The puzzle of humanity has a moral dimension. We are capable of acts of great compassion and even heroic virtue. Some even sacrifice their lives to rescue others in peril. Yet some deep stain of corruption still plagues human life. The evidences of the darkness of the human heart are pervasive in human history, yet such darkness still surprises us. Something seems to have gone dreadfully wrong.
Theologian Daniel Migliore sums it up well: “We human beings are a mystery to ourselves. We are rational and irrational, civilized and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel.”
Where can we go for help as we wrestle with this riddle? We must go to God if we are to find the answer to this most baffling riddle. For God our creator has spoken to us through his Word and has revealed his answer to the human dilemma. He spoke both of our dignity and our depravity. And, as importantly, he also revealed the one way that human depravity can be destroyed and human dignity established through divine redemption.
I. The Source of Human Dignity: Our Creation in God's Image (Last Week)
II. The Source of Human Depravity: Our Fall into Sin Through human rebellion and disobedience, sin entered the world, and the effects were immediate. For the first time, Adam and Eve experienced shame so that they clothed themselves. In fear they hid from God. When confronted with their sin, they each sought to evade responsibility. But they were responsible, and the Lord expressed his judgment upon them for their act, which brought about the disruption of all the good relationships that had existed in his good creation: the relationship between God and humanity; the relationship between man and woman; and the relationship between humanity and creation. They were banished from the garden (cf. Gen. 3:24). Life in Eden was no more.
III. The Continuing Effects of Sin: Today we focus on the continuing effects of sin and its affect on our human experience. We are the only creatures who realize that we are not what we should be, and that discrepancy is the cause of great distress. We retain a moral memory of our former greatness, a memory that makes us long to regain what is now lost.
This is the legacy of the sin of Adam, a legacy theologians call “the fall.” The sin of Adam corrupted God’s good creation and unleashed the power of sin and death in the world, and this has affected us all. The Apostle Paul most clearly formulated this connection to the first man in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 5, he speaks to our mysterious union with Adam.
Rom. 5:12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
Rom. 5:15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
A. Sinful by Nature and by Choice Verse 12: “sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, for all sinned (v. 12); “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man” (v. 17); and “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (v. 19). Death reigns over us, we are under condemnation and judgement, not only by our union with Adam, but because we ourselves have sinned after the manner of Adam.
This corruption of human nature is called “original sin.” It is original in that it is with us before we are born, and it is the soil out of which all our conscious sins arise. As David lamented, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5; cf. Ps. 58:3). We do not enter this world with a moral blank slate. Sin’s corruption is impressed upon us inescapably, and it will inevitably reveal itself through our own willful acts of sin. We are sinners by the nature we inherit and by the choices we make. Put simply, we sin because we are sinners, and we are sinners because we sin.
B. Sin Affects Everyone The Bible affirms that human culpability in sin is universal, with the one exception of Jesus Christ. Again, "death spread to all men because all sinned." Or as Paul writes earlier in Romans, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, . . . there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12).
But the universality of sin is not just found as a doctrine in the Bible (though that would be enough). All religions and world views bear witness to it. There is also the universal voice of conscience speaking to our own hearts. Something inside us testifies against us, and we feel that we must do something to make things right. We are all guilty. Sin is universal.
C. Sin Affects Every Part of Us: The effect of sin upon us is not only broad; it is also deep. It affects our whole person; nothing escapes sin’s defilement. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel and Jeremiah in particular depicted sin as a spiritual sickness afflicting the heart at the deepest level. Jeremiah spoke of it this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). In fact, Ezekiel said, our hearts of stone must be replaced with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; cf. Jer. 31:33). In the New Testament, Jesus said that our evil deeds flow from an evil heart as surely as rotten fruit grows on a diseased tree (Matt. 12:33–35).
Sin also affects the mind so that we do not think clearly about God. In Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Rom. 1:28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
Sin affects our bodies so that they are weak and dying, that our passions are disordered.
Eph. 2:3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Romans 7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out ... 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Outwardly we are wasting away. Our body is called, perishable and mortal. Death reigns.
Every part of us, every human faculty—our mind, will, emotions, and conscience—is infected with and affected by this dreadful malady. None of them can be trusted as an objective guide of truth, because all of them are in collusion against God, caught up in this tangled web of sin. Everything about us that was created to love God, worship him, and bring him glory has now turned against him in sinful rebellion.
This deep pervasiveness of sin that results from the corruption of human nature is what theologians call “total depravity.” This doctrine does not mean that every person is as wicked as he or she can possibly be and engages in every possible form of sin. Nor does it mean that the unbeliever is totally insensitive in matters of conscience or never does anything that is good and right before other people or that sinful human beings cannot be fine citizens with high moral standards. Total depravity simply means that everything we are and everything we do is somehow affected by our sin. As J. I. Packer wrote, “No one is as bad as he or she might be,” though, on the other hand, “no action of ours is as good as it should be.” None of our motives is entirely pure, and none of our intentions is entirely praiseworthy.
Consequently, total depravity implies the total inability on the part of the fallen creatures to rescue ourselves from this sinful condition. Sin is too much a part of who we are. Paul says that in our natural state we were “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). No one can do anything that merits the moral favor of God. Without the gracious work of the Holy Spirit enabling a sinful human being to understand and believe the gospel, we are without hope.
