin with the historical development of the doctrine and I’ll leave off for a moment the obvious – that the doctrine is historically grounded in the Scriptures. What I want to focus on for now is to do just a quick, all too short look at where that phrase “total depravity” came from.
The phrase “total depravity” is not found in the Bible but the concepts are, and one of the earliest debates about those concepts happened in an exchange between the church father Augustine and a British monk known as Pelagius.
- Man is basically good
- Man has a will that is capable of choosing good or evil w/o divine aid
- The effect of fall was to set a bad example for Adam’s progeny, but did not cause the corruption of man’s nature
- It is possible for man, through his own efforts to live a sinless life that would lead to salvation.
- Grace was an added advantage, but not necessary.
Augustine countered that:
- We are sinners by nature
- Grace is necessary for salvation and good works.
- Affirmed the doctrine of original sin.
I’ll speed through about a thousand years of church history to mention another key moment in the history of discussions on the will of man and that was a debate between Erasmus and Martin Luther on the freedom of the will.
Erasmus was a great catholic scholar who was mostly friendly toward Luther, but he was bothered by some of Luther’s teachings and one of the things he was bothered about was Luther’s view of man’s will. So he wrote a treatise on free will whereby he sought to distance himself from Luther, while not falling into the extreme views of Pelagius.
- Free will is “a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation or run away from them.
- Notice – man has it within himself to choose God, apart from a work of grace
- Sin incapacitates man from working out his own salvation.
- Man is completely unable to bring himself to God.
Just a little aside on this – if you think the rhetoric and bombast of modern debate gets a little out of hand and if you ever listen to talk radio I just want you to know that, compared to Luther, everyone alive today is an amateur when it comes to the cutting remark.
Here’s a snippet from Luther’s introduction in his response where he compares Erasmus’s book to a prior one written by his friend Phillip Melanchton:
Compared with it, your book struck me as so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or ordure being carried in gold and silver vases.
That was just kind of a warmup for Luther as he went on to argue for the bondage of the will.
Those two debates, the Augustinian-Pelagian and the Luther-Erasmus are a good backdrop to the controversy that gave us the formulation and phrase “total depravity.”
In 1618-1619 the Synod of Dordt was held to settle a controversy in Dutch churches regarding the spread of Arminianism and it’s conflict with Calvinism. Interestingly the two parties after whom the terms were named were dead by then – it was followers of Jacob Arminius and John Calvin who engaged the debate and the first salvo in the argument came from the Arminians, or remonstrants as they were also known.
The Remonstrants objected to some teachings in the Belgic Confession and some of the teachings of Calvin and his followers. They drew up five articles.
- Election based on foreseen faith.
- A universal atonement.
- Partial human depravity.
- Resistible grace.
- The possibility of falling from grace.
The synod met and found all five of those teachings out of accord with Scripture and they published a response known as the Canons of Dort which refuted each one. These five refutations came to be known as the Five Points of Calvinism and have been known since then under the acronym TULIP. And they are:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irrestistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
It is our intention here in the FEPC to cover one of those each year and my only concern tonight is with the first one – total depravity.
The word depravity refers to man’s sin nature, the dispute between the Arminians and the Calvinists were over the extent of sin – the one saying it was partial, and the other saying it was total.
At this point I’m going to bring us a little bit further along into history and just briefly highlight the formula of the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 9 on Free Will:
"Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has 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."
When we say that man is totally depraved what we mean is that man is unable, in and of himself, and apart from a work of God on the heart, to will himself to do good or to believe in God, or to even prepare himself to do so.
This may sound nitpicky, but it’s important – the confession states that man is unable even to prepare himself to believe, contra Erasmus and the Remonstrants.
That’s what we mean – now, let’s see if the Scriptures back this up.
I want to look at several Scriptures that I think establish the doctrine of total depravity.
In Genesis 6, the fall has occurred, Adam and Eve have been kicked out of the garden and many generations have come and gone and man has gone from bad to worse and in Genesis 6:5 it says this:
The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
Notice that it is “only evil all the time.”
If you fast forward a bit to the reign of King David you come to Psalm 51, a famous Psalm whose backdrop is David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. After being confronted with his sin, David says this in verses 4-5:
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
It is significant to note that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David declares not only his sinfulness, but the origin of his sin – he was sinful from the time of conception, hence he inherited a sinful nature, showing that sin is ingrained in our very nature.
One more verse from the Old Testament will help us see another picture of our sinfulness – Jeremiah 13:23:
Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.
The assumption is that we are accustomed to doing evil and that we have the same chances of changing those evil desires as an Ethiopian or anyone else does, of changing their skin color, or as the leopard has of changing their spots.
And that was a way too fast look at the Old Testament but it’s enough to sketch a picture of the human heart that is:
- Sinful by nature, from birth
- Helpless against sin, in and of itself.
