Having examined the doctrine of original sin, along with some of the more common objections levied against it, we turn now towards two implications that flow naturally from this neglected, yet profoundly significant Scriptural teaching. These twin implications are the Doctrine of Total Depravity and the Doctrine of Total Inability.
As with original sin, these daughter doctrines are usually objected against strongly. Often, some will affirm original sin, yet emphatically deny her two offspring, certainly an inconsistency, but perhaps most likely the fruit of failing to think deeply on the things of God. Bear in mind, though I’m using the word doctrine rather freely, it shouldn’t be thought of as academic, high-browed, or otherwise reserved for the theologian. In a sense, we are all theologians (students of God, i.e. disciples) and doctrine is simply shorthand for the “teaching of Scripture” as in 1 Timothy 4:16.
The much maligned doctrine of total depravity refers to the influence that original sin has had on an individual’s human nature, specifically corruption. We can think of it like this, if we have a glass of water and add to it a drop of cyanide, the entire glass is polluted.
Is it as polluted as it could be? No. It certainly could be at a higher percentage of cyanide, but it is nevertheless polluted, completely. Could you spoon out a little corner of the water that was untainted? No. Some have summarized total depravity as corruption, “not in degree, but in extent”. Additionally, all of our faculties have been corrupted, from our exterior bodies and members to our interior thoughts, will, and desires.
Biblically, Romans 3 is the locus classicus on total depravity:
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
I’ve discussed this passage elsewhere, particularly the trajectory that the Apostle moves along from the mind, to the mouth, to the hands.
A.W. Pink summarizes:
The doctrine of total depravity is a very humbling one. It is not that man leans to one side and needs propping up, nor that he is merely ignorant and requires instructing, nor that he is run down and calls for a tonic: but rather that he is undone, lost, spiritually dead. Consequently, he is “without strength,” thoroughly incapable of bettering himself; exposed to the wrath of God, and unable to perform a single work which can find acceptance with Him. Almost every page of the Bible bears witness to this truth. The whole scheme of redemption takes it for granted. The plan of salvation taught in the Scriptures could have no place on any other supposition. The impossibility of any man’s gaining the approbation of God by works of his own appears plainly in the case of the rich young ruler who came to Christ. Judged by human standards, he was a model of virtue and religious attainments, yet, like all others who trust in self-efforts, he was ignorant of the spirituality and strictness of God’s Law, and when Christ put him to the test his fair expectations were blown to the winds, and “he went away sorrowful” (Matt. 19:22).
As to the doctrine of total inability, this refers to man’s incapacity to improve his standing with God through his own efforts, will, or exercise of his volition apart from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit to renew the heart, changing both the affections and the will. When God says in Ephesians 2 that man is dead in his trespasses and transgressions, this implies the doctrine of total inability. Dead men cannot choose God.
To clarify a common misconception regarding the will, man still retains his “free will”. He is not a robot. However, his will is consistently bent towards sin. He is so comfortable in it, he lacks the desire to do anything otherwise. In his own, unregenerate “free-will” he cannot and would not choose God, a total inability.
Turning again to Pink we read:
Fearful indeed are the effects of this darkness. Its subjects are rendered incapable of discerning or receiving spiritual things, so that there is a total inability with respect unto God and the ways of pleasing Him. No matter how well endowed intellectually the unregenerate man may be, what the extent of his education and learning, how skillful in connection with natural things, in spiritual matters he is devoid of intelligence until he is renewed in the spirit of his mind. As a person who lacks the power of seeing is incapable of being impressed by the strongest rays of light reflected upon him, and cannot form any real ideas of the appearance of things, so the natural man, by reason of this blindness of mind, is unable to discern the nature of heavenly things.
If we misunderstand Original Sin and subsequently Total Depravity and Total Inability we misunderstand grace, ultimately the Gospel. It is a front line issue. A failure to understand the sinfulness of man and rightly explain it in a biblical manner has been a great malady throughout the history of the church. The remedy is coming face to face with the holiness of the Sovereign God.
For more see these posts:
This post summarizes several posts, including answering some key objections brought against it.