SIN: What is total depravity?

Christians: What is total depravity?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick;who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9

Human depravity is an undeniable reality. Even atheists know humans are not as they should be. Psychological pioneer Sigmund Freud views our innermost self as a “hell.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes:

Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [man is a wolf]; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history?1

Despite the fact we are sinners, the Bible repeatedly states that after the fall we do retain the image of God.2 Included in this is a vestige of moral sense because of the conscience that God has given us as his image bearers.3 Because people are made in God’s image with a conscience, the Bible does speak of some non-Christians who, while not holy and living to God’s glory, do some “good” things. Examples include Abimelech,4 Balaam,5 Rahab,6 Artaxerxes,7 and the Good Samaritan.8

The existence of “good” non-Christians is evidence of God’s common grace. Nonetheless, without saving grace we sinners are unable to do anything that makes us pleasing in God’s sight because it is not done in faith as an act of worship out of love for God.

While people are not utterly depraved and as evil as they could be, all people are totally depraved in that their every motive, word, deed, and thought is affected, stained, and marred by sin. This includes the mind,9 will,10 emotions,11 heart,12 conscience,13 and physical body.14 The totality of a person is pervasively affected by sin, and there is no aspect of their being not negatively impacted by sin. In this way, sin in our life is like sewage dropped into a glass of drinking water in that it infects and affects all of the water leaving none of it pure and clean.

Describing what can also be called pervasive depravity, J. C. Ryle said, “Sin . . . pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds. The understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will, are all more or less infected.”15 Practically speaking, this means that we cannot fully trust any single aspect of our being (e.g., our mind or our emotions) because each is tainted and marred by sin and therefore not perfect or objective. Subsequently, we need God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and God’s people to help us see truly and live wisely.

Do you truly believe in that all of a person is infected and affected by sin, and needs God’s grace and wisdom through the Holy Spirit?

1Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (London: Hogarth, 1963), 58.
2Gen. 5:1–3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9.
3Rom. 2:14–15.
4Genesis 20.
5Numbers 22–24.
6Joshua 2.
7Ezra 7; Nehemiah 2.
8Luke 10:30–37.
9Eph. 4:18.
10Rom. 6:16–17.
11Titus 3:3.
12Jer. 17:9.
13Titus 1:15.
14Rom. 8:10.
15John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan, 2002), 4.