Total Depravity

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This was originally published in Antithesis (Vol. II/No. 2), April/May 1991.

Pride and Prejudice

Before I came to understand and embrace the Biblical doctrine of resurrecting grace, I was kept away by a combination of factors. One reason, of course, was my own prejudices and ignorance. Certain truths tend to rub our theological fur the wrong way, and they have had that tendency since at least the time of Paul (Rom. 9:19). But there was another reason. I had trouble because my ignorance and prejudices were sometimes reinforced by how heard these issues presented. Conse­quently, I thought I understood what in fact I did not.

I write on one such topic, therefore, with some trepidation. I have no desire to mislead fellow Christians on such an important issue; our subject is the resurrection to eternal life, therefore, we must begin the discussion within the framework set by the Word of God.

Biblical Terminology

What is the condition of man prior to regeneration? How may we best describe him? The best place to start is with the Biblical description and the Biblical terms. When the Lord showed the prophet Ezekiel the valley of dry bones, He said, “‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, ‘O Lord God, You know.’ Again He said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’ Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live'” (Ezek. 37:3-5).

Before regeneration, we are nothing but dry bones. Unregenerate man is dead in his transgression and sin (Eph. 2:1-2; Col. 23). He is not sick, he is not ailing; he is dead. Now to say that he is dead in this respect is not to assert that he is physically dead, or dead in every aspect of his being. It simply means that he is dead with regard to spiritual things. He has no connection with the life of the Spirit, which comes only as a gift from God. Because man is dead, he must be born again (John 3:5-7). Because he is dead in sin, he is hostile to God and will not submit to His laws. Even further, he cannot submit to His laws (Rom. 8:7-8). The natural man is incapable of under­standing spiritual things, and since the gospel is in the front rank of spiritual things which require spiri­tual understanding, this means the natural man has no ability to com­prehend the gospel ( I Cor. 2:14).

Someone may object here and say that the gospel was designed for unregenerate men; how can we say that unregenerate men cannot understand it? In reply, I agree that the gospel was designed for unre­generate men, but I deny that it was intended to function apart from the resurrection given by the Spirit of God. Unless regeneration occurs, the gospel, like all spiritual things, re­mains gibberish to the natural man. As Paul says in I Corinthians 1:18, “…the message of the cross is fool­ishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (also see 2 Cor. 2:15 and 4:3). Note what is foolish to him; it is the message of the cross.

Because man is in this con­dition, he cannot come to Christ unless he is drawn by the Father (John 6:44, 65), by means of the Spirit (John 3:5-8). This means that a Biblical evangelist must preach, like Ezekiel, in a graveyard. He is not preaching in a hospital ward, trying to get the patients to take the medi­cine. Those who preach the gospel are not recruiters; they are heralds and instruments of a God-given resurrection. In accomplishing this, the dead men do not cooperate in their resurrection. The dead men have something they must do (repent and believe), but they do not do it until they are given life.

Another picture used by the Scripture to communicate this truth is the picture of slavery. Just as a dead man is not free to walk about, so a slave is not free to walk off. Jesus teaches us that everyone who com­mits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34).

Paul reminds the Roman Christians that they were at one time slaves to sin and free from the control of righteousness (Rom. 6:20). In Titus 3:3, he says that we were all at one time foolish and slaves to various passions. Unlike physical slavery, it is impossible to escape from this bondage since the slavemaster is our own twisted nature—our own pas­sions and lusts. Wherever we go, there we are.

Theological Terminology

In discussions such as this, extra-Biblical theological terminology is both a blessing and a hindrance. It is a blessing because it enables us to pin down our definitions with better precision. This is necessary because there are many evangelical Christians who are not willing to submit to certain truths of Scripture, but they are constrained to agree with the phrases of Scripture. So they would agree, for example, that man is dead in his sins because Ephesians says so. But they would then hasten to add that “dead” doesn’t mean dead and that we mustn’t press such fig­ures of speech too far. As such a discussion progresses, the defender of Biblical truth is constrained to use other words and phrases that will communicate the Scriptural concept.

The hindrance lies in the fact that such extra-Biblical phrases are not inspired and may not always communicate effectively. For ex­ample, the doctrine of the total de­pravity of man sounds like we are asserting the absolute depravity of man, i.e. that man is as bad as he could possibly be. This is quite ob­viously false. Man is constrained and held back from such an absolute depravity by the common grace of God.

The doctrine of total de­pravity is this: man is totally unable to contribute to his own salvation in any way, because he is dead in his sins. For example, the resurrec­tion of Lazarus was not a joint effort between Christ and Lazarus. Lazarus came forth because he was raised, not in order to be raised.

What Denial Involves

The denial of man’s to­tal inability will ultimately undermine our faith in the neces­sity of the new birth and the evangelical proclamation. How so?

