Total Depravity & Shepherding
Let us consider then how the doctrines of grace are good and necessary for the shepherding of souls in the churches of Jesus Christ. And let us begin with the doctrine of total depravity.
The expression total depravity summarizes scripture’s teaching on the spiritual condition of Adam and all his offspring after the fall into sin. In Adam’s fall we sinned all and none were lightly wounded.
By our revolt against God, we forfeited the excellent gifts which once belonged to creatures bearing the divine image. By one man’s disobedience, the race of man immediately incurred, as stated in the Canons of Dort (COD, III/IV.1), “blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.”
Not by imitation did we come to possess this corruption, as Pelagians everywhere would have us believe, but by propagation, the propagation of a vicious nature: “A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring” (COD, III/IV.2).
Total depravity does not mean we are as sinful as we could be. It means, rather, that our nature is thoroughly defiled by sin. We are soaked through with it. God says so. He says it of man before the flood in Genesis 6:5 and he says it of man after the flood in Genesis 8:21: “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. … the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth.”
How then does this weighty doctrine become a help in the care of souls? Total depravity brilliantly helps manage expectations.
Consider first the expectations of Christian parents. We so easily expect children to be reformed by rules that we soon become hardened when they are not. But a wise man once said the doctrine of total depravity should stir deep compassion in parents, for after all the first thing we gave our children was their sin nature. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).
This does not mean a child is less guilty than a parent, but it does mean Christian parents must be, in their imitation of God, slow to anger. As Dort said: “without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation” (COD, III/IV.3). Our children need more than mere instruction. Praying for the Spirit and for slowness to anger is proof grownups know it. “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding” (Prov. 14:29).
Consider now the expectations of Christian citizens. How easily we become agitated and irate and inhospitable and downright hateful toward neighbors when they do not hold to the teachings of Christ. When expectations are shattered that our neighbors are not becoming better, we often become worse. These are lusty times. Many Christians today want the very ministry Paul rejected: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? (1 Cor. 5:12). We are ready to hang-up Law-Gospel for Law-Law.
The doctrine of total depravity has something strong to say here, chastening proud Christians and driving humble ones further into prayer. COD III/IV.5, explains why there are devoted Christians in some nations/families/communities and not in others. It says, “The cause of this dispensation is not to be ascribed to the superior worth of one nation above another, nor to their making a better use of the light of nature, but results wholly from the sovereign good pleasure and unmerited love of God. Hence they, to whom so great and so gracious a blessing is communicated above their desert, or rather notwithstanding their demerits, are bound to acknowledge it with humble and grateful hearts….”
We did not start at a less depraved place before God than others, that is not what explains us nor them. Only a humble and grateful heart will confirm we have a good theology of God’s love toward the depraved.
Finally, consider the expectations of reckless Christians. Some Christians – I hope far fewer than I suppose – use the doctrine of total depravity to keep their expectations very low for a life of personal holiness. “I just can’t stop sleeping with my girlfriend.” “I just can’t stop getting drunk.” “I just can’t get to church.” These take what is true of the unregenerate and claim it to be true of the Christian. But scripture says: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
No doubt, the Christian will struggle with sin his whole life. But the Christian struggles in Christ. Before regenerating grace appeared we did not struggle in Christ. Now we do because now, in union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we are not totally depraved. Sin remains present but its dominion is broken. As COD III/IV.11 so aptly says: the “regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
The doctrine of total depravity is a balm to our warped expectations. Apply liberally.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.