In other words, sin isn’t something that man learns or acquires from the world around him, it is ingrained in his very nature.
And, this sinful nature isn’t something that submits to moral reformation – man’s very will is bound and he can no more will himself to believe or do good than a leopard can will its spots to go away
Now, that is a backdrop that will serve us as we move to the New Testament. I mentioned that the Old Testament pictures us as sinful by nature, from birth. That is an important, we are sinful by nature before we are ever sinful by choice. We aren’t sinful because we sin, we sin because we are sinful.
It’s a very important thing to point out, and this illustrates a very important distinction between the way we in the reformed community speak of sin.
Typically, when people speak of sin we speak of it as some-thing we do, we often speak of sins of commission and omission. The sins of commission are the thing we do wrong, and sins of omission are the ways we fail to do right.
And there is an element of truth in this, but it puts the cart before the horse because it pictures sin in terms of our actions, but sin goes much deeper than that, it is in our nature.
The apostle Paul speaks of the sinful nature often in his writings. Let me just rattle off several of those for you.
Romans 7:5 – For when we were controlled by the sinful nature
Romans 7:18 – I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.
Romans 7:25 – I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Romans 8:3 - For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature,
Romans 8:5 – those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desries.
Romans 8:8 – those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
Galatians 5:16-17 – So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.
I could go on and on, but that’s enough to give you a picture that complements and completes what we saw in the Old Testament.
Again, first we see that sin is a part of our nature, our sinful tendencies cannot be ascribe to training, learning or environment, they are a part of the very fabric of who we are.
Further, we see that sin is a dominating, overwhelming force in our lives. We get into some of the same debates today over the freedom of the will that we saw in Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, and the Calvinists and Arminians.
And the passages I just read speak to the actions of the will.
Romans 7:5 says “when we were controlled by the sinful nature.” That’s very important – what is the controlling center of the life of someone outside of Christ? Is it his will, is it his environment? No, it says that the sinful nature exerts control over the life of the individual.
Romans 7:25 says that sin is an enslaving force in the life of man. This accords well with Romans 6 that speaks of being in slavery to sin and the question we always want to ask is this – in a master-slave relationship whose will prevails? It is the will of the master and as long as we are outside of Christ it is the will of the sinful nature that dominates our lives.
Galatians 5:16-17 speaks of what it is that the sinful nature is there to do – it is there to oppose God.
Another text I didn’t mention earlier is Ephesians 2:1, which says:
you were dead in your transgressions and sins.
And so with that all too short survey we get a picture of sin as something that dominates our lives, it is something in us, and is not to be defined by what we do, rather it speaks of our identity.
In fact I’d suggest that calling sin a cancer is not a strong enough analogy because cancers can be surgically removed from the body. Sin is more like a disease of the blood.
If I have a cancer an x-ray may reveal where it is and the surgeons may know where to cut to remove it. But where do you start with a blood disease? Blood fuels all we do and we can’t just remove some blood and say “ok, all better.” We can remove all of our blood but that will kill us. No, something has to get in and change the very nature of our blood itself.
Now, with that I want to draw out some implications of this and just see how sin works it’s way out in our lives on a daily basis.
- Sin must be defined in terms of worship
For this I want to turn back to the Scripture we opened with – and I’ll just highlight Romans 1:24-26 which says:
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.
We have looked at sin as something that is within us and that renders us unable to choose God – here we are looking at the practical outworkings of this sinful nature in every day life.
Sin is an exchange of worship and service where we choose to worship and serve the creation, not God.
One of the most interesting things here is the relationship between our sin and our wrath. It’s common to hear Christians and other moralists speak of the cultural ills or sins of our society and say that if we don’t stop those things the wrath of God will come. In other words, if we don’t repent of immorality, and abortion and injustice and things like that, then God’s wrath will come to our nation.
Romans 1 gives a bit of a different perspective on that – this says that our participation in those kinds of things is already the expression of God’s wrath.
But it all goes back to worship. Once we cease to worship, then God hands us over to degrading practices. The degrading practices themselves are the evidence that we are under God’s wrath.
And by the way I do want to level the playing field here a bit – we often look to Romans 1 as biblical evidence for the sinfulness of a society that accepts things like homosexuality and murder and things like that. I just think it is important that, before we go off on them that we realize that in the list of sins that come from a failure to worship we have things like greed, and strife and envy and gossip and disobedience to parents and things like that, things we can find regularly in any church in America – so we need to take Romans 1 as a message to us, not just to them.
And that is why we must define sin as an issue of worship and with this definition we can see how it applies to the religious and the irreligious. Both the religious and the irreligious have one thing in common – both want to use God and want His stuff not Him.
Irreligious people are like the prodigal son who needs his father’s stuff to finance his trip to the far country, to rebel.
Religious people are like the elder brother who stay home and work and do all the things the Father asks, and then they say the father owes them.
