Today I want to begin a series of messages on the doctrines of grace. Really, every time I preach, whatever subject we consider has a connection to grace, because the basic, fundamental, underlying principles of the grace of God are a foundation upon which everything does, indeed, rest.
There’s an acronym that enables us to easily remember these fundamental points - the word “tulip.”
The “T” standing for total depravity, which simply means that man is a fallen sinner.
“U” standing for unconditional election, which means that God chose a people unto salvation. The “L” standing for limited atonement, meaning that Christ actually redeemed a specific number. It is sometimes also referred to as particular redemption. The “I” for irresistible grace, meaning that the Spirit’s call is always effectual. And “P” for the perseverance of the saints, the righteous shall hold on their way.
The first of these is total depravity and that’s my subject today. The text is Romans, chapter five, verse 12, “Wherefore, as 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 one man. Who was that man? It was the first man Adam. By this one man sin entered into the world, and death is the result of sin. So death is passed upon all men for that all have sinned.
What is meant by Total Depravity?
First, then, we consider the question of what is meant by total depravity? Certainly, if you’re acquainted with the Scriptures, you know that man is in a fallen state, you know that he’s a sinner. You may know that from your own experience, as well. But more importantly, do you know that you are a fallen sinner in the sight of God?
When we speak of total depravity, we speak of the Biblical doctrine that the whole race is under the curse of sin, and that we are all guilty before a perfect and holy God.
Romans 3:10 says, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one...” That declaration is obviously offensive to people today, who often consider that there is a spark of divinity in every human being and that it just needs to be fanned into a flame of righteousness. That while man may, at times, make some mistakes, that he basically is good. If you put him in the right environment, give him enough encouragement, he’ll turn out exceedingly well. But this says, “There is none righteous.” That’s all-inclusive, is it not? In fact, he adds the comment, “no, not one.” There are none who are righteous in the sight of God. Now, he says, “As it is written,” which means, of course, that this was written before.
We find the principle in the Old Testament. We find it explicitly written. Let’s look at Psalm 14: “The Lord looked down from heaven 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.” (vv. 2-3). You sometimes hear people say that before the foundation of the world God looked down through time, saw those that would have tender hearts, saw those who would be receptive to the gospel, and made a choice based on what He saw. But the Scripture declares that when God looked down from heaven upon the children of men He saw that they are all gone aside. This is the declaration of God’s Word.
So, secondly, we not only mean that the whole race is under the curse of sin, but that man, then, is alienated from God. Romans, chapter three, verse 11, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” Now, somebody might want to argue with that point and say, “Well, I believe that there are religious people all over the world.” Indeed, there are. But it’s one thing to seek religious exercise, it’s another thing to seek God. Man does not love God by nature. Man does not seek God by nature. He may want the advantages. He may want the benefits. He may want what he feels like God can give him, but he doesn’t want God because God is holy and man is sinful.
A third thing that we would say, by definition, as to what is meant by total depravity, is that man is completely incapacitated in the spiritual realm. Ephesians, chapter two, verse one, says “...you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins...” Dead in trespasses and in sins. That obviously does not mean that man is physically dead. He’s still alive physically. He still commits sin. He still lives a life that is displeasing to God. He does have a will. By his will he determines to do what is sinful; that’s what he wants to do. He’s not coerced to sin, he sins because he wants to sin. He sins because it is his nature to sin. Then we look at the Gospel of John, chapter six, verse 44. These are the words of Jesus, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” Here is a clear declaration of man’s incapacity. He’s not interested in coming because he doesn’t fear God, he doesn’t seek God, he doesn’t love God. He basically hates all that God stands for. That’s what’s in the natural heart.
What does Total Depravity not mean?
Now, when we say “total depravity,” what does it not mean? It does not mean that all men are equally bad. All men are sinners. All men are corrupt. All men are dead in sin, but not all are equally bad. Man is as bad off as he can be, but he’s not as bad as he can be. You obviously know of some people that are worse than others. There are people around you who are courteous, pleasant people. They may not be children of God, they may not have a work of grace, but they are basically nice people.
