Total Depravity (1)

March 19, 2023 / No. 4185M

 We have been studying the biblical teaching about how God saves His people.  We have been taking a chronological approach.  We began in eternity past with the unconditional decree of God to save His people.  Then we moved forward into time and stopped at the cross of Jesus Christ and examined for whom that cross was, and what the effect of His atonement for sin was. 

Now we move forward again in time to our own coming into the world, and we face the question with regard to ourselves:  What adjective describes me, who is to be saved?  What describes me spiritually when I come into the world?  Am I, by nature, well spiritually?  Am I, by nature, weak spiritually, needing God just to give me some help to save myself?  Or am I, by nature, dead spiritually, needing God to resurrect me by a powerful, irresistible grace?

As with all of our questions, we come to the Scriptures for answers and, in this message, to the Scriptures as they record the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself in His earthly ministry on this matter.  What is the teaching of the Lord Himself about us; about who we are when we come into this world, by nature; about who it is that needs to be saved?  We will discover that the Lord’s teaching is that we are not well spiritually, not at all.  In fact, in us dwells no good thing, nothing.  By nature, we are a people totally depraved.

The scriptural teaching of total depravity is that a man is utterly and completely without spiritual ability in every part of himself, in his mind, his will, his affections.  He is spiritually bankrupt and positively given over to sin.  It is not merely the teaching that he has sin in him.  And it is not either the teaching that he is simply not morally as good as he really should be.  But it is that all he has is sin in him, and in every part and completely in every part he has no spiritual ability whatsoever.

The Scriptures use especially two images to teach that.  The first is that of a dead body, a physically dead person.  The Scriptures use this to teach that man is spiritually dead.  The second image is that of a slave, describing the effect of that dead nature that is in us.  It enslaves us, it binds us in our thinking, willing, and acting.  The Lord Jesus Christ Himself used both of those illustrations.  First He used the illustration of a dead person to describe us spiritually in John 5:25:  “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God:  and they that hear shall live.”  The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, the call, the irresistible call of sovereign grace, calling to life.  But before that, before that call brings them to life, they are dead.  The dead shall hear the voice, the dead, says the Lord Jesus Christ.  Apart from that irresistible work of God’s grace, we are dead spiritually—all of us—not just drowning, not just flailing around in the lake almost dead, not on our deathbed but still breathing, but dead.  Dead means dead.  The same word is used to describe Eutychus, who fell out of the third story window and was dead.  The same word is used to describe Jesus who was dead before He arose from the dead.  There is no other meaning for the word dead than dead.  The Lord could not possibly have been more clear.

Nor could the apostle Paul, who uses the same illustration in Ephesians 2:1:  “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”  So dead in trespasses and sins that it takes a quickening, that is, a resurrection to make us alive.  You do not resurrect people who are still alive, even if they are barely alive.  You only resurrect the dead.  “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”  No heartbeat, spiritually, no brain activity, spiritually.  No labored breathing before the last gasp, but dead.  And you cannot respond to that by saying, “Well, if the Lord and the apostle Paul really wanted to emphasize that there is nothing, no spiritual good in us, they would surely have used a stronger word or a clearer word.”  There is no stronger word.  There is no word that would make it more clear.  There is nothing that is more lacking in life and ability than a dead man.

The Lord Jesus also uses the illustration of a slave to describe our total depravity.  He does that in John 8:34:  “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin,” that is, anyone who is living a whole-hearted lifestyle in the service of sin, committing sin, walking in sin unrepentantly, giving over to sin with no godly sorrow for it (maybe sorrow over some of the consequences, but no sorrow for sin).  What is the explanation for that?  What explains that?  The answer of the Lord is that they are the slaves of sin.  It is that all men, by nature, all unregenerate, still are enslaved to sin.  The natural man has a master, and that master is that dead nature in him.  That dead nature, that is, spiritually dead, is dead but actively enslaves, controls a man.  From within it enslaves him.  And like every slave’s master, this master provides no freedom for his slave.  Man is, by nature, totally and completely enslaved and subservient to sin.  All he can do is what sin bids him to do.  That does not mean that he does the worst possible thing in every situation, but it means that he cannot get away from sinful motives controlling everything he does.  He cannot please God; he cannot even desire to please God.  So, when thoughts come out of that nature, and when he wills things out of that nature, when he acts out of that nature, he does so under the total dominion and control of sin. 

