The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by none other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans” aren’t really all that splendid after all.
In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin. ~R.C. Sproul
To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.” ~Phillip Ryken
These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. Although they might be technically correct, there is more to the story. If Total Depravity is true, the rest of the Five Points is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP exhaustively correct. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.
Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that does not escape traditional Augustinians and those who haven’t adopted a Thomistic understanding of the extent of the fall, if not a form of libertarian Calvinism.
Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God. Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine? What is striking to me is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. So, the miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be (in this world)? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral and noetic affects of the fall or God’s use of sinful intentions to bring about “good” behavior. My hope is that a largely forgotten theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.
God’s restraining power, a thing to behold:
God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions in conjunction with man being created in God’s likeness. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgment will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgment taking all into account. I’m finite and my judgment worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12
When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? (Pause)
When it’s said than man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be, do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to common depictions of Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he can be both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the heart but also in a decretive sense, which in fact secures our metaphysical intentions? By affirming that man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be, do we eclipse that it is for sinful reasons, decreed by God, that depraved men and women don’t desire to behave more sinfully? (The inroads of libertarian Calvinism are well paved from seminary to pulpit.)
So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might possibly be? What is hoped to be communicated by this mantra? (Surely the aim is not to stake out philosophical ground through possible world semantics, for that would lead to the Reformed conclusion that man is as bad as he could possibly be in this world!)
For one thing, such a sanguine assessment of the fall seems to be based upon external works alone – works which we can observe. Yet God judges motives and the intentions of the heart. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do more evil than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to his own evil intentions? In what sense can either do worse?