In either case, they fail to worship the creator. In fact, taking this a step further, they worship themselves.
If you ask me, probably the best verse in the bible to describe how sin acts is Luke 19:14:
“But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’
Sin says “God will not rule over me, I will run my life.” Our sinful nature causes each of us to be a god-player.
Jerry Bridges has a new book out and he questions a common definition we use of sin. We often speak of sin as “missing the mark,” and there is some linguistic evidence that supports that, but sin is much more than that:
"What is sin? It is often described as 'missing the mark'—that is, failure to live up to the rigorous standard of God's holy law. But the Bible makes it clear that it is much more than that. In Leviticus 16:21, sin is described as transgression; literally, as rebellion against authority. In the prophet Nathan's confrontation of David over his sins of adultery and murder, Nathan describes sin as a despising of both God's Word and God himself (2 Sam. 12:9-10). And in Numbers 15:30-31, Moses characterizes sinners as acting 'with a high hand,' meaning defiantly. Therefore, we can conclude that sin is a rebellion against God's sovereign authority, a despising of his Word and his person, and even a defiance of God himself. It is no wonder Paul wrote that because of our sin, we were by nature objects of God's wrath (Eph. 2:3)."
Sin says “I am my own God.”
Some of the older theologians used a latin phrase to describe sin – homo curvatus in se – man curved in upon himself. In other words man was created to orbit, or to curve his life around God. Because of sin we love ourselves more than God and expect God to curve Himself around us and we expect all of creation to orbit around us.
And because of that, we have a lens that views all of life in terms of “how this affects me.” That’s the dominating question of all of life – how does this affect me, how does this make me feel, what’s in it for me – I become the center of my own existence. My own intellect and emotions become the standard by which I judge all things.
I recently came across a book called “Malignant Self-Love,” which is a psychological study of narcissism. There is a psychiatric/psychological disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder and I know we have different points of view here about the validity of psychiatric labels. But you don’t have to be on board with all of that to see that these folks have correctly identified the effects of the fall
Pathological narcissism is a life-long pattern of traits and behaviours which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition.
- Feels grandiose and self-important.
- Feels unique and special.
- Requires excessive admiration, or failing that, wants to be feared or notorious
- Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favourable priority treatment.
- Devoid of empathy for others.
- Constantly envious of others
As I read through that my first thought was to diagnose all of the people in my life who suffer from this but then it occurred to me that the way I know someone is suffering from narcissistic personality disorder is that they aren’t properly focused on me. And all of that stuff came a little too close to home.
One of the things I liked about reading that was how it caused me to remember some words from Francis Schaeffer about the tests of a worldview – Schaeffer said that one way we know a worldview is correct is that it comports with reality.
The doctrine of total depravity is the only thing that can fully explain narcissistic personality disorder, it is the only thing that can explain the evils of society, it is the only thing that can explain the strife in churches and Christian families.
It is total depravity that tells us that life is all about me.
This may sound like bad news, but correct diagnosis is essential to finding a correct cure. If we rightly understand our depravity then it leads us to a cure.
- The Cure for Depravity
At least one reason for the shallow Christianity we see today is the shallow repentance most of us have experienced. I am guilty of preaching a shallow repentance. I used to speak to people about their sin and I’m a nice guy, too nice in fact, and I didn’t want people to feel too bad about their sin. So I would tell them things like “you’re a sinner, but don’t worry, so am I, I mean even Billy Graham and Mother Theresa are sinners.”
You can see that I was in effect persuading them that, as sinners, they were in the company of many paragons of virtue. And any time we define sin as merely something we do or as something outside of us, we invite a very shallow repentance. I have never met anyone who is unwilling to admit they aren’t perfect. But that’s not it.
It’s not that we are simply not perfect, it’s that we are constitutionally hostile to the rule and reign of God, we have this blood disease that can only be cured by a total replacement of the blood system.
But that’s the good news – a replacement is available.
The only way that total depravity can be cured is for the sinful nature to be crucified and God has crucified the sinful nature for all who are in Christ.
In the same section as all of those verses from Romans 7 we can look back to Romans 6 and see this wonderful passage:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
It is hopeless, from a human standpoint, to find a cure for total depravity. But what is impossible with men is possible with God and all who are united to Christ through faith and repentance have had their sinful nature crucified with Him.
Total depravity may sound like bad news to someone who thinks he is good and can save himself. It sounds like an insult.
Imagine a good swimmer stranded in the middle of the ocean a thousand miles from shore. If he is overcome with pride, as all of us totally depraved god-players are, he may be insulted if you say he’s not good enough to make it.
But if this person is in his right mind, a reminder to him that he can’t make it, along with a reminder that there is a means of rescue is the best news he has ever heard.
Jesus is that rescue. For the totally depraved sinner He is a totally sufficient savior.