(From a message preached at Together for the Gospel in 2008)
The world’s only hope is the Gospel. It is therefore critical that we understand the nature of our message and the foundations of our Gospel. That’s what prompted me to address the subject of total depravity—fallen humanity’s unwillingness and inability to love God, obey Him, or please Him in any way. This is a major Gospel theme.
In John 5:39-40 our Lord says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” He was saying that those who search the Scriptures with a view toward eternal life—Scriptures which bear unstinting testimony to Christ as Savior and Lord—are nonetheless unwilling to come to Him. Why? Because of their depravity.
Depravity the Most Despised Doctrine
Jesus also said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44, emphasis added). He is presenting here the doctrine of human unwillingness and inability, which is perhaps the most thoroughly despised doctrine in all the Bible. The idea that sinners are completely helpless to redeem themselves (or even make any contribution to their redemption from sin and divine judgment) is a distinctively Christian doctrine, contrary to all non-Christian views of man or humankind.
All the major religions in the world apart from biblical Christianity are based on the notion that righteousness is gained by good works. At their core is the idea that people can be good enough either to merit the favor of some deity or at least to enjoy a happy afterlife. Therefore, in one way or another, all false systems of religion teach that redemption hinges on human ability, human works, human willpower, self- atonement, or the supposed basic goodness of humanity. Naturally, then, all of them are compelled in one sense or another to deny the totality of mankind’s depravity.
One of the inevitable features of universal human fallenness is self- deception about one’s true condition, based on the dominating reality of human pride. Practically every sinner is convinced (to some degree) that he is fundamentally good—or at the very least, that he isn’t quite as bad as someone else. Of course, most people are apt to admit, casually, that they’re not perfect. A few might even acknowledge that they actually sin against God. But hardly any will admit that they are truly evil. They have no ability to see any evil in their good, and they especially tend not to acknowledge any evil in their religion. They therefore cannot admit—even to themselves—that they are incurably evil, hostile to God, and utterly incapable of any true good.
People will go to almost any length to try to obscure or paper over their depravity. Many even invoke the name of the one true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and claim to love Him, while in reality they detest Him. They may have a genuine but sentimental affection for some god of their own making, suited to their own preferences— and often they will even call that imaginary god by the name of the true God—but they actually hate and cannot love the God of both the Old and New Testaments. Their refusal to acknowledge the true extent of their own wickedness is proof of their unbelief.
In fact, no sin could possibly be more heinous than such a refusal to love God as He truly is. It entails a breach of both the first and second commandments—starting with a failure to love the Lord our God with a whole heart and have no other gods before Him, and then compounding the error by worshiping one’s own imaginary image instead of bowing to the true God of Scripture. The tendency to invent false gods and insist they are the true God—the sin of idolatry—is another universal trait of fallen humanity, and it is one more vivid proof of how utterly depraved the human heart really is.
Even when people have flagrant sins that are exposed in undeniable ways, or when they are otherwise compelled to confess some specific And notice: that’s the biblical appraisal of the good things we do—our righteous deeds, not our most sinful ones.
I am deeply concerned, because many evangelical spokesmen today seem to hate the truth of total depravity. They often bend over backward to avoid it. You’ll sometimes hear preachers simply echoing evil in their lives, they still will usually steadfastly deny that they are so thoroughly evil as to be unable to redeem themselves (or at least contribute something of merit to their redemption). Even the most grotesque sinners often blithely imagine that God will never actually judge them or hold them eternally accountable for their sins. They’ll often insist they really aren’t so bad after all.
Conversely, the godliest people are invariably those who are most aware of their own depravity. The most humble and spiritually minded saints are actually more conscious of the sin in their hearts and lives— and more ready to confess it—than some of the most wicked evildoers the world has ever seen. John Bunyan, for example, author of the classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, said in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, “The best prayer I ever prayed had enough sin in it to damn the whole world.” The prophet Isaiah, using unusually strong language in Hebrew, wrote, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Isaiah was describing a kind of defilement so vile it’s not normally mentioned in polite society—an uncleanness so thoroughly defiling and so permanently staining that garments contaminated in such a way needed to be destroyed rather than being laundered worldly notions about self-esteem and positive thinking, as if those were biblical and spiritual ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. The view that people are fundamentally good actually betrays a hatred of the God of Scripture—because such a message deceives sinners about their sinfulness, and it hides the true God behind a benign, domesticated god of some worldly psychologist’s making.
In fact, depravity is often most minimized in the very contexts when it should be proclaimed with the utmost clarity. Remember, the notion that man has enough goodness in him to contribute in some way to his salvation is one of the foundational errors of all false religion. Of all the errors that need to be most clearly refuted today, at the head of the list is the popular notion that the sinners’ real problem is low self- esteem—so his perspective of himself simply needs to be pumped up. In major segments of evangelicalism, that idea has been adopted, baptized, and blessed with spiritual-sounding benedictions. It has even become the basis of manipulative church-growth strategies.
