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Total Depravity Makes Christianity Unique

Category Articles
Date June 2, 2006

One of the myths of present day society, that is widely held and believed, is that all religions are the same. Oh, they may have superficial differences, but in those things that are basic there is no difference – they are all just many paths to the same God. All religions believe in a Supreme Being, the need for repentance and forgiveness, and the importance of loving others as you love yourself. That all should live by the ‘golden rule’ which is ‘do unto others as your would have them do unto you.’

And I would agree with the above assessment of the religions of the world and that is they are all the same, there is no differences as to the basics – except Christianity. Christianity is not like any other religion of the world and is unique in its essence and in its way of salvation. Now in many circles such a claim would raise howls of protests. I would be called such names as a bigot, intolerant, absolutist and horror of horrors, a Nazi or worse. Even though I speak the truth and can prove with absolute certainty that my claim is incontrovertible.

I can prove it by asking a simple question of all the religions on the face of the earth and that is: ‘Good Sirs, What must I do to be saved?’ And without exception the response of every representative of the major religions of the world, and the minor ones as well, would go something like this: believe as we believe, do the best that you can, follow our rules, partake of our rituals, and hopefully God will be merciful to you in the end.

Oh, yes the rituals might be different from one another as the Sikh might ask you to wear a turban; the Moslem might ask you to visit Mecca and throw stones at the Devil; the Hindu would tell you to wash in the Ganges; while the Buddhist would give you a list of rules and steps to achieve Nirvana. But the answer to my question from every religious representative in the world would be the same and that is with God’s help and assistance you must work your way into heaven. You must do the best you can and God hopefully will reward you in the end. Which explains why Moslem suicide bombers are so willing to blow up both themselves and as many innocent victims as possible! They do this because they have foolishly believed that their sinful actions have earned them instant access to Paradise. In a word all religions of the world hold that heaven, by whatever means it is to be gained, is by the effort and dint of one’s labors whether assisted by God or not.

Christianity is the sole exception

Now as I have said, there is an exception amongst the religions of the world, and that is Biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity teaches that you can do nothing to save yourself. Salvation is not something that is worked up but something that is brought down. Christianity is not a religion of ‘do’ but ‘done’. And the reason for this is because of the biblical teaching concerning man’s condition. Man is totally depraved! His condition is described in Ephesians 2:4, as akin to physical death. ‘Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.’ Man is powerless to effect his own salvation. It would be like trying to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. As the fallen Sons and daughters of Adam, there is nothing in our flesh that can rise up and take hold of salvation no matter how it is packaged or how close it comes to us.

It is true that the concept of total depravity to describe man’s nature and position before God, is not widely believed or held to even in many so-called Christian communions. But truth is not dependent on majority opinion. In the words of Basil of Caesarea, ‘Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.’ The word total depravity may have connotations that may be misleading to many, but ought not to be after two thousand years of God’s servants explaining the truth of the matter.

Certainly, total depravity does not mean that one is as bad as one can possibly be. We ourselves see people slide into greater and greater sin, and become more corrupt and cruel. A mother’s curly headed boy can, by thirty, become a mass murderer or corrupt official. No, total depravity means total inability. Because of Adam’s one act of disobedience, we have not only sinned in Adam, but inherited Adam’s sinful nature. Every part of man’s being has been brought under the power of sin. Sin has corrupted every faculty of man. The mind is darkened in superstition and ignorance (Romans 8:7); the heart is impervious to God’s pleas (Isaiah 29:33); and the will (yes the will) is in bondage to sin and to Satan (John 1:13). The author, James White in ‘God’s Sovereign Grace’ sums it up this way, ‘Man is utterly dependent upon God. He is incapable of doing good, incapable of coming to Christ, incapable of accepting and understanding spiritual things, outside of a supernatural work of God by his Spirit’ (p.44). It is true that we have God’s permission to come, we are even commanded to come, but being ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ we have no inclination or power within ourselves to come. The God who commands must provide the power to come by awakening the ‘dead’ in order that they might obey his command and receive the benefits that are present in the command.

