While John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace is one of the best-loved hymns of all time, many fail to see how amazing grace really is.
In a day when large numbers flock to hear a message that makes them feel good about themselves, not much is heard from many pulpits about God’s holiness, his justice, and the desperate need of his sovereign grace. Because God is holy, he does not excuse or overlooks man’s sin. Justice must be maintained, the penalty for breaking his law must be executed.
So when we get the correct view of man’s sinful condition, we recognize there could be no salvation apart from grace.
Man’s sinful condition is described in Romans 5:12, "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." By Adam’s transgression, sin entered the world and the consequence of sin, death, has come to all men.
What Is Man's Condition?
As a result of Adam’s fall, man is depraved. By way of definition, when we say man is totally depraved, we mean the whole race is under the curse of sin. God told Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17b). Because of his rebellious and disobedient act, Adam was separated from God and banished from the beautiful Garden of Eden.
Man is now dead in trespasses and sins; physical death also became a reality.
Romans 3:10 tells us "there is none righteous, no, not one." No member of the human family can claim exemption from this sinful state. There is none righteous and by way of emphasis is added the clear declaration “no, not one.”
In an effort to prove that salvation ultimately hinges on man’s free will, some argue that God looked down through time, saw who would make the right choice and determined to save those who would accept his offer. This would indicate that some had hearts that were softer than others, some were inclined to move toward God while others were not; and that God determined to save them on the basis of these good qualities. But in Psalm 14:2-3, we learn what God saw when he looked at man: "the Lord looked down upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one."They are all “gone aside”. Not just a few of them, not just many of them; but all of them.
There is not one that does good in God’s sight, not one that could merit his favor.
Furthermore, to say that man is depraved is to say that he is alienated from God. According to Romans 3:18 he does not fear God. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but man in his natural state does not fear the true and living God. And Romans 3:11 tells us that man does not seek God.
It might be argued that there are people all over the world who participate in some kind of religious exercise and acknowledge a supreme power, but while we recognize that man is inclined to be religious, he does not by nature fear, seek, or love the God of the Bible. As a result of the fall, man is incapacitated in the spiritual realm.
In Ephesians 2:1, Paul describes him as being dead in trespasses and sins. Of course he is physically alive. He is actively sinning against God, but with regard to spiritual things he is dead. If salvation depended on activity on his part then no man would ever be saved. Jesus said, no man can come to me expect the Father draw him(John 6:44a). It is impossible for man to save or help save himself.
What Total Depravity Does Not Mean
The term “total depravity” does not mean that all men are equally bad. Man’s heart is full of wickedness, even if he does not perform all the wickedness that is in his heart.
You may have a neighbor who seems kind and considerate. He is certainly not outwardly like Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. But the fact is that because of his sinful nature, every man has the potential to become even more evil than he is at the moment. Paul tells Timothy, evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived (2 Timothy 3:13).
Furthermore, it does not mean that natural man does not have a conscience. If man did not have a sense of right and wrong, no society could survive. There would be anarchy and ultimately complete destruction. There is a general revelation of God seen in his creation and Romans chapter one reveals that although man may seek to suppress this truth, he is without excuse and is accountable for his actions.
Embracing the doctrine of total depravity is not a denial that man is incapable of doing human good.
Some have referred to this as “civil virtue”, deeds that outwardly conform to the law or are for the benefit of others. Many Pharisees were respectable citizens in that they conformed to the law, but their motives were wrong because their heart was not right. Matthew 7:21-23, speaks of the fact there will be those at the last day who plead that they have done many wonderful works but the Lord will "profess unto them I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity."
What Description Do We Have of Man's Condition?
Man is depraved by birth. No one has to teach him to be a sinner. His environment may entice him to certain sins, but his problem is that he was shaped “in iniquity” and conceived “in sin.” (Psalm 51:5, Psalm 58:3). Man’s will is depraved: Jesus said, "ye will not come to me, that ye might have life"(John 5:40).
The will is in bondage to sin. Man sins because he wants to, not because he is coerced.
Paul says, "when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness" (Romans 6:20). Although men claim to be free, the fact is that apart from grace they are in bondage. Since man’s will is enslaved to sin, he is incapable of elevating himself into favor with God by an act of “free will.” The sinful nature ultimately expresses itself in sinful actions.
Romans 3:13-18 describes this condition in detail,
"Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps in under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace they have not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes."
A look at the violence that is rampant around the world today should convince anyone that man is not basically good, but is a sinner who by nature is in rebellion against God.
What Conclusions Must Be Drawn
First we see there is nothing good in man whereby he could recommend himself to God. Even his “righteousnesses” are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Review his greatest accomplishments and his finest works but they are all contaminated by sin.
Without faith it is impossible to please God, so no matter how appropriate the action may be in the eyes of others, it is not acceptable to God when there is no faith.
Second, we see that man is spiritually dead and blind and cannot comprehend spiritual things. The word may be preached, the gospel may be clearly presently, but the natural man cannot receive it. The message is not beautiful to see or joyous to hear until the Spirit of God has prepared the heart, opened the eyes and unstopped the ears (2 Corinthians 2:14).
Next, it should be evident from the scriptures depicting man’s fallen and ruined state, that salvation cannot possibly be by an act of his own will. "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" (Romans 9:16). Man in his pride tends to think that given enough time there is no limit to what he can accomplish.
But the fact remains, he cannot save his own soul; he is shut up to the mercy of God.
And the fourth thing we note is that there is no hope apart from God’s free and sovereign grace. Titus 3:5 declares, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." Language could not be plainer; it is not by works which we have done, but by God’s mercy that we are saved.
In the Ephesian letter Paul describes our condition in nature as being dead in sins, walking according to the course of this word and according to the prince of the power of the air, pursuing the lusts of the flesh and desires of the mind; and then he tells us what brought us out of that state. Ephesians 2:4,5: "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)." Walking according to the course of the world, men would not and could not turn themselves around.
Being dead in sin they would never move toward God. What made the difference? “But God.”
It was God who chose a people, God who sent His Son to redeem them, God who called them, God who raised them up from the dunghill of depravity to inherit thrones of glory. Surely grace is amazing. Do you see yourself as a sinner? Do you acknowledge the justice of God in your condemnation? Do you hate your sins and truly repent? Do you see the impossibility of saving yourself? Do you cast yourself on His mercy? Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior?
If this is your experience it is evidence you have been touched by his saving grace. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life" (John 3:36a).