This is no minor problem. Those who reject, despise, minimize, or ignore the doctrine of depravity have done as much to impede the advance of the Gospel as open enemies of the Cross. (That is not to say they’re all not Christians, but it is to say they’re profoundly confused at best.) To grasp the truth of human depravity is to begin understanding all the other doctrinal components of salvation. One you grasp the significance of human depravity, all the other major principles of grace and redemption soon become obvious. Most of all, if you see the reality of depravity, you must then see that true Gospel ministry transcends all forms of manipulation and is purely a divine work. The doctrine of human depravity therefore honors God completely like no other truth, because it leaves absolutely no honor for man in regard to salvation.
The Biblical Truth Regarding Human Depravity
When the Bible speaks about the condition of the sinner, what does it say?
The terminology is stark. The Bible often employs the language of death; sometimes darkness, blindness, hardness, slavery, incurable sickness, and alienation. The Holy Scriptures are clear that depravity is a condition that affects the entire body, mind, emotions, desires, motives, will, and behavior. It is a condition of total, helpless bondage. No sinner unaided by God can ever overcome it.
Despite that obvious truth, pragmatism dominates the professing church. Theology has been replaced by or subverted by methodology. Throughout history, denominations have been established and defined in terms of doctrine, but today the stress is on style and technique. Much of current evangelical strategy merely aims only to identify what people most desire, and then tells them Jesus will give it to them if they would but choose Him. God is portrayed as sitting in heaven, wringing His hands and loving everyone intensely, yet frustrated when people won’t come to Him for the things they desire. Few seem to consider that what the unconverted sinner actually desires is the last thing God wants to give him—and what the gospel actually says about fallen humanity is the last thing sinners want to hear.
Some very familiar texts deal with this. Let’s start with Ephesians 2: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (vv. 1-3). The prepositional phrase “by nature” in verse 3 can also be translated “by birth.”
We have inherited a corrupt nature from Adam. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is clear that “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (5:12). First Corinthians 15 is rightly called the Resurrection Chapter, and here is a clue why: “Since by a man came death, by a man came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (vv. 21-22). We have all literally inherited death; and death epitomizes the corruption Adam’s sin passed to his progeny. We are sinners by nature from birth. That explains why you don’t have to teach children to disobey; that comes naturally to all of us.
The human condition is a profound state of depravity, driven by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16).
If anything is to change us, it must be the grace of God. That is why Ephesians 2:4-5 is such good news: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” This is a divine miracle in which God makes the dead alive!
Ephesians 4:18 describes unbelievers as “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” It is a condition from which the sinner cannot recover on his own. Colossians 2:13 declares, “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive.” God commands, and life comes. This is analogous to the resurrection of Lazarus, who was dead for four days before the Lord called him to walk out of his tomb. There was no residual spark of life in Lazarus that contributed to his resurrection. Without the living Christ, he was as helpless as any other corpse. We are a race of Lazaruses, dependent upon the grace of God for new life.
This is foundational truth. It’s also a truth that permeates Scripture— including some familiar texts you may never have associated with the doctrine of depravity. John 1:12-13 declares, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of … the will of man, but of God.” No one is born a child of God, but must become one. That is precisely what Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus picks up on Jesus’ word picture and asks, “How can a man be born again when he is old?” He understands that man has no capability to bring birth to himself, but the truth that he was fallen and in need of a new birth was as hard for Nicodemus as it is for you and me. (In fact, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the doctrine of depravity was especially odious to Pharisees, because they had more personally invested in trying to earn divine favor through good works than anyone.) So Jesus responded, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit”— a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27 about spiritual cleansing and regeneration—“he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” so the flesh cannot produce spiritual life. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Nicodemus, however, was both amazed and confused, saying, “How can these things be?”
Now, notice what Jesus doesn’t say: He doesn’t say, “Here are four steps,” or , “Pray this prayer after me.” But what He does say in verse 8 is absolutely shocking to anyone whose confidence might be in human free will: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” What kind of answer is that? Our Lord is saying, “Spiritual birth is not up to you; it’s up to the Holy Spirit, and you have no control over where or when the Spirit moves.”
