Sep 19, 2022

What Is Total Depravity?

3 Min Read

The fundamental problem of the human race lies not outside of man, but inside of man. In a word, this problem is sin. What is sin? Sin is any lack of conformity to the holiness of God. Sin is any transgression of the law of God. Sin is falling short of the glory of God. Sin is going astray from the will of God. This is man’s greatest problem.

To grasp the magnitude of what is wrong with everyone and everything in our world, we must understand the magnitude of sin. This necessitates that we are well-taught in three major doctrines: the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of total depravity, and the doctrine of universal guilt. These three interrelated doctrines are addressed in the book of Romans.

The doctrine of original sin refers to the result of the first sin of Adam: spreading sin to the entire human race and death to all humanity. Referring to Adam, we read in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man . . . ”. Adam was the channel, the passageway, by which sin entered into the world.

Not only was Adam’s sin imputed to all his descendants, but the sin nature of Adam is transmitted to us in the moment of conception. Since the fall, it has been passed down from parent to child, and we have all inherited that sin nature. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean that all humankind is as evil as it possibly could be. Rather, it means that sin affects the whole person. We are born corrupted, poisoned, and polluted by sin. Our minds are darkened and we cannot see or understand the truth. Our hearts are defiled so that they do not love the truth. We love what we should hate, and we hate what we should love. Our wills are in bondage to sin, and we cannot believe the gospel in and of themselves. We sin because we are sinners and because we have a sin nature.

The fundamental problem of the human race lies not outside of man, but inside of man.

The doctrine of universal guilt is displayed in Romans 3:23. The Apostle Paul says, “For all have sinned.” This means that apart from Jesus, every person, in every place, in every generation has sinned. Further, Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” This death sentence hangs over the entire human race. The entire human race is perishing. The entire human race is on the broad path headed for destruction. The entire human race is rightly and justly the object of God’s holy wrath, subject to the unleashing of the fury of His vengeance in the final judgment. This is the devastating state of the human race and the condition of the fallen world in which we live.

And so, the question is, is there any hope? Yes. The Scriptures foretold that One would come who would be the second Adam. This second Adam came into this world, was born of a virgin, born under the law. And where the first Adam disobeyed by eating of the forbidden fruit, the second Adam obeyed God at every point. He was tempted in all points as we are, yet He did not sin. In His sinless life and His substitutionary death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied the vengeance of God toward those for whom He died, His people. In His death, He bought us with His blood. Further, with that death He set us free from our tyranny to sin, and He reconciled to the Father all those for whom He died. He has established peace between God and those for whom He died, and He shed His blood to wash away all of their sins and to reverse the curse.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And there upon the cross, Jesus Christ, in giving His life unto the death, shedding His blood to make the only atonement for our sins, has purged the guilt of sin from us, and He has clothed us with His perfect righteousness. We now are presented before the throne of grace, and we receive full and perfect acceptance with God.

If we take away the doctrine of total depravity in all of its fullness, we diminish the glory of the cross. But when we see the darkness of sin and the depravity of the human soul, we can hear the gospel of Jesus Christ: that He came into this world to save sinners. And we rejoice that God would have grace and mercy on hell-bound sinners like us and praise Him for His grace.

This article is part of the What Is TULIP? collection and has been adapted from Dr. Lawson’s message at the Ligonier 2022 National Conference: Upholding Christian Ethics.