Previous article in this series: April 1, 2016, p. 303.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9

Sometimes the biology teacher places a dead animal’s organ on the lab table for dissection, and some students squirm and gasp. Or the doctor pulls up an image on the screen showing the break or the tumor, and the patient tucks his head, covers his eyes, and gasps. With the words of Jeremiah 17:9, God removes from natural man his heart and sets it in plain view. Any sensible man would gasp in horror. Has anything so revolting ever passed before his eyes? “Deceitful above all things!” “Desperately wicked!” “Who can know it?”

The truth is, no man will ever look at his own natural heart and utter those words. No book or teacher will ever give this description of man’s heart. The greatest testimony of man’s depravity and the deceitfulness of his desperately wicked heart is that he looks at that heart of his and says, “Lovely above all things! Fantastically virtuous! Who can know it?” He calls death life. Only the Bible tells the truth. And the truth concerning man is that he is by nature totally depraved.

As we seek to understand our holy war as soldiers in the kingdom of God, one subject yet remains in our treatment of Adam’s Fall as the explanation of the origin of war against God and His kingdom. We have already explained “The Fall” and what happened to Adam when he fell. He died spiritually, becoming in his nature an enemy of God. We have already explained “Original Sin,” and that a consequence of Adam’s Fall was the transmission of his corrupt nature to all his posterity. A more complete explanation of that nature in which every human being is conceived remains. Hence the subject at hand is what we in catechism class call “Total Depravity.” It is the “T” of Calvinism’s TULIP.

It belongs to our spiritual warfare to defend the truth of total depravity, a truth despised by the world and denied by nearly all of Protestantism. As knowledgeable catechumens are well aware, the PRC have, from the commencement of her existence as a separate denomination of churches, fought in defense of this truth over against the affirmations and implications of the Three Points of 1924, because they are determined to stand, at all costs, for the glory of the God of sovereign, particular grace. The battle continues on many fronts. If salvation is all of God, then salvation is none of man. In the accomplishing of salvation God is not great while man is small; God is everything, while man is nothing. Only the truth of man’s total depravity gives God’s grace in the person of Jesus its due.

The Truth of Total Depravity

Total depravity is a doctrinal term describing the spiritual, moral condition of man as he is by nature, apart from the regenerating grace worked by the Holy Spirit. The term describes the unregenerate man, and the sinful nature or “old man” that the regenerated believer is exhorted to “put off” (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:8-9). Natural man is completely wicked in his disposition and character. Man not only does wickedly in all his deeds, but man is wicked in his nature. The noun “depravity” means “so corrupt” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&As 7-8). The adjective “total” refers to the extent of man’s corruption. It is all pervasive. Corruption extends to and pervades every part of every man, so that when the Almighty searches every nook and cranny of every man’s natural heart, mind, will, emotions, affections, and body, He finds nary a hint of anything pleasing to Him. Total depravity means that all human beings are by nature, all the way depraved in all their parts. If there is anything spiritually and morally good in man—be it even the faintest glow—the gracious work of Jesus Christ, and the gracious work of Jesus Christ alone produced that God-pleasing good.

That man is totally depraved means he is wholly incapable of doing any good. He cannot seek the glory of God, or desire to. He cannot love God, or desire to. He cannot commune with God in prayer, or desire to. He cannot love his neighbor for God’s sake, or desire to. He cannot keep any commandment of God, or desire to. He cannot thirst for salvation, he cannot choose or “accept” or “open the door of his heart to” Jesus. He cannot prepare himself to be saved. Spiritually, he is dead in his sins.

That man is totally depraved means more. It means he is inclined toward all wickedness. There is more than the absence of goodness in natural man; there is the presence of willful, active corruption—rebellion. Natural man not only has no love for God, he hates God, hates his neighbor, and hates God’s law. And he not only hates, but is a hater. His nature is sin-ward. He thirsts for sin, hungers for unrighteousness, and pines for fleshly pleasures. When God looks down from heaven on the children of men, He finds no God-seekers, only filthy sin-seekers.

Was not Adam’s Fall serious? Deadly serious! And then to think, there is a God so rich in mercy that He quickens, not one, but many of these dead sinners together with Christ! What power! What love!

The doctrine of total depravity is yours as a confessing Reformed believer. You consciously make it yours at confession of faith. It is the doctrine of the Belgic Confession (see Arts. 14-15), the Heidelberg Catechism (see Lord’s Day 3), and the Canon of Dordt (see Heads III/ IV). It is the doctrine of Scripture throughout.3

The Truth of Total Depravity in Jeremiah 17:9

Let’s return to that graphic description of natural man’s heart in Jeremiah 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”

An honest reading of this passage can lead to no other conclusion than that natural man’s spiritual center—his heart (Prov. 4:23)—is totally depraved. If man’s source is totally depraved, then so is he and everything that proceeds from him.

The heart is “deceitful.” It cannot be trusted. When from the unregenerate man comes a dozen roses for an anniversary, or the donation of his kidney, or the digging of a well for a poverty-stricken tribe, both the man himself who did the deeds and the Reformed theologian who weighs those deeds have been deceived if they think there is something in those deeds that is pleasing to God. God looks at the heart, and the doer’s heart is deceitful, making his evil look good. Even natural man’s discovering some regard for virtue is a glimmering of natural light that he “in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness” (Canons, III/IV, Art. 4).

The matter is more serious. For, the heart is deceitful “above all things.” There is nothing and no one more capable of deceiving a man than his own natural heart. The heart is deceitful above Satan, above the deceivers waxing worse and worse in these last days, and above the Antichrist himself. So deceitful is the unregenerate heart that it will move the wicked of Judah in Jeremiah’s day to think they are doing God service by conspiring to kill Jeremiah—a foreshadowing of Jesus. More deceitful than young Jacob dressed in animal skins is old Isaac’s sinful nature.

