Cheer up. You’re a lot worse off than you think you are, but in Jesus you are far more loved than you could have ever imagined. Jack Miller
There’s a “Good News Bible,” but I have yet to see a “Bad News Bible.” And that’s only right, since the Scriptures’ primary message is the gospel, which means, “good news.” But for the gospel to be for you truly good news, you must first believe the Bible’s bad news. And that is, you are a sinner by birth, and your sin has rendered you both guilty before God and helpless to do anything about it.
“Total depravity” is the doctrine that describes the extent and nature of our sin. It’s not a pretty picture. But once understood, it actually leads to praise and thanksgiving because it paints the dreary backdrop against which the power and grace of God in his saving work shines all the more brilliantly. Like all the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “doctrines of grace,” total depravity highlights the truth that salvation in Christ is all of God, and all of grace.
It’s crucial to understand what total depravity doesn’t teach. The word “total” may mislead, because it implies that by nature you and I, and all people, are as bad as we possibly could be (until redeemed). But thankfully, that’s not the case! If it were so, life on earth would be a little hell (as it really becomes when wickedness runs rampant). But because God keeps sin in check, at least in a relative sense even sinners love others, and do good to others (Luke 6:32, 33).
But total depravity teaches there is nothing truly good or righteous in us before a infinitely holy God. Perhaps the best explanation of total depravity is from The First Catechism:
Q. 38. How sinful are you by nature.
A. I am corrupt in every part of my being.
Sin corrupts “every part of my being”: my thoughts, will, emotions, affections, desires, and so on. A better term for total depravity, one that points to this pervasive presence of sin in us, is “radical corruption.” So while sin doesn’t reach its full potential of evil in any one person (at least in this life), it radically corrupts everything in a person. There is nothing in us pure and holy; every part of us falls short of the righteousness of God.
If you poison a spring at its source, all the water flowing from it is tainted with that poison. In the same way, sin is in the heart of man, and from there it corrupts our thoughts, words, and deeds. In some of the grimmest, most sobering words he ever spoke, Jesus described our sin nature this way:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:20-23)
You won’t see that passage on an inspirational Christian poster!
However, Jesus spoke nothing but the truth – the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we examine our own hearts with any honesty, we can only affirm this very ugly truth. Can you sincerely say there is anything perfectly pure and holy within you? Even the best in us is tinted with the blackness of sin – my good deeds are mixed with pride, my love of others with self-interest, my worship of God with unbelief.
If you’re not too dismayed to be still reading by this point, I hate to say it, but the bad news gets even worse. Our sin renders us completely helpless to do anything whatsoever that is good and righteous in God’s eyes. We are not just enfeebled or made sick because of sin, but we are spiritually dead because of it. Ephesians 2:1 says that by nature, we are “dead” in “trespasses and sins.” Apart from the grace of God, you are no more capable of doing righteousness than a lifeless corpse is capable of running a marathon.
And what may be the greatest indictment of all, in our sin we don’t even desire or love righteousness. Jesus declared that though he came into the world as light, “people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
So this is the Bible’s bad news: there is no righteousness in us, we can’t think, do, or say anything pure or holy in God’s sight, and our hearts love darkness rather than light. That is total depravity, and it describes every single human being: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God…no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10, 11).
But in fact, there is one who was righteous, and who did good. The Bible says that Jesus was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). When the Son of God became man, he maintained his divine purity and holiness throughout his earthly life: never an unclean thought, never a flash of sinful anger, never a desire for vengeance, never any thought, word, or action that was anything less than perfect love for God and for his fellow man. Total righteousness; radical holiness.
And here’s where the Bible goes from bad news to good! When you belong to Christ by faith, God forgives your sin and imputes to you this perfect righteousness of Christ. Though sin still indwells in you as a believer, God now sees you as you are in Christ: as though you have lived a life of flawless obedience.
And the sheer corruption of our nature as sinners serves to magnify the love of God. For Jesus did not lay down his life for the righteous, or even for the pretty-decent, but for totally depraved wretches: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Do you believe in Christ as your Savior? If so, total depravity teaches that even your faith is a gift of God’s grace. You would not and could not believe in Christ apart from God’s work in your heart. You are not loved by God because you put your faith in Jesus for salvation, but you put your faith in Jesus because you were loved by God.