Are Christians Totally Depraved?
John newton once famously summarized the believer’s experience with regard to his sin:
I am not what I ought to be. Ah! How imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be. I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good. I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon, I shall put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was—a slave to sin and Satan. And I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
This is a beautiful sentiment about the way true believers are to view themselves in light of the regenerating grace of God in the gospel. We are no longer what we were (totally depraved), yet we are not what we will one day be (fully delivered from remaining corruption). Understanding these truths is vital if we are to advance in the Christian life.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the nature of the total depravity of all mankind: “We are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (WCF 6.4). Reflecting on the doctrine of total depravity in the Calvinistic backronym TULIP, John Gerstner stated, “Total depravity is our one original contribution to TULIP. We are the dirty soil in which God plants His flower, and from our filth, produces a thing of divine beauty.” To see your need for the redeeming grace of God, you must first come to terms with the teaching of Scripture about what you are by nature—pervasively corrupt and evil.
Isaiah summarized the extent of depravity in an accusation against old covenant Israel: “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness” (Isa. 1:6). Jeremiah set out the fraudulence of man’s sinful heart when he wrote: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Quoting the psalmist, the Apostle Paul testified, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Pss. 14:1; 53:1; Rom. 3:10). All who have descended from Adam by ordinary generation are “dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Our minds, wills, emotions, affections, and consciences are thoroughly defiled by sin (Eph. 4:17; Titus 1:15–16). By nature, all our faculties are instruments of unrighteousness (Rom. 6:19).
Since all mankind (our Lord Jesus excepted) is fallen in Adam and pervasively depraved, all people need the last Adam to justify them freely by His death and resurrection (Rom. 5:12–21; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10–14). In Christ, God has delivered His people from “the domain of darkness and transferred [them] to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). He has graciously transformed believers through the working of His Spirit, based on the redemption secured by His Son. In his book Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, Thomas Boston explained the extent of the regenerating work of God:
Original sin infects the whole man; and regenerating grace, which is the cure, goes as far as the disease. . . . He gets not only a new head, to know and understand true religion; or a new tongue, to talk of it; but a new heart, to love and embrace it, in the whole of his life.
Far from continuing in a state of being “wholly inclined to all evil,” believers have been renewed by the Spirit of God to do what is “pleasing in his sight” (Heb. 13:21). We can now “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:10) and can now “please God” (1 Thess. 4:1). In his letter to Titus, the Apostle Paul explained how the grace of God enables those who have been redeemed to live uprightly:
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11–14)
While this is a glorious truth, believers still battle indwelling sin after conversion as part of their sanctification. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “This corruption of nature, during this life, does remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned and mortified, yet both itself and all the motions thereof are truly and properly sin” (6.5).
Romans 6–8 reveals the dynamics of sanctification. In 6:1–23, the Apostle explains that believers have experienced a radical breach with the power of sin through their union with Christ. In 7:13–25, he explains the ongoing battle with indwelling sin. And in 8:1–11, he charges believers to mortify remaining sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. At one and the same time, the Apostle teaches that believers are no longer totally depraved and that the “corruption of nature” remains within them.
When we consider the full-orbed teaching of Scripture about the believer’s relationship with his or her sin, we will have a right understanding of what we were, what we are, and what we one day will be. And we will be able to say with Newton: I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I wish to be. I am not what I hope to be. Yet, I can heartily join with the Apostle and acknowledge, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
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