Only two religions

The fact is there are only two religions in the world, the one religion that says ‘do’ and the one true religion that says ‘done’! The one trumpets the so called ‘free will’ of man while the other ‘the free grace of God.’ The first tells you what you must do for God while the second declares what God has done for you that you could not do for yourself. The religion of works pictures salvation as a possibility for all men if they work hard enough or are holy enough. The religion of free grace presents salvation as certain for all the elect of God because God gives faith as a gift. The question is: ‘what is preached in your church ‘do’ or ‘done’?

Do you see the difference? I have proven my case have I not? Oh yes, I agree I have not proven whether Christianity is the true religion. The others by ascribing powers of salvation to the flesh may be right, and Christianity which exalts God’s grace alone may be wrong. But I have shown that they both cannot be right. The religion of works and the religion that teaches that salvation is by grace alone, are like oil and water, they cannot be mixed.

But whatever you think about my argument, the testimony of Scripture is clear that in our flesh there dwells no good thing. Read, for example, Psalm 14 in which the Psalmist pictures God looking down from heaven in search of one righteous person. Thus we read in verses 4ff. ‘The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, (and in case any misread) not even one.’ God’s condemnation is total and accurate for he is the God of all holiness and all righteousness. God sees every person who will ever live and finds not one who is ‘good’ in his sight with the exception of Christ Jesus our Lord. That no man has anything to offer to God but his sin and shame.

Herein lays one of the unique tenets of the Christian faith. While other faiths find something good in man to boast of, or appeal to, the Christian faith teaches that there is no good thing in anyone whether by nature or by practice that can in anyway make God amenable to them. All fall short of the absolute perfection that God rightly demands of his creatures, and thus all are by nature the children of wrath and under God’s condemnation at birth (see John 3:18). Luther saw this more clearly than most, perhaps, in part because he had tried more earnestly than most to gain God’ s favor by means of the prescribed works of religion inherent in Roman Catholic dogma. He would later confess that if any could gain heaven by ‘monkery’ he was that man. But when God graciously opened his eyes to salvation, that is by faith alone in the finished work of Christ, he, like Paul renounced all his so called former righteousness (Philippians 3:7-10) and leaned wholly and only on Jesus for a righteousness that is found in Christ alone.

Man’s plight

The Scriptures are very clear as to man’s plight – from conception to death there is something radically wrong with us, and unless God in grace brings salvation to our souls, all our efforts remain as God sees them, filthy rags. Two Mormons sat in my living room discussing their religion. I asked if they believed we were sinners from birth. They said they did not, and the Bible taught no such thing. I then took them to Psalm 51:5, ‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.’ They sat in stunned silence for a moment and then said, ‘we don’t believe that’! I said that I felt very sorry for them. And they asked me why? I told them, ‘because you are deceived and deceivers of others.’ They left angry.

The teaching of the Christian faith is unique in its view of man’s need. All other religions of whatever stripe, hold that man is basically good despite the history of man in all its brutality and savagery. All man needs is a little guidance, the proper education, some encouragement and that man is basically perfectible. Our whole educational system is based on the lie that children have good hearts. In no way are they considered sinners and rebels against God; this despite the fact that they are rude, indolent, disruptive, cruel, bullies and constantly in need of warnings, correction and discipline. The further we get from God’s descriptive and prescriptive revelation of human nature, the more the halls have to be policed by security forces wearing guns and batons. Whatever genes we inherit from our parents included in the gene pool is the old Adamic gene ‘haters of God’ and ‘rebels against heaven’.

