Total Depravity – Part 3

So . . . What’s the Purpose of this doctrine of Total Depravity?

The heart, the essence, of total depravity is that it results in our complete dependence on God for redemption. We have sinned, and there is nothing we ourselves can do to un-sin, to restore ourselves with God. God has said:

Romans 3:23 (NLT)
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.

Romans 6:23 (NLT)
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Certainly, some of us sin much more than others, or much less, but to God, the amount of sin is not the problem, it is that we sin, and this requires a remedy.

John 3:16 (NLT)
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Our inclination is always that we somehow want to fix this problem of sin by ourselves. We want to do good deeds to counteract our sin. We want to show God that we are worthy of forgiveness because we do good, because we have good hearts. But God has said that there is nothing we can do to offset our sin or to earn forgiveness.

The good news (Gospel) is that God has actually taken care of this for us! God sent his son who lived without sinning and was rejected, persecuted and murdered. Yet because He was righteous, his death on our behalf has enabled God to see past our sin and grant us a free gift of forgiveness. In fact, from God’s perspective, he will see us as if we had never sinned when we accept the forgiveness He has made available to us.

How do we get this forgiveness?

Ephesians 2:8–9 (NLT)
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

You see, if we could earn forgiveness by doing good, then we would be able to brag about how awesome we are! God has said “Nope.” We get this forgiveness by accepting a freely given gift of Grace. Grace means receiving something you do not deserve. If you deserve it, then it isn’t Grace, it’s justice. God has chosen to extend Grace to us.

What do we do to get this Grace? We believe. Believe what? That Jesus is God’s son, who became a man and lived a life without sin so that his unjust death could pay the penalty for our sin. The price of our sin has been paid. We only have to accept it by believing.

It seems too simple.

How can God just forgive us without our deserving it, without our earning it? That’s actually the hard part. The concept of Total Depravity is that we can not fix ourselves. God must do it. For God to intervene on our behalf, we have to believe. If we choose to not believe, we reject God’s Grace, and we stand before Him as a sinner.

Do we sin because we are sinners or are we sinners because we sin?

When i said that we sin because it is our nature, because we have been damaged by Adam’s sin (the concept of Original Sin), my cousin Mike asked:

What is the meaning of “by nature” ? Does it determine or cause my inability to love God or is it the source of my depravity?

Theologians often treat this question as an important thing to argue about. That’s mostly what theologians do, argue with each other (though to be honest, their arguments are usually based on intensive study and the desire to resolve questions and clarify things).

Here is John’s opinion:

This is a chicken and egg question.

We sin because we are sinners. We are sinners because we sin.

We have been taught in our western culture that things can be only one thing or another. The reality (and the way that eastern culture looks at things) is that sometimes, something can be both.

For instance: Science teaches us that Light can be both a wave and a particle, but the problem is that those two things are mutually exclusive, and yet experiments have shown that Light is both. Both are true.

The same is true with sin and being a sinner. Why do i say that? Adam’s sin resulted in the nature of mankind becoming damaged. We have an inclination, a propensity, to sin. We have inherited a damaged nature. We are sinners by nature. However, each sin we commit, is a choice. We choose to lie. We choose to cheat. We choose to steal. We choose to hate.

We are sinners by nature, and we are sinners by deed. The solution to both of these problems is the Grace i spoke about above. Believing does not remove our inclination to sin, but it gives us forgiveness and it restores our position in God’s eyes to be someone without sin because Jesus’ death has granted us forgiveness of our sin.

St. Paul says it like this:

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

That is the Gospel, and that is why the doctrine of Total Depravity is important.

Please leave a comment with any questions, disagreements, agreements, or things you would like me to explain better.

Here are the links to the first 2 posts about Total Depravity:

Total Depravity – Part 1

Total Depravity – Part 2

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Total Depravity – Part 2

In the first post about Total Depravity (Total Depravity – Part 1) i gave this definition:

The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and to reject the rule of God.

I want to try to cover 2 things in this post: 1) give scripture which forms the basis for the idea of Total Depravity and 2) explain a bit about the misnomer of Total Depravity and what it doesn’t mean. In the coming Part 3, i want to look at this question from my cousin Mike about the definition above of Total Depravity:

What is the meaning of “by nature”? Does it determine or cause my inability to love God or is it the source of my depravity?

If any of you also have questions, please reply in the comments area and i can address them in coming posts.

Scripture

The best passage about the idea of Original Sin (resulting in the concept of Total Depravity) and the gift of forgiveness by Grace through Jesus is found in Romans chapter 5.

Romans 5:12, 15-19 (NLT)

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. 

But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

It is clear that something significant happened when Adam sinned, and that there was an ongoing result because of that sin which has been passed down to all of mankind. Man started out made in the Image of God (what theologians call imago dei) and was perfect. (As an aside, the difference between man and every other creature alive is that only man was created in the Image of God.) When Adam sinned, the perfection was lost, but NOT the imago dei.  We are still made in God’s image, which is the basis for the entire concept of the sacredness of life.  This idea of man being made in God’s image is recognized by Judaism, Christianity and Sufi Islam. This brings us to our next point.

What Does Total Depravity NOT Mean?

The word Total Depravity seems to say that man is completely and totally depraved. Evil. Monsters. That is why i want to explain what and why Total Depravity does not mean this. The adjective ‘total’ is not referring to the amount of depravity, but rather to its completeness.  Am i stating a distinction without a difference? No. I have a quote from a theology book by Edgar Mullins:

The phrase “total depravity” has been employed in theology to describe the sinful state of men. But it needs careful defining lest it lead astray. In brief, it means that all the parts of our nature have been affected by sin. It does not mean that men are as bad as they can be, nor that all men are equally bad. It does not mean that human nature is destitute of all good impulses in the moral sense. It means rather that human nature, as such, and in all its parts in its unregenerate state, is under the dominion of sin.

When Dallas Willard was asked if he believed in Total Depravity, he said (i am paraphrasing from memory) that he preferred the term Sufficient Depravity.  He said this means that man has been sufficiently damaged by sin that he is incapable and unable to redeem himself, and instead must rely on God’s free gift of Grace for forgiveness.  This echoes:

Romans 3:23 (NLT)
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.

Because of sin, we find ourselves unable to gain God’s approval and forgiveness on the basis of what we ourselves do, but instead it must be on the basis of what Jesus has done on our behalf.  God’s standard is perfection, not, as many believe, that our good must outweigh our bad. We all come short of meeting God’s standard, so that is why he sent his son Jesus to live as a man without sin and then die on our behalf so that our sins can be forgiven. The theological concept is that the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us when we become believers and followers of him. When God looks at one of his children (those who have chosen to follow Jesus and accept his sacrifice on our behalf for the forgiveness of our sin), instead of seeing our sin, he sees Jesus’ righteousness. It’s a pretty awesome thing and one that has the power to free us from the oppression of guilt.

Here are links to the other 2 posts in the Total Depravity series:

Total Depravity – Part 1

Total Depravity – Part 3

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Total Depravity – Part 1

I’ve decided to make this a multi-part post for several reasons: it is easier for me to write this in chunks and it will be easier (shorter) to read the post in sections, but most importantly, any discussion that comes from the ideas in these posts can be easily aimed to the relevant post instead of being jumbled together in one very large post.

I am not a theologian, nor do i play one on television. In fact, one of the ways that God has gifted me is the ability to take complex ideas (theology, audio, computer, tech stuff, etc) and present them in a way layman can grok* them (*a science fiction term coined by Robert Heinlein to signify a complete understanding of a concept).  I approach these complex ideas and concepts as a layman, but as a layman who has studied the literature and has a fairly good grasp of the ideas before i try to lay them out for others. I’ve been doing this as a teacher/professor for over 30 years.  I’ve taught both part-time and full-time at the college level (at 6 different colleges/universities) in the field of Business, Statistics, Computers and Computer Programming. I’ve also taught Adult Christian Education classes for those same 30 years. I consider this blog to be a new way to carry on my passion for explaining, teaching, and exploring difficult ideas and topics. I am more glad than i can express that there are those who are willing to come along for the ride.

I want very much to explain in a clear and rational way, the concept of Total Depravity. This is a theological doctrine, and while i am not a theologian, i am an avid reader, thoroughly comfortable wading through theological tomes in search of useful explanations of biblical concepts. I graduated from an undergrad Christian university with the equivalent of a minor in Bible and I’ve taken just enough Greek to be dangerous. I have a very complete library of commentaries, Biblical encyclopedias, Biblical dictionaries, and books of theology of around 4,000 volumes, most of which are in a Bible Software program called Logos, and I also have a few bookshelves of actual physical books in this area. I haven’t read all of these books, but i do search them for relevant information and exegesis in my Biblical study. So here goes my attempt at making Total Depravity lucid and to elaborate on some of its nuances.

Total Depravity – A Definition

Defining this term is not as easy as you might think.  I have a multitude of books which cover this doctrine, and all define it a bit differently. They cover the same ideas, the difference is mostly in how depraved ‘Total Depravity’ actually goes.  This doctrine came from St. Augustine’s teaching and writing about Original Sin.  The idea is that when Adam (and Eve) sinned in the garden, that fall resulted in the penchant to sin being passed down to all of mankind. Man is not just inclined to sin, but actually has a sinful disposition. In other words, mankind is inclined toward sin and not toward righteousness.

I am comfortable with the following non-technical definition as a starting point.  I say as a starting point because this doctrine is held with slightly differing tweaks or emphasis by all branches of Christianity including Calvinists, Arminians, Lutherans, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox because it was first fully discussed and codified by St. Augustine around 400 A.D. before there was any breakup in Christianity.

The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and to reject the rule of God.

This has both far-reaching and critically important repercussions into the heart of what Christianity is.  The heart of Christianity is that God sent his son, Jesus, to live as a man, yet without sin, and that by being unjustly crucified, he enabled the sins of man to be forgiven and that the damage to mankind caused by Adam’s sin can be redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. St. Paul says that by believing in Jesus as God’s son come in the flesh, we can become a new creature with old things (ways, actions, behaviors) passing away and all things becoming new.

In future posts, i will elaborate and flesh out what this means and also some of the slightly differing ways that this doctrine is ‘fleshed out’ by some denominations. We will go deeper by looking into scripture for a solid perspective of the reality of Total Depravity. We will also look at other more descriptive ways of labeling this doctrine. (I think that the phrase Total Depravity implies more than the doctrine actually teaches, but we will look at that in the next post.)

Ask any questions in the comments section!

Here are links to the other 2 posts in the Total Depravity series:

Total Depravity – Part 2

Total Depravity – Part 3

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