To have a spiritually dead soul is, in the language of the Reformers and Puritans, to be totally depraved.1 We do not mean by this that each fallen human being fully manifests their moral corruption outwardly. We mean that every man’s depravity is “total” in that it has corrupted every inward part, every aspect, every faculty of his soul. Not one part of his being—spiritual, moral, rational, physical—remains pristine, unaffected by the Fall.
The most serious consequence of total depravity is the rejection of salvation—the salvation that is provided by the Lord Jesus Christ. All that Christ brings to spiritually dead souls in salvation answers to their real needs, for he gives life—spiritual, physical and eternal—and even more life than Adam had in the beginning. As the Lord said of himself: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10.10).
This is why, also, Christ told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…Ye must be born again” (John 3.3,7).
Suppose your life behaviour is sometimes accidentally in accordance with the commandments of God but you have not lived this way intentionally to obey him. Is this obedience? No. You have not purposefully kept God’s commandments. You have not pleased God: “The carnal2 mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8.7-8). And so, God counts it all as sin, for you didn’t do it in obedience to his commandment even though you obeyed them by accident.
There is nothing that any of us can do, say or think that can offset, undo, or cancel out the guilt of any of our sins.
God does not have a set of “scales of justice.” Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God weighs people’s good deeds against their bad deeds, and then allows them into heaven (or some imagined other-worldly paradise) if their good deeds are greater. But what we find in the Bible is this: God demands that we be perfect (see Genesis 17.1; Deuteronomy 18.13; 1 Kings 8.61; Matthew 5.20,48). And God solemnly threatens, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Deuteronomy 27.26; see also Galatians 3.10). How could a righteous God do otherwise?
It is not as though we can do some good but not enough to save our souls, and so along comes Christ to add his merit to our own “after all that we can do,” to help us get all the way to heaven. No. “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3.10).
Sometimes we may think about doing or saying something evil but then not do it or say it. We don’t always let out all that is in our hearts. When unregenerate people restrain themselves, they never do so out of obedience to God—the true God, and how he really is—whom they reject. The desire to obey God is not in our nature unless we are born again.
Fallen man’s motives for self-restraint are all self-centred, and these motives are nothing like repentance. Real repentance toward God involves turning from our sins with deep sadness and hatred for what we have done, said and thought—and begging God for forgiveness, and crying to him, “What must I do to be saved from myself and what I deserve for my sins?”
Unless you are converted, your heart will never go to real repentance toward God.
Instead, we may sometimes worry within ourselves, “What will my parents think of me?”—“What if I get caught?”—“What if the guilt of this sin or that sin affects my mind, my sleep, my health, my old age?”—“What will this do to my family, my career, my pension?” And so on.
If we rise in our thoughts to God at all (not to seek him but to resent him), we may be sometimes worried enough to ask ourselves, “What will happen to me on Judgement Day?” Unless God is beginning to draw us to Christ, we will hate such thoughts and do all that we can to push them out of our minds.
Human beings attempt to distinguish between right and wrong (good and evil) on the basis of conscience. Your conscience has been partly informed and influenced by who and what has nurtured you—by your upbringing, education, and the culture of the community and communications media around you—but it comes from something deeper than all of that: your nature.
So, what is your nature?
Whoever you are, ultimately your sense of right and wrong comes from God’s moral law, which was implanted in the soul of every human being.
As the apostle Paul explained was true even of people in old times who had not been raised in the Jewish religion: “For when the Gentiles,3 which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Romans 2.14-15).
When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in God’s law, he summarised the moral law by declaring the two greatest commandments. “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22.37-39).
That is how we really ought to live. We must strive to obey God in this way—to properly love him and properly love our neighbours (i.e. other human beings, near and far).
It is from this loving concern for our neighbours that Christians must expose and explain the bad news of man’s total depravity. For this is the context into which the gospel4—the good news of salvation for all who turn to Christ, has come.
The good news is this: If you “believe on5 the Lord Jesus Christ,” you shall be saved (Acts 16.31).
Total depravity is the summary name of the first of the “five points of Calvinism.” A well-thought-out explanation of this Biblical doctrine can be found in the, the Canons of Dort [Dordrecht] (1618-1619). The third part of this historic creed, titled Head III/IV: Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof, compares and contrasts man’s fallen state (elsewhere named total depravity) with the Christian’s regenerate state—first by positively affirming the Reformed (and Biblical) teachings on these two conditions, and then by explicitly rejecting the opposing errors on the Arminians. ↩︎
The word gentiles in our English Bibles is from the Latin, translating the New Testament Greek word ἔθνος (ethnos), meaning peoples or nations (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 1484). In Paul’s usage here (Romans 2.14-15), he is referring to all peoples other than the Jews; but the word can also include the Jews, e.g. “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people”, (Revelation 14.6). ↩︎
The word gospel is old English and it simply means good news. ↩︎
Older English Bible translations, including the King James (Authorised) Version, have the phrase “believe on” where it might be more usual for us to say “believe in.” Historically “believe on” referred to believing on a person, whereas “believe in” referred to believing in a doctrine or proposition. We usually don’t make that distinction today. ↩︎