Scripture teaches us that faith is pleasing to God. It also teaches us that we are to live our Christian lives the same way we began our Christian lives (Gal. 3:1-6; Col. 2:6). Now if unre­generate men, on their own, are ca­pable of saving faith, without having been regenerated by the Spirit of God, then they should be able to continue to exercise that same kind of faith, after they are saved, without any help from the Spirit of God.

If a man can become a be­liever on his own, then he can continue to believe on his own. And if he can continue to believe on his own, then what did regeneration accomplish? The Bible teaches us that the Christian life begins with faith, continues in faith, and concludes in faith (Romans 1:17). The foundation of all godliness is faith, and a denial of man’s total inability means that unbelievers are capable of laying that foundation for all godliness on their own. Even if one argues that the Holy Spirit regenerates a man after he believes, such a regeneration is su­perfluous. What is it for? What does it do? In this view, it most certainly does not enable the man to believe or trust God. It hardly does honor to the resurrecting Spirit to say that His job is to tag along.

The apostle Paul rebuked the Galatians when they forgot that they began by hearing with faith and then sought to finish the job by hu­man effort. In considering his re­sponse to that error, I doubt he would have thought much of the confusion that reverses the order — beginning by human effort and then finishing by the Spirit.

Put bluntly, it amounts to this: If I am saved, sanctified, and glorified through faith (which the Bible teaches), and faith is possible apart from regeneration (which a denial of total inability asserts), then salvation, sanctification, and glorifi­cation are possible without regen­eration. And that reasoning under­mines the necessity of the everlast­ing and eternal gospel.

Carts and Horses

God gives eyes, and then we see. God gives life, and then we live. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Contrast this Biblical way of thinking with the alternative. I saw, and so God gave me eyes. I came alive, and so God gave me a resurrec­tion. Light came forth from my heart, so God said, “Let there be light,” This Is obviously incorrect; it is God, Paul says, who commanded light to come out of darkness. It is God who commanded that it shine in our hearts.

Notice the comparison in this passage between the gift of new life and the creation of the material universe. It bears mentioning that the material creation was ex nihilo — from nothing. Paul asserts the same about the new creation; it too is from nothing.

The creation does not help the Creator out in the work of cre­ation; the Creator acts unilaterally. The dilemma for evangelicals who want to deny total inability is this: either God must begin the resurrect­ing work of salvation because unsaved men are dead, or unsaved men are capable of beginning the process of their salvation on their own by means of saving faith. If the former, then we say welcome and shake hands. If the latter, then it follows that unsaved men can finish what they began, and we are con­fronted with a false gospel. In other words, there is no consis­tent stopping place between Re­formed theology on the one hand, and a Pelagian theology on the other. Of course, plenty of evangelicals do not wind up in one camp or the other, but that is to be considered a triumph of Inconsistency.


The Bible does not permit us to boast in our salvation at all: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righ­teousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).

If a man has been raised from the dead, there is much cause for rejoicing; there is no cause for pride. And when all human boasting is removed, what remains? Nothing of ours, but there is an infinite ocean of grace. My earnest hope and prayer is that more and more Christians will set out on that ocean, until there is no land in sight.

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10 years ago

Pastor, what you have written is my experience. However, what is the place of striving and work? Is the race Paul speaks of an anti-race? to be won only when we stop running? Its a bit of a pickle for me. I don’t want to hijack this thread. If you decide to address this topic in a later post, I can assure you of at least one reader.

Matthew Massingill
Matthew Massingill
10 years ago

Timothy,     I’m not sure if you’re trying to reconcile the existence of human works with a salvation that is all (and only) of God, or if you are asking more about the purpose and meaning of work in light of a salvation that is all of God.     As for the former, Wilson sometimes likes to say (not sure if he’s quoting someone else or not), that we work out what God works in.   We are saved by faith, and even that is not of ourselves so that there’s no boasting.  I.E., yes works are to be done, and… Read more »

John W
John W
10 years ago

I am surprised how often Eze 37 is the first port of call in this discussion The dry bones are clearly identified for us as being “the whole house of Israel” (v11). I do not want to get into the whole Dispensational/Replacementism thing but it seems to me that however we view “Israel” in the picture it is clearly referencing a corporate body & not an individual soul. The end result is not one resurrected person but a whole army of them.  Also I fail to see how the promise of v12 to bring them back into the land can… Read more »

10 years ago

Hi Matthew.                                                                                                                                                        Your second case is the one I am referring to. On the one hand, salvation is done–at Calgary–by grace through faith. Yet, we are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling; I interpret/experience this as Lewis’ parable of the tin man becoming flesh–the tin man does not like it. That I accept as the process of regeneration by the Spirit.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I bring up “striving and work’ because I have been ‘striving and working’ to no avail and I am wondering if it is not to be so.… Read more »