Totally Depraved

Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of any good, and inclined to all wickedness? 

Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. 

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3; Question 8.

So very corrupt. 

Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in Thy holy hill? Not I, not as I am by nature. Not any of my relatives or acquaintances. Not any man, woman, or child that ever saw the light of day upon the earth. 

We are so very corrupt, as our Catechism reminds us. This word “corrupt” is only one of the many terms that our fathers use to describe our sin and misery in these first three Lord’s Days. Our Catechism spoke of the fact that we are prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor, that we are wicked and perverse, that our nature is depraved, and that through the fall of Adam we are become so corrupt that we are conceived and born in sin. To all this is now added that we are wholly incapable of any good and inclined to all wickedness. The heavy burden of our guilt, daily increased by our sins, is bad enough. But the problem is aggravated by the fact that I am evil, corrupt, like an apple that appears goodly on the outside, but is rotten at the core, useless, good for nothing, fit only to be cast away forever. My nature is perverse, my mind is darkened by sin, my will is obstinate, every inclination of my heart is only evil continually. Notice, I do not say, I was, as if that were something that belonged to my unconverted state. I am. I am what the fathers referred to in the Five Points of Calvinism as totally depraved. That word “totally” is a bit redundant, for what is depraved is rotten, no good whatever, but the “total” does stress the hopelessness, the horrible extent of my corruption. 

This is our Christian experience drawn from the Word of God. This was Luther’s conviction when he wrote about the bondage of the will. This was in the hearts and minds of the composers of the Westminster Confession, chapter 6, paragraph 4, where they wrote, “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.” This was in the soul of the fathers who composed the Three Forms of Unity. This is our confession. To deny this fact would be dishonesty with ourselves, a refusal to face a bitter reality. The believers throughout the ages have confessed this depravity. Every honest child of God must confess it. How can he avoid it if he knows himself as God sees him, as the Spirit of Christ speaks to him in his heart through the Word? 

David cried out in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” The prophet Jeremiah testifies under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” Read Romans 3:10-18 with its condemning testimony concerning ourselves: “As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one: they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become unprofitable: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is not true only of the worst of us; this describes you and me as we are by nature. This is not what might have been apart from some restraining influences; this is reality. We cannot deny it. Therefore we feel ourselves very much akin to the apostle Paul, that saintly servant of God, when he confesses in Romans 7, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” 

Our Belgic Confession in article 14 states that man is “become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways.” This article continues by declaring that man lost all his excellent gifts which he had originally received from God, retaining nothing but mere remnants of them, and these remnants are left to him only to hold him accountable to God for all that he does in his whole life. Our Canons, under the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, declares that man through his fall has “entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate of heart and will, and impure of his affections.” Not an attractive picture, but no less true. 

A Painful Doctrine 

Our proud, sinful nature has always violently opposed this truth of total depravity. In various forms the same question is raised, “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of any good and inclined to all wickedness?” Immediately after the fall Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves. We still imitate them, Cain took of the finest of the crops which his hands had produced, in order to try to give something to God. How often we do the same! Phariseeism is foreign to none of us. Pelagianism and Arminianism are terms that belong to this new dispensation, yet their proud error is as old as the depravity of man. The world today is steeped with the theory of Pelagius that man is innately good. The infant that rests in mother’s arms is a perfect picture of innocence. Who cares to say that this cute little mite is conceived and born in sin, subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself? (See our Baptism Forms.)One may be willing to grant that as a child comes in contact with a bad environment, it picks up bad habits, such as hatred, immorality, stealing, and dishonesty. But a good influence can do wonders to improve his character. Even the worst derelict of skid-row may be bad, but under the proper guidance the good that is in him may be newly aroused. 