Let’s turn to 2 Timothy, chapter three, verse 13, “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.” If every member of the human family was already as bad as they can be, then they couldn’t get any worse. But this text says that evil men and seducers are going to get worse. Secondly, when we say that man is totally depraved, we are not saying that he has no conscience. If God had not created man with a conscience—that is, if nobody had any sense of right and wrong—it would be impossible for civilization to survive. Do you think that there are enough policemen in the United States to keep everything under control if all of a sudden everybody that lives in this country was void of any conscience, had no sense of the difference between right and wrong, just gave way to do their own feelings? It would be impossible. The policemen themselves wouldn’t have any sense of what was appropriate, and so there would be total chaos.
Now, let’s look at Romans, chapter one, verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness...” The word which is here translated “hold” means “to suppress.” These are individuals who attempt to suppress the truth about God, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse...” (vv. 19-20). Man has no excuse. God says He has revealed His power, His greatness, even in creation so that a man looking on the natural creation would have to know that it did not happen by chance, it was by a Designer.
After describing man in his fallen state, pursuing a terrible course of sin and wickedness, Paul continues in verse 32, “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” You see, man is not left out there, even in his sinful, fallen state, with no sense of right and wrong. He’s not totally void of a conscience. He’s not totally blinded to the fact that there is a Creator. God says all of this is clearly manifest.
Third, when we say that man is totally depraved, it does not mean that he is incapable of human good. A term that’s often been used is “civil virtue.” In other words, you may know an individual who is a good citizen, a law-abiding citizen. They pay their taxes, they’ve never caused anybody any particular trouble. They’ve never been arrested. They contribute to their community. They’re kind to little children. They’re considerate of animals.
Do you think that because somebody does all of these outwardly good acts that that means, beyond any question, they are a child of God? That’s not what Scripture teaches. Let’s go to the book of Luke. Chapter 18, verse 11 relates, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” Now, remember that the sect of the Pharisees was a very strict order. Their moral standard was exceedingly high. The man was, no doubt, telling the truth. He was not a cheater, he was not like many other people were as far as their moral walk and conduct. He was not an adulterer. He obeyed the law and gave tithes of all that he possessed. Now the publican smote on his breast and said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And verse14 says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” The Pharisee was not justified!
Matthew, chapter seven, verse 21, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (vv. 21-23). Here are people that had spoken in God’s name, they had prophesied, they had supposedly cast out devils, they had done what they perceived to be many wonderful works. What does God say about them? “I never knew you.” He didn’t know them in the covenant. He didn’t know them in election. He didn’t know them in redemption. He didn’t know them in calling. “I never knew you: depart from me...” You see, we are to love God supremely.
Let’s look at Matthew, chapter 22, verse 37, “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.” (vv. 37-38). A person might make tremendous sacrifices because they want to be recognized. They want their name on some building dedicated to their memory. The entire motivation may not be selfish, but it’s certainly with no thought that, “I want to glorify God.” Do you think that any service that’s rendered with an inferior motive, that “I want to make a name for myself, I want to do this so I will feel good about myself,” is something that’s honoring to God? No! He says the first and greatest of the commandment is that you love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength.
Furthermore, when we say that man is totally depraved we are not saying that he is no longer accountable. Obviously, Adam was accountable to God in the garden. Man is still accountable.
Back to Romans, chapter one, He has manifest in them the truth that there is a God, “God hath shewed it unto them” (v. 19). He says that even His eternal power and godhead are manifest “so that they are without excuse” (20). Chapter nine, verse 18 says, “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” The Spirit of God was inspiring Paul to write, and, obviously, the Spirit of God knew what man’s reaction would be, and the question is answered in advance: “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault?” How can he be accountable? Paul gives God’s answer to that question: “For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (vv. 19-21).
Further Description of Our Depraved State
Now, seeing something of what we mean by the term and what we do not mean, what further descriptions do we have in the Scriptures concerning this fallen, depraved state? We learn first that man is depraved from birth: “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Also, Psalm 58, verse three says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.”
