Total Depravity

Total Depravity

Written by David B. Garner |
Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Sinners’ hearts are “deceitful” and “desperately sick,” their deeds never wholly good. Seeming goodness suffers from a subterranean subterfuge. This means not that everything you do is 100 percent evil but that nothing you do is 100 percent pure. In the eyes of God, incomplete holiness is unholiness. Mixed motives are not pure motives. Partial truths are distortions, violations of God’s will and Word. Since sanctification is not complete, even for Christians, the heart is not a pretty place. Depraved sinners need the cross of Christ to crush our sin, its guilt, and its power. We need Christ’s resurrection power to raise us from death to life.

God crowned His creation-launching handiwork with the formation of man.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)

Read that verse again. The Creator made us like Him. The heights of our created dignity boggle the mind. Though God is Spirit (Westminster Shorter Catechism 4), our being made in His image (imago Dei) means that we mirror Him in every aspect of our being, material and immaterial. From our biology to our ideology, from our guts to our goals, from our lives to our loves, as individuals and in our relationships—we reflect our Maker.

Created male and female, we do not possess the image of God only to drop it when we want. We are image bearers, and image bearing is inescapably, therefore, what we do. At every microsecond of our existence, we live before and in relation to the God who made us in His image. Here we stand. We can do no other.

Yet the beauty and towering grandeur of our image bearing suffered a short life. On the heels of the original and “very good” creation (Gen. 1:31), our covenant head, Adam, along with his wife, Eve, snubbed their Creator King. Disobeying His word, they cast themselves and their offspring into the pit of sin, its guilt and its perversion. This image-deforming act birthed corruption and banished us all with humanly irreparable consequences.

Adam and Eve became moral contortionists, twisted in on themselves. Designed for rich fellowship with the holy God, now as self-glorifying narcissists, our guilty first parents and their offspring face alienation from Him, while we stubbornly chase our own pernicious, me-myself-and-I ways.

Distorted, deceived, and desperate, image bearers flip God’s world upside down. Created to think in accordance with God’s thoughts, our distorted minds believe and speak deceiving words. Formed to glorify God, our distorted hearts twist divine affection into self-love. Designed to obey God’s Word, our stubborn wills insist that lawlessness is freedom. Intended for life in Him, without divine rescue, we die estranged from Him. In all things, we spurn the Word of God and turn from the God of the Word.

It is no wonder that the Bible paints our sin so hideously. Sin in all its forms is idolatry. In our sin, we demand subjection from the King of the universe. Then we exchange Him for would-be gods beaten into the shape of our perversion on the anvil of our own steely hearts. Once magnificent, we are now maimed image bearers who fabricate gods of our liking, gods that reflect us.

This sinful distortion is what we call depravity.

Drawing on the root pravus (crooked), the Latin word depravare means “to distort or disfigure.” The term depravity graphically captures the Bible’s teaching concerning the damaging and damning effects of sin. What was by original creation straight is now warped by the fall; what was pure is now putrid. With hardened hearts and skewed minds, we are bent in on ourselves, undesirous, unwilling, and unable to turn rightly toward God. Formed in the image of God, we are now deformed. Depravity desecrates dignity.

It is often asserted that total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be but rather speaks of the permeating reach of sin. In a very impor­tant sense, this is true. God kindly restrains humanity from the depths of evil that our hearts would cherish and chase. While the breadth/depth distinction clarifies something, however, we must be careful. Taking total depravity lightly manifests depravity; trivializing it masks its deceptive power.

Paul notably urges us to take sin’s force seriously:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—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. (Eph. 2:1–3)

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