Salvation is a divine work. It has to be, since flesh just produces flesh. Dead people can’t give themselves life. The Spirit gives life to whom
He will. You can see when it happens, but you can’t make it happen. Jesus, in John 5:21 declares, “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in agreement that this is a work of divine power. Perhaps nowhere does Jesus make that clearer than in John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” The Good News from our Lord’s own lips is that “if the Son makes you free [from sin], you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
In none of those texts, by the way, did Jesus ever defend the sinner’s ability. Yes, the sinner has a kind of free will—in the sense that we aren’t compelled to choose by any external force or compulsion. But as Luther clarified in Bondage of the Will, the sinner will always choose according to his own strongest desires. In other words, his choices don’t determine the state his heart; but the state of his heart determines how he will choose. What is the fallen human heart like? Jesus said, “From within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:21-23). Here is an Old Testament summary of the same truth: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). The King James Version gives an even more forceful rendition: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Is there anything we can do to heal ourselves? “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).
One’s skin color or an animal’s pelt design are morally neutral, but the human heart is not. None are changeable apart from divine intervention.
Along with the heart, the human mind is corrupt every way possible. It also is unwilling and unable “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). Perhaps that’s the most definitive text of all regarding the sinner’s absolute inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the true God on his own. The sinner is unable also to acknowledge the Gospel on his own: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The truth is, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Sadly, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
What can remedy that? The Apostle Paul answers that question in the next verse: “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (v. 5). What happens when we’re faithful to do that? “God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness’ on the first day of Creation, will shine a light in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v. 6). Again, it’s a divine miracle. The heart and the mind are affected and infected by depravity, but God is willing to bring healing through the Gospel.
Human beings are naturally religious, but not in the good sense of the word. In Romans 1:23, the apostle Paul explains the same phenomenon we discussed earlier—how we tend to blaspheme by substituting the true God with a false one of our own invention (or we blindly go along with someone else’s false god). None of us is excluded. The bottom line is this: “There is none righteous, not even one, there is none who understands … none who seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11, citing Psalm 14:1-3). Both the Old and New Testaments make it crystal clear that we have no potential, no capability, no hope on our own. The sum is that man is evil and selfish, unwilling and unable because he is dead. He loves his sin and attempts to soothe his conscience by meeting the low standards of his invented god. Because man is made in the image of God, he may occasionally recognize sin for what it is, but only in its grosser forms. Meanwhile, he will miss a world of damning subtlety.
We have been referring to this doctrine as “Total Depravity.” That expression can be somewhat confusing, because it might seem to suggest that every sinner is as thoroughly vicious or twisted as it is possible to be. Yet clearly, that is not the case. Not all sinners are rapists or serial killers. Some manage to seem pretty good by comparison. Some are philanthropists and some are great artists. We were made in the image of God, and that image is still indelibly
stamped on us—damaged but not utterly eradicated. We all have
talents and abilities and human affections that can look very good and make us seem admirable. Furthermore, the principle of common grace restrains the full expression of human depravity. So the world itself, for the most part, is in some state of order, not complete anarchy. Obviously, then, we’re not as bad as we could be when it comes to the manifestation of our fallenness.
Many people therefore insist that there must be some residual good left untainted in the sinner that can help bring about his or her salvation. Surely there is some divine spark in us that can redeem us. If we would simply refuse to think of ourselves as bad, there’s no limit to the good we might do. That’s the theme of countless self-help books and metaphysical seminars. It’s the religion of Oprah and Norman Vincent Peale. That same kind of thinking is also all too prevalent in the contemporary church.
But Scripture is clear about the extent of our depravity: “The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it” (Isaiah 1:5-6). The word total in the expression “total depravity” refers to the fact that sin has so thoroughly infected us that no part of our being—neither mind, affections, nor will—is free from the taint of sin. We’re totally dead spiritually. Like an array of corpses ranging from freshly dead to thoroughly decomposed, some may be in a more advanced state of putrefaction than others, but all are equally dead. Our inability is total, too—because there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our salvation. If we are to be awakened from that death and redeemed
from our sin, God must do it, and God alone.
The Bible plainly and repeatedly teaches that the sinner is both unable and unwilling to make the first move, because he is a hardened rebel lacking any spiritual life or any godly desires. At best, he will make a false move toward God based upon his own fallen desires and motivated by some self-aggrandizing incentive. When Christians try to tell people God wants to give them whatever they want if only they will come to Him, they are actually hiding the truth about God’s glorious, sovereign nature and compounding the sinner’s own self- deception. Regeneration is not synergistic (a two-way cooperative effort) but monergistic (a one-way act of God). If it were not a work of God alone, we would be doomed, because the Fall has rendered us totally unable to cooperate with Him or contribute anything of saving value to the work God does for us.
In regeneration we neither resist nor cooperate. We are acted upon. We are changed by the Holy Spirit, not apart from our will but through our will by His illuminating our minds so we understand and believe the Gospel. We believe not because we had more sense than the people who refuse the Gospel but because God graciously made the first move and opened our hearts to heed His Word and believe it (cf. Acts 16:14). There’s nothing for us to be subtly proud of, but only profoundly grateful for.