Are we aware of the fact that when we preach man’s ability to contribute something to his own salvation, we oppose God and stand with the other religions of the world? You see I love flattery. I love to be told I am wonderful and beautiful. Who doesn’t like to have their positives noticed and their not-so-positives go unnoticed? But the thing about the Word of God is it never flatters! Ever notice that? All the saints in the Bible are given to us warts and all. The Bible never indulges our vanity, it never say things about us that are not true. The Bible is very clear on the subject of man’s plight. Every faculty including man’s will is vitiated by sin and under the dominion of Satan. Not only so, but men love to have it so. The truth of God is frank. Some would say brutally frank, but I prefer to say, necessarily frank. Salvation begins when we understand the hopelessness of our situation, and, need to look to Christ alone for the remedy.

But surely someone will protest that people do good, indeed, we have been recipients of people’s goodness. How then can Paul, quoting the Old Testament write, ‘there is none good, not even one’ (Romans 3:12). The answer may be found in the following illustration. You have heard this before but it bears repeating. A pirate ship roams the ocean main. It flies the skull and cross bones and is a bane to the entire king’s commerce. It raids the king’s ships and destroys his legitimate rights. On board the pirate ship are some real scoundrels, criminals and cruel men. There are also some wonderful pirates who serve others with loving kindness and do their best to make the ship habitable. They are ‘good’ pirates but pirates still. Their efforts are used to resist the king and stand against his justice and righteousness and refuse to give him his Sovereign rights in their lives. The point of this illustration is obvious. Satan is our captain, and while in the kingdom of darkness, we are against Christ and not for him. All our good deeds serve the wrong captain until by God’s grace we are translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

Man is bad

John Reisinger describes Total Depravity this way, ‘Man is bad, but he is not so bad, but he really is bad.’ That is, man is a sinner; no, he is not nearly as sinful as he might be, but yes, he really is a totally depraved sinner in God’s eyes. You see when we use the term Total Depravity there are those who cry, ‘wait a minute, one cotton picking minute’. I may do a few bad things but I am not a Neanderthal dragging some woman by the hair into my lair. I am not a Lizzie Borden who gave her parents ‘forty whacks’ with the axe. I love my family, pay my taxes, and seek to help others with my finances and physical services.

And clearly what you say is true. But who should we give thanks to for that? Is it not true that apart from God’s grace those reading this could be the most feared brigands in history? Listen, I bless God for saving grace but I also bless my God for restraining grace. I wouldn’t want to live in a country, or a city, where the Spirit of God is not at work, by diverse means, in restraining man’s passions and desires from breaking out in volcanic eruptions as sometimes seen in the Nazi era or in Stalin’s gulags.

Do you know what will happen when God removes his restraining power? Here it is described for us in 2 Thessalonians 2:6ff. ‘And now you know what is holding him back so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the (ultimate) lawless one will be revealed’. Do you see that? The inhabitants of planet earth are a seething mass of rebels. Like the restless sea (Isaiah 57:20) they seek to break their bonds and inundate the land. Every crime, every sin is an attempt to tear God from his throne and rule in his stead. But thank God for his Spirit who says, ‘thus far and no further’. We may thank God for common grace.

If it were not for God’s gracious restraining power this planet would be uninhabitable, in fact we may have killed off our species long ago.

Man is not so bad

Total Depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he can be. Clearly, some are more wicked than others. Some will be more corrupt tomorrow than they are today. Man is on a slippery slope. Some are nearer the top than others but all are sliding down the slope and unable to reach the top by any efforts of their own. Yes, there are noble people in the world. I can admire them and praise them and even wish that I were like them. Unbelievers are responsible for beautiful things, fine music, discoveries in science and medicine which benefit all. They can be brave firemen, policemen, ambulance drivers and soldiers, all of whom lay their lives on the line to protect ours. Man is not so bad that he doesn’t have a conscience that helps him differentiate between right and wrong, and either accuses him or excuses him. Why, you see me in my Sunday clothes, and on my best behaviour. I love to be liked and put my best foot forward when it pays to do so.

