September 03, 2019

Total Depravity

Barry Cooper
Total Depravity

Sin is not a virus lurking outside of us, but a poison that defiles our hearts from within. Today, Barry Cooper helps us to delve into the depths of our sin.


Back in the 1930s, the poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot wrote a play called The Family Reunion. In it, he tried to describe the depth and extent of human sin. 

Sin is portrayed as an old house afflicted by an all-permeating stench that no one can seem to get rid of. Sin is an inconsolable sobbing in the chimney, bumps in the cellar, a rattling of the windows, evil in a dark closet. It is a private, discomfiting puzzle, deeper than cancer. 

As Eliot knew, this tireless “evil from within” affects every part of our human nature. We’re in a state that the Scottish pastor Thomas Boston described as “entire depravity.” The eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards says the same thing when he writes, “All mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin.” What they’re describing is what theologians have called total depravity

Now, that’s not to say that every part of our nature is as bad as it could possibly be. No; thankfully, by God’s grace, that’s not the case. What the term total depravity describes is the fact that no part of our nature escapes the defilement of sin.

And the reason for that is because sin isn’t some kind of virus that lurks outside us; it’s not a contamination we can somehow isolate or avoid by doing certain things or not doing certain other things—which is the view of every religion apart from Christianity. Sin is already, as T.S. Eliot knew, “inside the gates”; it’s inside each one of us. 

That’s what Jesus says in Mark chapter 7: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile 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 [says Jesus] and they [are what] defile a person.”

And this defilement of the heart taints everything. Like the poisoned source of a river, every drop of water that flows from it, every stream and rivulet, is inevitably poisoned too. 

As a result, even our so-called virtues are really vices. Isaiah chapter 64 verse 6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.“ To give one brief example, think of when we take to social media to protest at some injustice. On the surface, it seems virtuous, but isn’t there also something darker at work underneath? It’s been observed that the victims we show most interest in are the ones who allow us to attack the people we most dislike. So is it really a pure and untainted concern for the victim? Or is it actually a delicious way of putting down those we disagree with while self-righteously promoting ourselves? As one writer has put it, “Our virtues are often no more than vices in disguise.”

Our depravity extends more widely than we imagine. Theologian Herman Bavinck writes, “It holds sway . . . over mind and will, heart and conscience, soul and body, over all one’s capacities and powers.” 

And there’s nothing we can do about it.

Perhaps the supreme indication of the deadly seriousness of our depravity is the deadly seriousness of God’s solution. The way that He uses death to defeat death, and not just any death, but the agonizing death of His only beloved Son, the eternal Christ of God, nailed to a Roman cross. If that is the cure for sin, then sin must be is unimaginably serious. 

Of course, we don’t think we’re that bad. Maybe the voice in your heart is saying exactly that, even now. But those nagging protestations of our own innocence—or at least our relative innocence—is perhaps the most damning proof of the heart’s depravity. 

And the fact that God doesn’t leave us to that delusion, the greatest proof of His love.