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What’s So Great About Total Depravity?

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“I’m not totally depraved, am I?”

The answer from the Bible, and the testimony of universal human experience, is, “Yes, you really are.” But even if we have to accept that this is, in fact, the Bible’s teaching, it’s not obvious why we should like it. This is why some find it odd that Calvinists seem to love total depravity (the doctrine, not the condition) so much. Their question is, “What’s so great about the doctrine of total depravity?

I would offer three answers to this important question. For the doctrine of total depravity is not just something we learn so as to score high marks on some theology exam. Instead, total depravity is a doctrine to live by.

The first answer is that through the lens of a biblical understanding of ourselves, we come to appreciate the gospel truly. The only way to see the greatness of the gospel is to see how bad is our plight. Or to put it differently, unless we know what we are being saved from, we really don’t grasp the glory of our salvation.

People say the doctrines of grace are boring and irrelevant, and that we need to preach something else to keep their attention in church. But this could be said only by someone who does not sense the depth of his problem before God. Indeed, it is when we best see our lost condition that we most treasure the gospel. This is what the doctrine of total depravity tells us–that the only way someone like this, someone like you and me, is going to be made right with God is by radical grace. And when we combine an accurate appraisal of man’s total depravity with a biblical vision of the absolute holiness of God, we see the gospel in all its glory.

It is when we set God’s high and right demands next to our low and base performance, and when we compare His glorious being with our utter corruption, that we see the true problem of life. This is the great gulf between us and God, indeed an infinite one, as high as the heavens are above the earth. It is a problem that could be solved, a chasm that could be spanned, only on a hill far away, on an old rugged cross, “where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.

The second answer is that the doctrine of total depravity is vital to all true spirituality. At least this is what Isaiah 57:15 tells us: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” Do you want the high and holy God to dwell in your heart? Then humble yourself before Him with the truth about yourself, and look in total reliance to His grace for your salvation.

This is what marked the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector of whom Jesus spoke in Luke 18. The two men went into the temple to pray. The one thanked God for how good he had become, though admittedly with some help from the Lord. The other refused even to look upward, but beat his breast and cried out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Jesus commented, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

Likewise, it was when the prodigal son realized what a swine he had become that he finally turned his heart to his father. His return to spiritual life was marked with the words, “I am no longer worthy” (Luke 15:19, 21). This is true spirituality, for it leads us home to God.

The third answer is that total depravity exalts the cross in our eyes and fills our hearts with a holy delight. I think about a pastoral encounter I had some time ago. A young man came to speak with me about his lack of spiritual joy. He began by informing me that his doctrine was impeccable. He fully subscribed to all five points of Calvinism. He accepted covenant theology and despised all “inferior” products. But, he went on, “I just don’t feel anything.” Then he asked, “Is that a problem?”

How do you respond to such a question? I answered that, so far as his testimony was true, he did not have impeccable doctrine, nor did he even subscribe to the truths of the doctrines of grace. Not really, anyway. In short, if in his entire Christian life he had never “felt anything,” as he insisted was the case, then the reality was that his Christian life had never really existed. In ministering to this young man, I did not start by expounding the doctrine of election; in such a situation, it would be silly to inquire, “Do you think you are elect?” Neither did I expound on God’s marvelous love. The question, “Don’t you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” can have no meaning to someone who has heard the gospel but felt nothing. Instead, I started where Paul started in Romans and where the doctrines of grace truly begin. I said, “Evidently, you do not realize what a wretched person you truly are, and what an offense your depravity is in the holy sight of God, if you can feel nothing in response to the atoning death of God’s Son.”

Without a quickened awareness of our depravity, we are Pharisees at best, though most of us are far worse. The best we can approach is a religious performance that brings glory to us and leaves us looking down on everybody else, just the way many Christians today look down on the rest of society, the Pharisee gazing down on the abortion doctor and the pervert.

Jesus knew Pharisees well, and He didn’t like them. Far better to Him was the sinful woman who burst in at the home of a Pharisee named Simon and threw herself at Jesus’ feet. Jesus said to him: “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. . . . Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven–for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:44, 47).

Awe and gratitude drive the true Christian life and draw us joyfully to God’s grace in Christ. It is from the pit of our lost condition that we gaze up toward a God so high and perfect in His holiness. But from that vantage point we come to see fully at least one of those four dimensions of the cross that Paul would long to have us know: its height. The cross of Christ then rises up to span the full and vast distance that marks how far short we are of the glory of God, and that cross becomes exceedingly precious in our eyes.

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. (Isa. 12:1–2)”

This excerpt is adapted from What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? by Richard D. Phillips.

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