One cannot ignore the great advancements made by the skills and ingenuity of mankind. Man probes the bowels of the earth and produces oil, coal, and precious jewels. He delves into the depths of the sea, he soars through the skies, he sends spaceships out to explore the outer space. Man creates for himself powerful earth movers, but also delicate instruments with amazing accuracy. He makes computers that work with greater speed, less effort, and greater accuracy than the human brain. Anything man imagines he is confident he can do, and often produces the seemingly impossible. Consider the advancements in the realm of the atom, in the realm of industry, and of medicine. Proud man makes great advancements in God’s creation. 

The Good that Sinners Do. 

This same man can discern between right and wrong, good and evil. According to the Arminian, the sinner is not dead in sin, but sick; he is not depraved, but there is still much good in him. There are, indeed, sadists who take a keen delight in murder and other horrors, but these are the exception rather than the rule. There are the sex deviates, but there are also people who. live respectable lives. Divorces and remarriages are becoming increasingly common, but there are still many husbands who care for their families, and there are many women who make good wives and mothers. There are school children who are aggressively opposed to learning, but there are also those who strive for good grades. Many men give every impression of plying an honest business. So often the question is raised, But is this not good? Where then the depravity? 

Some speak of total depravity as something that might have been our lot, if it were not for the restraining influences of God’s common grace. They maintain that in Romans 3 the apostle is speaking about man as he would be, if God had not restrained sin in his heart. This restraint now enables him to produce good deeds in the sight of God. To the question, are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of any good, and inclined to all wickedness? they would answer, “Indeed we are, except for the restraining, influence of God’s common grace in our lives.” The distinction is made, although it never occurs in Scripture, between total depravity and absolute depravity. According to this distinction, there are some creatures, like the devil and calloused criminals, who lack entirely the restraining influence of common grace, so that they are hopelessly, absolutely depraved. But there are others, who have this restraining operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, whereby they produce good works that are pleasing to God, even though they remain unregenerated. The influence of common grace is said to be so powerful, that the natural man can even want to be saved and is receptive to an offer of the gospel. 

Our Canons have something to say about this so-called good that sinners do. Under the Third and Fourth Head of Doctrine, article 4 states, “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” Man still possesses glimmerings of the light he once had in the state of righteousness. He knows that God is God, there is no doubt about that. He knows how to make use of God’s creation, making great progress with his discoveries and inventions. He knows that murder, theft, immorality are wrong, and readily condemns that wrong in others. He knows that it is to his own advantage to live a decent, respectable life with his family and in his community. 

All this is so very true, our fathers inform us. Then they add, “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it. in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” Notice, first, that this light of nature never makes a person receptive for the gospel. Second, man does not use his natural light aright in things natural and civil. Still worse, he pollutes it, using it in the service of sin. Scripture teaches us that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we must do it all to the glory of God. Natural man hates God, banishes Him from his thoughts. He seeks himself, his own advantage. A husband too often thinks first of self, and then of his wife and children. We always ask ourselves the utilitarian question, Does it pay? What advantage is it to me? “Taking care of number one,” is the big catch phrase today. Proud man boasts that all things are of him, by him, and unto him, that to him may be the glory.

Our Catechism teaches us in question 91 that good works are only those “which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory: and not such as are founded on our imagination, or the institutions of men.” 

Why Talk About It? 

First, this is the plain teaching of the Scriptures! We bow before the infallible testimony of God’s Word even though it condemns us. 

Second, we must know how great our sins and miseries are. Our Communion Form states under the section that refers to our self-examination in preparing ourselves for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, “That every one consider by himself, his sins and the curse due to him for them, to the end that he may abhor and humble himself before God.” 

Third, we must realize that nothing less than a wonder has happened in our lives, the wonder of regeneration by the Spirit of Christ. God by a super-natural work, more wonderful than our first creation, has made us new creatures in Christ Jesus. All has become new. 

Finally, being aware of our own emptiness and wretchedness, we seek all our salvation from God alone, prayerfully asking that we may live by faith, doing all things in love to God, seeking always only His glory. 

“Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.” II Corinthians 9:15.