I wonder how this text would go down at the next revival or evangelist training meeting: “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
That is the historic doctrine that has been affirmed through the centuries. Titus 3:3-7 explains that we all start life foolish, “disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Amen! What can we do in response but praise Him for His grace and live for His glory?
The Implications Behind the Doctrine of Depravity
Flat denial of total depravity has been a staple of America’s religious culture for well over a century. It is at the heart of both modernism and theological liberalism, which de-emphasized theology and exalted philanthropic deeds. Churches that went that way wanted the fruit, but severed the root—so they withered and died. Witness the condition of mainline denominations that embraced modernist thinking. All of them are spiritual wastelands today.
The Emergent movement is currently positioning itself to repeat the same mistake. Its foundation is neo-liberalism, so its leaders say things like, “We don’t know what the Bible means—nobody does, so let’s just be like Jesus in the world and help the poor and disenfranchised.” They are not preaching the same Gospel He preached, but they are shrewd enough not to jettison the “evangelical” label because they want access to the churches old-line liberalism has not already utterly dissipated. The term evangelical is quickly becoming meaningless, so instead of depending on it or any other label, remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit…. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:17-20).
The gurus of the Church Growth Movement who canonized pragmatic methodologies for attracting unchurched people were the middle modernists, between the old and the new, bearing the same bad fruit: a plethora of church programs and preaching styles designed to ape the world and feed sensual appetites. All of these movements have de- emphasized theology, but there’s still an incipient Arminianism underlying all of them—inherent in the belief that somehow sinners will respond better if our methods change. We have to be careful of that. Because people think salvation is a result of sinners’ own free- will decisions for Christ, they tell sinners what they want to hear to try to get them to like Him—and that in turn has obscured the gospel rather than unleashing it to do the true work of salvation.
We must recognize that the fallen sinner hates the true God and fatally loves himself. Of course he wants a god who will give him what he wants! The Gospel, however, assaults the sinner’s self-worship, self- assurance, self-esteem, and smugness, shattering his confidence in his religion and his spirituality. It crushes him under the full weight of God’s Law with a verdict of guilty. The only way he can be set free is if he comes to loathe himself and all his ambitions, repent of his sins, and love the one true God, whom Holy Scripture reveals to be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That is the message under which God awakens the sinner and leads him to repentance and faith. Never appeal to that which enslaves the sinner—materialism, sex, pleasure, personal ambition, a better life, success, or whatever—in an effort to convince the sinner of his need to be rescued from the very enslavement you’re appealing to! Instead, call the sinner to flee from all that is natural, all that so powerfully enslaves him, and urge him to come to the Cross to be saved from eternal judgment.
What about 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some”? Verse 19 makes clear what he meant: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.” It
Soft preaching makes hard people. You preach a soft Gospel and you’ll have hard, selfish people. You preach hard truth and it will break hard hearts, like when the Apostle Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost to the very people who crucified Christ and “they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). If you want to see people respond like that, never change the essential Gospel message from group to group. Shifting contexts do not identify reality. Reality is not on the outside; it’s on the inside, and all hearts are the same: desperately in need of salvation from sin.
Paul’s Gospel message never changed from Jew to Gentile. The starting point was often different—for with Jewish people he could start with the common ground of the Old Testament but with the Gentiles he started with God as Creator. But the Gospel message itself always remained the same. Paul went from country to country, people group to people group, preaching the same message. That was an era without mass media or globalization: not only were cultures highly defined and restricted, but different societies were also unique at the local, city, town, and even village level. Paul, however, was not paralyzed by any of that; he had no preoccupation with “contextualization.”
wasn’t that he changed the Gospel message, but that he made any necessary personal sacrifices to preach the Gospel to as many people as he could. God help us to be as faithful in our outreach to the lost.
I’ve seen enough different cultures and preached the gospel in enough contexts and through enough interpreters to know that it is sheer folly to try to change the content of the gospel to suit each one. The gospel isn’t our message to adapt. We are ambassadors, tasked with delivering a very simple message accurately. There’s nothing more important than getting that message right. It doesn’t matter how “cool” you are; what really matters is how clear you are in proclaiming God’s truth. Wherever I have gone in the world, I have endeavored to preach the same Gospel according to Jesus, and God has been faithful to save souls.
Those of us who preach can take no credit for what we do—except for what we mess up! We’re the only ones in the world responsible for all the failures and none of the successes. Our attitude, therefore, is “all humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2). We’re never to parade ourselves as if we’ve accomplished some great thing if God, in His mercy, saves sinners under our preaching. We carry the treasure of the Gospel in our lowly selves, likened in Scripture to “earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Remember that the goal of the Christian, well summarized in 1 Corinthians 10:31, is whether “you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”