And the Lord very specifically teaches this slavery to sin that way, too.  The Lord teaches first that man’s actions that come out of him are, therefore, dominated by this master, sin.  John 15:4, 5:  “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me….  For without me ye can do nothing.”  Without Me, ye can do nothing.  And, of course, He means nothing of any spiritual value.  You can do all kinds of things without being a branch united to the vine, but you cannot do anything of spiritual value, no good work in the eyes of God.  You cannot do anything without the life of the vine running into the branch in union to Christ.  And nothing means nothing:  without Me, ye can do nothing.  Even the externally “better” things.  You cannot seek God and love Him.  You are running from Him even in those things.  Everything is bound in the service of sin. 

Even man’s thoughts.  Man cannot even think anything that is not inherently sinful before God.  His mind is filled with many thoughts, but he is, in his thinking, blinded and completely enslaved by sin and, therefore, opposed to God in his thoughts.  The Lord teaches this also in John 3:3:  “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  He is so blind in his mind that he cannot see, he cannot perceive with any sense of its value, the kingdom of Jehovah God.  The apostle Paul explains in I Corinthians 2:14:  “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God:  for they are foolishness unto him:  neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  He cannot know these things.  He cannot have thoughts that are kindly towards these things, or understand these things, because his thoughts are bound by that nature, the nature that enslaves him.  So, when he expresses that nature in thought, his thoughts are bound.

And, finally, Jesus teaches that man, as a slave to sin, is a slave specifically when that nature expresses itself in willingness, in its will.  John 6:65:  “Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”  And again, in John 6:44, the Lord Jesus says, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”  No man can come to Me, the Lord repeats.  Coming to Christ is an act of the will, it is believing in Christ, it is laying hold of Christ as the answer for one’s sin and guilt and all the implications of that sin and guilt.  No one can do this.  No one has the ability to do this except, as the Lord says previous to this, “My Father gives it to him,” implants that ability in him. 

I am sure most of you remember being taught in grade school the difference between can and may.  Was I the only one who had a teacher, when I raised my hand and said, “Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?” who always corrected me and said, “Well, I’m sure you can, but the question is:  May you go to the bathroom?”  Well, the Lord Jesus here is very specific.  “No one can come to Me, except the Father draw him.”  Everyone may come to Him, everyone has permission to come to Christ, everyone has permission to believe on Him and lay hold upon Him.  In fact, more than that, all men are called to, commanded to.  But though all men are called to come and may come, not a single one of them can, has the ability to do so.  The word “can,” in the Greek, is a word from which we get dynamite.  It means power, ability.  No one has the ability in his will to come to Christ except the Father first gives that to him and draws him irresistibly to Himself.  No one can, no one, says the Lord.  There are no exceptions to this.  No one slips under the radar, no one.  All men’s wills are bound, slavishly bound, to sin and cannot come to Christ.  We are physically alive.  We have wills, we have desires, we think, we act.  But all of it is enslaved by a spiritually bankrupt nature, a dead nature that enslaves us to think and will and desire and act in sin and only in sin. 

There was a time, of course, when mankind had spiritual ability, when he was not bound by a dead nature.  Adam, before the Fall, was free to will God.  And he did so.  He was free to think God’s thoughts after Him and he did so.  And he was free to actively serve God with his life and he did so.  But after he fell into sin, he died.  And that death was more than physical, it was a spiritual death.  So Adam ran and hid from God when God appeared.  Previously when God appeared, he would walk with God in the cool of the Garden evening.  But now he runs and hides in guilt and shame after his sin.  That is the effect of spiritual death.  A man does not have the ability to move toward God, only away from Him.  There is no spiritual life in him that wants God as He is. 

And the Canons of Dordt, in teaching this, explain from Romans 5 that Adam, after the Fall, begat children like himself in that nature, blind in the mind, vain, perverse, wicked, rebellious, impure in affections, so that a corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring, that is, a corrupt stump produced a corrupt tree, propagating in the earth people with a vicious nature, as the Canons memorably puts it.  This nature controls the human being’s mind, his will, and his actions.  He is bound by that nature to the service of sin.  That is why he is described by the Lord Jesus as a slave to sin. 

