The Doctrines of Grace: Total Depravity: The T in Total

What is the “total” in “total depravity”? When we speak of total depravity, we do not mean that every person is as quantitatively bad as they could possibly be. We do not mean that every person has committed every possible sin or that every person does all the heinousness of a Stalin or Hitler. We consider it to be God’s common grace and providence that in his creation God often restrains evil. He often allows unbelieving sinners to do projects and works of social good. A Boy Scout can be both an unbeliever who is totally depraved and a person who helps the old lady cross the street.

Instead, total depravity speaks of the pervasiveness of sin. Just as a single drop of poison pollutes the entire glass of water, so sin’s corruption touches every aspect of my being. There is not a single corner of who I am that has any ounce of untainted goodness in me. The unbelieving Boy Scout who helps the old lady cross the street still has a sinful heart and still conducts such acts of “kindness” in rebellion against God and not as genuine acts of submissive worship. None of us may commit the same number of atrocities as Stalin or Hitler, but our inward corruption and the sinfulness of our heart is corrupted by the same quality of evil.

When we think of total depravity there is not some corner of my mind, heart, soul or will that is somehow free or preserved from the presence of sin. There is not some part of me that will suddenly act out of shear-undefiled goodness. In the same, way because every corner of my heart is touched by sin, I will not respond to Jesus to believe in Him and love Him apart from God’s working in my heart. Total depravity means the corruption of every facet of my being.

Romans 8:7-8 speaks of this pervasiveness of sin and the effects that it has on every individual. 

Rom. 8:6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Rom. 8:7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

Rom. 8:8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

In this passage, Paul is contrasting the believer with the unbeliever. The believer has the Holy Spirit in them. The unbeliever is still “of the flesh.” Here in Paul “flesh” is not talking about our bodies such as they are “flesh and blood,” rather he is talking about the corruption of the individual. The individual belongs to ‘this present evil age,’ they are under the enslaving power of sin. “Flesh” is antithetical to “Spirit” which refers to the Holy Spirit who has been baptized into Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-5) and set free from the enslavement to sin and ‘the flesh’ (Rom. 6:6,7; 8:2).

Notice several things:

  1. The person who is an unbeliever has their mind set in the flesh and it hostile to God. Think of how something is “set” in concrete. It does not move it does not change. The unbeliever is set in his or her hostility to God. They do not seek God, love anything righteous, or do anything good before God (Rom. 3:10-12).
  2. Not only does this person not submit to God—they are completely unable to submit to God. If I put poison in a water filter, all the water that runs through it is unable to be clean. In the same way, our hearts are hostile to and we are unable to do anything good before God. Every aspect of who we are has this corruption.
  3. Finally, the person who is dead in sin, “in the flesh,” cannot please God. There is no potential to do good or do anything that God might find favorable in His sight. This includes the act of faith and belief without which it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). We can do nothing to please God at all. We do not have the capacity because we are sinful. The sinner has no capacity to draw near to the saving God or even desire the mercy that God offers in Jesus Christ.

Total depravity means there is no capacity anywhere in us to do that which we should do in response to God.

Just like a person wearing tinted glasses cannot see true colors, so a sinner corrupted by sin cannot see the wickedness they are in. There is not some corner of my heart which has some ounce of clear thinking that allowed me to see my sin and thus believe in God. Faith is not something that unbeliever can offer—they are entirely unable. The unbeliever entirely unable to have a moment of freedom to act untainted by sin. This is one of the reasons faith is a gift—the Lord Jesus must regenerate the inward man so that we can see the gospel in truth and believe. My sin darkens my heart but in the gospel, the Lord shines the glory of God into my heart which will enliven me to respond (2 Cor. 4:4,6).

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet