Total Depravity & the Christian Life

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About a year and a half ago, I decided to take the plunge and begin preaching my way through the book of Romans.  The journey through the book so far has benefited my faith in many ways – not the least of those ways being the constant reminder of what a colossal privilege it is for a corrupt, rebellious, totally depraved sinner like me to be a Christian.

Early on in Romans, the reader of Romans is overwhelmed (in a good way!) with the truth of human depravity.  You don’t even get three chapters into the letter before you are required to square with the truth of your sinfulness.  Without delay Paul establishes the fact of universal guilt before God – that all people are guilty of sin and are fully deserving of God’s unending wrath, while also revealing that sin is far more than an occasional problem – that apart from God’s gracious intervention, all men are bound to live under the dominion of sin and that every part of our being is corrupted by it.  Then, in case we are confused, Paul also makes it clear that we sinners are completely incapable of saving ourselves from the wrath of God and of freeing ourselves from sin’s ugly dominion.

This is the doctrine of Total Depravity, or Total Inability, or Radical Corruption – whatever terms you so prefer.

R.C. Sproul articulates the doctrine this way:

“The idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.” (R.C. Sproul, “Tulip and Reformed Theology: Total Depravity,”)

Placing this doctrine in the first major section of Romans like Paul does, gives strong indication of how important it is to understand and believe this doctrine.  A Christian’s belief in our true and total depravity apart from the freeing and transforming work of Christ – is a deeply consequential belief.  Far from the stuffy, academic doctrine for ivory tower theologians that some may say that it is – the doctrine of Total Depravity ought to shape the life of every Christian.

But how should it do that?  What ought to be the practical consequences of embracing the doctrine of Total Depravity?  I’ll share three of those consequences of them here.

First, the doctrine of Total Depravity helps us see the miracle that it is to be a Christian.

The description of the sinfulness of mankind in Romans 1:18-3:20 in particular, is just flat ugly.  It’s bad.  There we see that the wrath of God is over all of mankind for our refusal to honor God as our Creator (1:18ff); and that this rebellion is not just found among the pagans, but among religious, Bible believing people too – religious unbelievers (2:1-2).  Furthermore, we also see the widespread corruption of sin within the heart and life of each and every sinner (3:10-18) and that this corruption runs so deep within us that we can do nothing to clean ourselves up before God (3:20).

In looking at all of these things, it could be extremely easy to lose sight of the fact that Paul is writing to a group of people who have been brought to “the obedience of faith” in Christ (1:5) and who now “belong to Jesus” (1:6).  In fact, most of the people Paul is writing to, he regards as people who have been freed from the condemnation they deserve for breaking God’s law (5:1; 8:1), and who have been freed from the dominating power of sin (6:17-18), and who are now so secure in their standing with God that absolutely nothing will ever be able to separate them from his faithful, preserving love (8:38-39).

Now, after reading and digesting the message of much of chs 1-3, we ought to be asking, How could these things possibly be true of anyone?!  How do we go from having the hot burning wrath of a holy God hanging over our heads to being at peace with him and freed from his condemnation forever?  How do we go from being hopelessly enslaved sinners to being “obedient from the heart” to the Gospel, set free from sin, and “slaves of righteousness?”  How do we go from being in grave danger of being destroyed by God’s judgment at the last day – to being so secure with him – that he promises to show us his love forever?

Paul is writing to people whose nature, status before God, and eternal future have been dramatically altered, or better, completely reversed!  They have gone from living in pitch black spiritual darkness to brilliant light; from living on the streets to living in a king’s palace; from dumpster diving for food to 24-7 access to a lavish gourmet buffet.  They have gone from death to life.  Has this happened to you, dear reader?

How in the world could these things be?  The only right answer is:  It would take a miracle of grace.  There is simply no other answer.  It would take an absolute miracle.  This is the only way any one would ever become a follower of Jesus, you and me included.

See, the effect that the truth of our depravity should have upon a Christian is not to make him feel guilty and condemned, or to make him feel dirty before God, or to make him question his standing with God, or to make him overly introspective about his ongoing sins; but to wake him up to the wonder of his salvation.

Christian, can you believe you have been made right with God forever?  Can you believe that you’ve gone from living under the weight of God’s holy wrath – to being freed from his condemnation forever because of Christ?  Can you believe that the Spirit of God awakened your spirit up to believe upon Christ?  Can you believe you’ve gone from being completely “unrighteous” before God to being justified by God?  Can you believe that you’ve gone from being a slave to sin to possessing “the obedience of faith” in Jesus?

What an incredible privilege it is to be a Christian.

Second, the doctrine of Total Depravity helps us pursue and maintain spiritual unity with other Christians.

In the Roman church (as with most churches) were professing Christians from all walks of life.  In the church at Rome, you had men and women, slaves, former slaves, and perhaps even slave owners.  You had rich and poor, old and young, educated and uneducated.  And perhaps the most striking difference – Jews and Gentiles.

But one of the driving concerns of this letter is to see this church, made up of very different kinds of people, come together as one unified body.  That’s really the theme of chapters 12-16; a church unified around Christ and the Gospel (15:5-6).

You could even say that the driving concern of Romans has to do, not with seeing people get saved (though that’s certainly not far from Paul’s mind), but to see saved people live like one united family in Christ.  To see Jesus glorified as his people live like his people.

But before the church can be truly and practically unified – everyone in the church needs to understand that we are members of the same body, on the same basis and through the same means.  To put it simply:  No one deserves to be a member of Christ’s church.

The only way anyone gets into Christ’s church (the invisible church, that is) is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  We are accepted by God, not because of our own righteous (for there is “no one righteous”); but because of the righteousness of Christ.

Do you know why churches divide?  Why there are church splits?  Why is true practical unity is so often lacking in churches?  It’s because people so easily lose sight of the fact that our membership in God’s family is only by grace.  The unity of the church is only destroyed by those who aren’t shocked that they would actually be accepted by God as members of it.  Spiritual pride is devastating to the growth of spiritual unity among the members of the church.

But there is no first class cabin in the church.  There are no VIP seats at the Lord’s table.  No executive lounges.  No red carpet treatment.  No, we’re all scrubs.  We are all, but for the grace of God, corrupted, enslaved sinners, deserving of endless wrath.  When people forget that, the unity of the church suffers.  But when people believe it, the fruit of love and grace typically follows.

Third, the doctrine of Total Depravity helps us to feel the urgency of the need for evangelism.

Spreading the Gospel and seeing sinners among the nations come to the saving knowledge of Jesus is the burning passion of Paul’s life.  He’s consumed with it.  It’s the whole point of his ministry as an apostle.  He reminds us of that in Romans 1:5, that he (as an apostle of Christ) had received grace and apostleship to bring about “the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”  He wants to see God glorified as he brings sinners to full submission to Jesus throughout the world.

And if you skip ahead to chapter 15, you see that part of Paul’s interest and perhaps his ultimate goal in establishing a connection with the Roman church is to see the Roman church get behind him in his mission of spreading the Gospel in places where “Christ has [not] already been named” (15:20, 24).

And so, although Paul certainly wants to encourage the Christians there in Rome through this letter and a future visit to Rome (1:12), he also wants to see them get excited about evangelism and become partners with him to see the Gospel spread throughout the world.

But doing that requires sacrifice, and energy, and time, and prayer, and sweat, and tears, and in extreme circumstances, even blood.  Why would we put any of that into seeing the Gospel go out to people we often don’t even know?  The message of Romans 1-3 goes a long way to answering that question.  It’s because the need for the Gospel is so great! 

What Paul does in the early chapters of Romans is a lot like one of those commercials you might see late at night from a charitable organization that’s working to feed starving children.  What do they do in those commercials?  Often times they’ll walk you through a neighborhood in Kenya, or the Caribbean, or India and show you the children that are starving, and suffering, needing food and medicine and clothing.  Why do they do that?  To help you see the need with your own eyes, so that you’ll understand how great the need is for help.

In a sense, that’s exactly what Paul does for us in Romans 1:18-3:20; he’s taken us by the hand and walked us down the street to show us and to remind us powerfully of how badly the world needs Christ.  In these chapters it’s as if Paul is saying to us, Look at the world!  People need Jesus.  They need the good news.  They’re lost in sin.  They’ve turned from God.  And God’s wrath is coming.  Do you care?   

I heard a pastor ask the question once (my paraphrase):  “Could it be that the reason churches aren’t very active in evangelism be that they’re not convinced that the biggest problem in the world is sin?”  It’s a good question.

God calls us to face up with our depravity apart from Christ, at least in part so that we’ll remember just how badly we all need him, lest we become comfortable in the knowledge that there are some who do not yet know him as Lord.

Conclusion

And so, the doctrine of Total Depravity matters.  Do you know what happens when Christians begin to make light of the problem of sin?  They lose their wonder in the reality of God’s grace.  They build churches around shallow and superficial things that can never really make and keep people unified and lead them to love one another humbly and sacrificially.  And they lose all urgency for evangelism.

Believing in our depravity is critical to our health and our obedience as Christ’s church.  While we must always look at it in proportion to God’s grace, we must never lose sight of it.

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