This doctrine of original sin remains an offense to the sensibilities of many. But this singular mystery, once accepted, sheds great light on human experience. This Christian doctrine of sin has been described as the only doctrine empirically proven by 5,000 years of recorded human history. How else do we account for this mystifying thing called “human nature”? Why is it that every person ever born, except one, has exhibited this apparently innate human propensity to disobey God? Blaise Pascal put it this way: “Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine [of original sin], and yet, but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.”
When I first heard the gospel, although this may have been the point at which the gospel was most offensive, I also immediately recognized that this was the point that was most evidently true. For though I didn’t know much about the historical case for the resurrection or the biblical interpretation, I knew my heart. I knew I didn’t live up to my own standards, much less God’s.
Our Remedy: Union With Christ The point of understanding our fallen nature is not to wallow in it or despair in it. It is to point us to the remedy - Christ. Jesus came to undo the sin of Adam. Paul pointed us to this glorious truth in Romans 5:17: much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Adam, being made in God’s image, longed for equality with God and saw it as something to be snatched. Jesus Christ was equal with God, but he did not see it as something to use for his own advantage (see Phil. 2:5–11). While Adam desired to be great and refused to be God’s servant, grasping instead for the likeness of God, Jesus Christ made himself nothing and took on the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men. Whereas Adam exalted himself and became disobedient unto death, Jesus Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death. And whereas Adam was condemned and disgraced to the dishonor of God the Father, Jesus Christ was highly exalted and was given the name of “Lord,” to the glory of God the Father. “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Rom. 5:18).
Thus it is that the Christian, while still battling the depravity of our fallen nature, has been given a new nature in Christ through the power of the Spirit. So the Christian possess the ability to please God as we walk in the Spirit and not after the desires of the flesh.
Rom. 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Rom. 6:5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Counsel of Dort: “By the efficacious working of the same regenerating Spirit He also penetrates into the innermost recesses of man. He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instils new qualities into the will. He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient. He moves and strengthens it so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works.”
A very practical doctrine: What are the implications of the doctrine of total depravity for how we live as the redeemed people of God? What does it mean to ‘live up to’ the implications of the doctrine? Dr. David Starling of Morling College in Australia has suggested some which I’ve adapted here.
1. DEPRAVITY AND REPENTANCE The most important practical implication of total depravity for every human being is that knowledge of the doctrine leads to true repentance for sin. Only if we understand that we have no goodness at all and that we are entirely without hope, will we be able to see the greatness of our sin and mourn over it as we should. As long as we think that there is even the least bit of good in us, we will not be inclined to think of our sins or confess them before God.
2. DEPRAVITY AND WATCHFULNESS Although the reign of sin over us as regenerate people has been broken by the redemptive work of Christ, we remain utterly dependent upon God for both our forgiveness and our sanctification. According to the model prayer taught us by Jesus, we are still to ask God for the forgiveness of our sins every day. Paul reminds us that even though we who belong to Christ “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24), there remains for us the urgent, ongoing command to “[p]ut to death therefore what is earthly in you” and live life in the spirit.
3. DEPRAVITY AND COMPASSION If the doctrine of total depravity teaches us watchfulness in relation to our own sins, it also teaches us compassion in relation to the sins of others. Christians who hold to a vigorous doctrine of human depravity ought to be on guard against the cruelties of perfectionism. Jonathan Edwards makes the point forcefully: “This doctrine teaches us to think no worse of others than of ourselves; it teaches us that we are all, as we are by nature, companions in a miserable, helpless condition; which under a revelation of the divine mercy, tends to promote universal compassion”.
4. DEPRAVITY AND CULTURE: While the doctrine of total depravity is not at all a denial that fallen human culture is capable of accomplishing magnificent works of beauty, truth and wisdom, it does remind us that on all these works of human hands—even the most magnificent—there will be the stains and smudges of human sin.
5. DEPRAVITY AND EVANGELISM: In our evangelism, the doctrine of total depravity (and the companion doctrine of total inability) is a reminder that all genuine conversion is a miraculous work of the Spirit of God, without whom we are as powerless to repent and believe as we are to re-enter our mother’s womb and be born again (John 3:1-8). This being the case, total depravity warns us against the temptation to engineer the success of our efforts by the dilution or distortion of the message.
6. DEPRAVITY AND PARENTING: At home, in the way we parent our own children, the doctrine of total depravity not only warns us against compassionless perfectionism, it also warns us (in the opposite direction) against the naive assumption that our task is simply to stand back as parents and let the natural personalities of our children unfold. Our children do not enter the family pristine, waiting to be messed up by the excesses of our parenting. They are born as inheritors of their parents’ sin, and need the kindness of discipline to teach them the ways of wisdom and to fear the Lord.
7. DEPRAVITY AND WORSHIP Finally, and most practically of all, the doctrine of total depravity teaches us to give glory to God. The doctrine of total depravity is a humbling doctrine. It reminds us that our salvation is (to borrow Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:9) “not a result of works, so that no one may boast”, forcing our eyes upward from the impossibilities of our own condition to the infinity of God’s power and grace, and driving us to prayer and praise (e.g. Rom 7:24-25a, Eph 3:20-21). What could be more practical than that?