Man is really bad

But you don’t see me at home, how I treat my wife, or when I kick the dog (I don’t have a dog so please don’t call the humane society). In your eyes I may seem a nice fellow but God sees the outside, and the inside, the front side, the back side and all sides. He sees every unseen desire, every thought, weighs every motive, and God is right when he judges that there is no good thing that dwells in us (Romans 7:18). There is not one spark of goodness that can claim God’s reward or fellowship. We don’t have a homing device that goes ‘beep, beep, God I am over here help me’. There are no flares that cry ‘save me’ and no ‘SOS’ that shouts rescue my soul.

To quote Spurgeon in an evening sermon, September 30th, 1888:

Let us see if our friend in this coffin can see. Here, lift the coffin-lid, wave a lighted candle before his eyes; pull up that blind, let in the sunlight. He does not see; and he cannot see. There are none so blind as the dead; and there was a time with me – and I use myself sorrowfully as an example – when I could not see. I could not see the Lord, I could not see his love, I could not see his bleeding heart, I could not see his thorn-crowned head, I saw no beauty in the altogether-lovely One. I was wrapped up in my own worldly pleasure, and in myself, and I was not alive unto God. Ah me! this is indeed death, to be unable to hear or see.

Spurgeon describes with telling effectiveness in paragraph after paragraph man’s helpless estate. The invitation to come is given but unless God’s power accompanies the gracious invitation, it is greeted with jeers or apathy.

The fact is that total depravity is one of the reasons I believe in the Christian faith as the one true faith on the face of the earth. Christianity is of God and not of men. Why so? For the simple reason no man has or would ever come up with a doctrine like this. Man in his fallen state flatters himself too much to believe that he is totally unable to do one good thing that can earn himself favor with God. Why, even some of our fellow believers cling to a doctrine which teaches ‘free will’ and pour scorn on the Biblical doctrine of the ‘bondage of the will’. Total Depravity must be of God and cannot be of man because apart from the Bible it is not taught in any religion or philosophy. It makes Christianity unique, in fact it makes us realize that if God had not revealed the depths of our depravity, we would never have known how desperate the plight of man really is.

Everywhere men are erecting towers as in the story of Babel of old. They say ‘let us go up’, but the Bible story is of a God who replies ‘let us go down.’ And the marvel remains that God did become man and came from heaven in order to take his elect to heaven by overcoming their depravity. Paul, quoting from Hosea writes: ‘In the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” they will be called “sons of the living God” (Romans 9:26). Total Depravity is no reason to despair but rather to look up to God for our salvation: to say to Jesus, ‘I am lame and cannot come, blind and cannot see, deaf and cannot hear, tongue-tied and cannot ask, oh God of glory and God of grace, give me what I do not have.’

Practical Implications:

First, the doctrine is a great leveler. All are in the same boat. All are just as lost so to speak. What a wonder to go to the most wicked man in the community and give him the gospel with the realization that he is no more dead than the most respected man in the community. He is not deader or more impossible to reach. All outside of Christ are faced with the same impossibility – they cannot save themselves, but God can do the impossible and ‘snatch them as a brands from the burning’. It is not great eloquence that raises those dead in sins, but God himself who brings spiritual life where death now abounds.

Moreover, the doctrine is a humbling doctrine. Proud man has nothing to boast of or glory in. In today’s society where the focus is on man, even in evangelism, this doctrine puts the focus on God. God must do it or it will not be done. Here is something out of man’s reach. He may go to the moon but he cannot save his own soul, which is far more important, for after all what will it profit one if he gains the ‘moon’ but loses his own soul. And as for us believers, how we should marvel and wonder again at the grace of our God, who, had he chosen, could have left us with a multitude of others, strangers to grace and far removed from God’s people.

Finally, it is a spur to prayer and evangelism. In evangelism it need not be the eloquent or learned, but one little word from the mouth of a babe that can fell the sinner (Psalm 8). This doctrine teaches us to rely not on methods or star power, but on the Almighty whose arm is not shortened that it cannot save. God so encouraged the Apostle Paul in Acts 18:9, ‘One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”

God still has his elect in every city, so let us humbly pray that we can be used of him as instruments of his saving grace.

Taken from the Sovereign Grace Journal of Canada with permission.

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