Like lions that are enslaved by their nature to meat, that is, to eat only meat.  Lions are carnivores.  That means they eat meat and meat only because they are wired to eat meat in their very nature.  Their nature enslaves them so that they cannot will, they cannot think positively about, and they cannot act upon the eating of anything but meat.  If you would set a large trough of oats before a lion, he will not eat it.  You could pour honey on it and he will not eat it.  And the reason why he will not eat it is not because he does not have a mouth that functions properly, that could chew it.  And it is not because the oats are not good.  It is not because the oats are rotten.  Just like it is not because man no longer has a will that he cannot come to Christ.  It is not because the gospel is rotten, something wrong with Christ and His gospel that is the explanation why men will not believe in Him and serve Him.  But, like the lion that is carnivorous with a nature that enslaves him so that he cannot think lovely thoughts about those oats and desire them and cannot will to eat them and cannot open his mouth to take them in, so, too, all men before Christ, all men’s thoughts, willing, and actions are bound by whatever man’s nature is.  After the Fall, man’s nature is dead spiritually.  And that dead nature makes him unable even to want to return to the God who made him. 

Do you believe that?  More importantly, do you believe that about yourself, by nature?  Do you confess, this is me, this is a description of me?  And, if I am to be redeemed, I cannot make a move except God first gives it to me to be able to do so.  I am enslaved, I am bound.

Augustine, the early church father, believed this truth, defended it against many attacks.  He also owned it personally by a previous grace of God working in him.  Augustine wrote massive books defending this teaching.  But then, he also wrote a book confessing this as true for his own self, confessing his own sin and depravity, called Augustine’s Confessions.  The reason why he did that was because this was not just a doctrine to him, it was a doctrine about him.  He confessed that he was conceived and born in sin as the psalmist David confesses.  Let me read to you a moment how he describes his own depravity, even as a baby, as he confesses his sins to God, confesses that he has always been enslaved to sin and would always remain enslaved to sin except God sovereignly worked.  He is saying this now to God, in prayer.

Little by little I realized where I was [as a baby, he is saying] and I wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not for my wants were inside me and the people were outside me and they could not, by any power of theirs, come into my soul.  So I would fling my arms and my legs about and cry and scream, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired.  And when I was not satisfied, either from not being understood or because what I got was not good to me, I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves.  And I avenged myself on them by crying.  That infants are like this I have, myself, been able to learn by watching them.  And they, though they knew me not, have shown me better what I was like than my own nurses who knew me.  I am loathe to dwell on this part of my life of which, O Lord, I have no remembrance, about which I must trust the word of others, and what I can surmise by observing other infants, even if such guesses are trustworthy, for it lies in the deep murk of my forgetfulness, and thus is like the period which I passed in my mother’s womb.  But, if I was conceived in iniquity, and in sin my mother bore me, where, I pray Thee, O my God, when was I, Thy servant, ever innocent?

That is the biblical truth in reality.  And that is the biblical truth in reality you and I must confess.  Do you acknowledge and confess it as true of you?  I was enslaved to sin from the first moment of my existence.  Spurgeon said once, “Nothing else but sin, nothing else but sin, nothing else in me but sin, and anything short of that confession about myself is not the truth.”  I was born a slave to sin.  There was never a time when I was not enslaved to sin.  And I would still be totally and utterly so, were it not for a sovereign grace of God.  Then you confess biblical truth, a biblical truth not only for your head to know but for your heart to know, too.  And you will go on to believe that only God, not you, not you in your will, not you in your actions, can save yourself, but only God.  To Him be the glory for raising the dead.

Let us pray.

Father in heaven, this is our confession about ourselves.  We cannot save ourselves in any way, not by our will, not by our actions, but only by Thy choice and by Thy sovereign power can any dead be raised.  And we give Thee praise and glory for all of our salvation and confess that our sin is an active sin in thoughts and wills and actions.  And forgive it, Father, and restore us to Thy presence.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.