The Depth of Total Depravity and the Height of Gospel Liberation

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] 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— [3] 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 (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV)

The statement that we are spiritually dead is known as “total depravity.”  Total depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he can possibly be.  It does mean that every part of our being is tainted by sin (Stott, Ephesians, 79).  There is another dog in this fight.  Some would argue that we are not dead but in a coma; we are not totally depraved but partially depraved.  Some teach that man is born morally neutral and becomes sinful by imitation (Pelagianism).  However, Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  Others teach that our mind and body are affected by Adam’s sin but not our will.  Consequently, with the aid of God’s common grace, we can choose to be saved (Arminianism).  This was embraced by John Wesley.  Accordingly, it is the official position of the Methodist church.  However, we only need to look at Ephesians 2:3, “carrying out the desires of the body” to discover that our will is tainted by sin and in need of God’s special saving grace to choose Him.  In case that was not compelling enough evidence, Jesus said in John 15:16, “you did not choose me, but I chose you.”  We did not cooperate with God in salvation, we simply responded to the gracious call of God like Lazarus, who was physically dead, responded to the life-giving words of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43)!  So the notion of partial depravity falls short of expressing the extent of depravity in Ephesians 2:1-3. 

Total depravity teaches us that we are active participants in sin, not a passive accomplice.  A statement like, “the devil made me do it” expresses a passive accomplice mentality. 

Let them not then say that he who does wrong and sins, transgresses because of demons.  For then he would be guiltless.  Instead, a person becomes a demoniac man by choosing the same things as do the demons: by sinning and being unstable, frivolous, and fickle in his desires—just like a demon.  Now he who is bad (having become sinful by nature, because of evil) becomes depraved.  He has what he has chosen.  And, being sinful, he sins also in his actions.  Likewise, the good man does right (Clement of Alexandria [c. 195, E], 2.502 in A Doctrine of Early Christian Beliefs, 414). 

We live in a world where the reasons to not own up for our sin are legion.  We have this condition, we have this chemical imbalance.  I will not deny that such conditions exist but I will not concede that such circumstances remove our culpability.  We cannot continue to walk lockstep with the world and give in to the notion that sin is treated with a pill rather than the gospel.  It’s like throwing air freshener into a septic tank in the hopes that it will take away the stench.  We need to come to terms with the depravity that resides within us.  Otherwise we cannot experience the liberating power of the gospel.  We will live our lives as victims rather than victors in Christ.

In Ephesians 2:1-10 Paul first plums the depths of pessimism about man, and then rises to the heights of optimism about God.  It is this combination of pessimism and optimism, of despair and faith, which constitutes the refreshing realism of the Bible.  For what Paul does in this passage is to paint a vivid contrast between what man is by nature and what he can become by grace (Stott, Ephesians, 69). 

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