There is still more. The heart is incurably wicked. The words “desperately wicked” are the translation of one word that means “incurable.” The condition of man’s heart is a desperate one because the heart desperately searches for satisfaction in sin as a deer exhausted from the chase pants for refreshing streams. Natural man’s heart could not be worse. With the Almighty all things are possible but for man, his heart is beyond cure. He is dead.

The inspired prophet’s climactic description of man’s totally depraved nature comes with the interrogative: “Who can know it?” None! None will ever search out and fully know the infinite God. Nor will any search out and fully know the depraved man. Who knew Adam’s Fall would be so serious? To say nothing of the wickedness of the heathen, who knew that one day Jeremiah would see Zion’s own sacrificing their children to Molech? Who knew that one day Jesus would come as God in the flesh and hear His own nation shouting to Pontius Pilate, “His blood be on us, and on our children!”? Who knew that one day the nominally Christian church of Bible-holding, “Lord, Lord”-confessing worshippers would dare declare in the name of Jesus that sodomy brings a smile to the face of God? Who knew that one day males would declare themselves females, and females would declare themselves males, and that influential people, businesses, organizations, and government officials and bodies would support such abominable rebellion against the Creator? How wise is Jehovah that He took Adam home after 930 years, lest he live through all this and despair over the bitter fruit he produced by eating the forbidden fruit. Yet, these are merely the displays of wickedness. Who knows how corrupt man’s heart really is? And that question gets personal. What believer knows how desperately wicked his own sinful flesh actually is? Not one. Totally depraved is man.

A Misunderstanding Corrected

There are many misunderstandings of the truth of total depravity. One of them we correct here. Some suppose this doctrine teaches that every human being is as bad as he could possibly be in a fully developed and manifested corruption. The unlearned of the world use in common speech the word “depraved” to refer to the most despicable, hardened, repeat-offending, child-molesting cannibal, for whom death by a firing squad is deemed too dignified. Then, when they hear the true church speak of all men being totally depraved by nature they dismiss it as nonsense, for everyone knows and experiences that the world is full of fine, generous, neighborly folk. Furthermore, for our rejection of common grace, we have been charged with teaching a non-biblical doctrine of “absolute depravity” in which every man is as bad as he could possibly be.

The doctrine of total depravity does not deny there is progression of sin in the individual and in society throughout history. Although no unregenerate man has any good in him, and none is a little better than another, some unregenerate men are worse than others. There are degrees of manifested wickedness and degrees of punishment (Matt. 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48; II Tim. 3:13).

Providence restrains much iniquity. There is surely a poor, goat-herding, radicalizing Muslim somewhere in Africa who hears various reports of world events, and it gives him an idea he would love to pursue—blowing-up a building in America. He cannot. He lacks the resources. God’s providence set him in poverty, without a network of accomplices, and an ocean away. His heart could not be more depraved. But he does not live out his depravity to the fullest expression.

Moreover, as, under the providence of God, man develops all the powers in creation, sin develops in intensity throughout history. Although it was in his nature to do so, surely Cain never considered coming in from the field one day to tell father Adam and mother Eve that he struggles as a female imprisoned in a male body, would like to be called Cainsy, is identifying as a female, and is asking the only doctor he knows—either father or mother—to perform a sex-reassignment surgery. In his small and under-developed world such channels of thought had not and never would be formed in his totally depraved mind. Today is different. Sin intensifies in expression. Although it was in his nature to do so, surely no sodomite in Israel, allowed to live in the land during the reigns of various kings, ever considered marching through streets of Jerusalem in support of the “silenced minority” and onward to the steps of the king’s palace, demanding through a petition with 20,000 signatures that Leviticus 20:13 and all similar statements be blotted out of the book of the law; that the high priest announce from the steps of the temple on the day of atonement that God loves sodomites for who they are; and that a stone monument be set up before the gates of Jerusalem declaring Israel is an “all-inclusive nation,” welcoming those of any sexual preference. Again, such channels of thought were not yet running through men’s depraved minds. Sin develops. Oh, how frightening is the development of sin in society, making way for the manifestation of the man of sin. The most depraved sinner of Adam’s day was not one whit better than the worst depraved sinner today, but many sinners and society today are worse. Total depravity does not deny progression in wickedness.

“The Fall” Concluded

The Fall of Adam is not only a significant doctrine we must know in order to understand that salvation is all of God (to whom be glory forever), but it is also a part of the picture we must have in view in order to understand our spiritual warfare for the cause of Christ. After our thorough treatment of this historical event and the theology of it, we can understand why there is and must be war, and just how serious and far-reaching this war is. What great opposition there is to God! Fallen man in alliance with Satan is against God. All praise and honor be to God through Jesus Christ for saving us out of depraved humanity, giving us a new heart, creating channels of sanctified thoughts within our minds, promising deliverance from all the wicked sin within us that remains against our will, and making us soldiers of the cross who fight for His cause until the Man of Holiness be revealed from heaven.

1 See Gen. 6:5-6, 8:21; Job 15:14-16; Ps. 14:1-3, 51:5, 58:3; Eccl. 7:20, 9:3; Jer. 13:23, 17:9-10; Matt. 7:15-20; John 1:13, 3:3-5, 5:42, 6:44, 8:34, 15:4-5; Rom. 1:18-32, 3:9-18, 6:16-19, 7:18, 23, 8:7-8, 14:23; I Cor. 2:14, 12:3; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 2:1-10, 4:18; Col. 2:13; II Tim. 3:2-4; Tit. 1:15; Heb. 11:6; James 3:8.