You have never had to sit down and teach your child to make some mistakes, do some wrong things, to exaggerate, lie a little bit, rebel and disobey. We are all born with that fallen, sinful nature. The will of man is depraved. We read earlier that Jesus said we cannot come to Him unless the Father draws us; and one reason you cannot come is that you will not come, according to John five, verse 40, “ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.” You cannot come because you’re spiritually dead. You will not come because you don’t want to. You don’t want to come to Him. In Romans 6:20 we read “when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.”
Mankind can willingly do what he’s inclined to do, but what he’s inclined to do is sin. If you stand and look at the mighty waters rushing over Niagara Falls, you might say, “Those waters are free. Look at how rapidly they move! Look at the force and power!” Those waters are free to go down because water goes downhill. But you can’t say that Niagara Falls is absolutely free, because those falls are not going to reverse their course. This describes the condition of the sinner. He’s free, but free from righteousness.
Every part of man is affected by the fall. He’s depraved in his mind, his heart, and his affection. Romans, chapter eight, “Because the carnal 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.” (vv. 7-8). You see, the man might be a good next-door neighbor, might be a wonderful citizen in the community, but he cannot please God if he’s in the flesh. The carnal mind is enmity against God.
Jeremiah, chapter 17, verse nine says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” The heart is not just tainted by sin, the heart is desperately wicked. The heart is the seat of affection, it’s there that man has his rebellion against God. And, what makes it worse, the heart is deceitful. Man consoles himself with the idea that he’s not quite as bad as the next fellow. His sinful nature is expressed, then, in his every action. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way...” (Romans 3:10-12a). Does that say some of them have gone out of the way? No, we are all naked in our unrighteousness before a holy God. The entire world has become guilty before God.
What Conclusions Must Be Drawn?
Seeing that the Scripture teaches we are all totally depraved by nature, what conclusions must be drawn?
First of all, there is nothing whereby man can recommend himself to God. You have no righteousness, no merit, nothing that you can offer. Isaiah, chapter 64:6 even describes our acts of righteousness as “filthy rags” before God’s perfections. Seeing, then, that you have nothing whereby you can recommend yourself to God, salvation cannot possibly be by free will. In spite of the fact that multitudes of people declare that this is the ultimate basis of salvation, it cannot possibly be by man’s choice, by his free will.
As Romans 9:16 says, “so then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” There is, therefore, no hope apart from sovereign grace. But the positive side to that is there is hope in the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ. If this study of our own depravity has seemed to be pretty bleak and dark, here comes the good part. What is the turning point? What makes the difference? “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, 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...” (vv. 4-5). What made the change? It wasn’t the sinner. It was God. If you’re saved, God saves you. Just one way. God does the saving.
Oh, how wonderful when you come to see the fallen state of man, his ruined, hopeless condition… yet to understand that by the grace of God sinners are saved! “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). The good news is that God does save sinners, not on the basis of their worth and merit, but according to His eternal design and purpose to the glory of His name, through the redemptive work of His Son Jesus Christ.
The substitutionary death of Christ was absolutely essential. God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. He came from heaven at the appointed time, went to the cross at the exact moment, on the exact day, to do the exact work, to save the exact people that were given Him in the covenant. He laid down His life for them. He redeemed them, and that’s the basis of our salvation.
Do you see yourself as a sinner? Do you acknowledge the justice of God in your own condemnation?” The hymn writer said, “If thou my soul should send to hell, Thy righteous law approves it well.” Do you hate sin? An indication that God’s work of grace has been wrought in you is that you come to the point that you hate sin. Yes, you still have a battle. You still are made to say with the apostle, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). But when you sin, you don’t try to defend it, you don’t try to excuse it, you don’t say, “God’s not fair for forbidding me to do this.”
When Paul preached to those at Thessalonica he said, “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4) How did he know that? Because they had turned from idols to serve the true and living God. Do you cast yourself alone on His mercy? Have you been brought to say, “I believe Jesus Christ is the only hope for fallen sinners. I delight to hear that He came, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” If so, then that is an evidence that God’s grace has touched you, changed you, brought you to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Oh, how sweet is the gospel! The gospel is good news to sinners. It is not good news to everybody. To some it’s foolishness. To some it’s a stumbling block. To some it’s an offense. But if it’s good news to you, it’s an indication you’ve been blessed by the sovereign grace of God. Man is totally depraved. Salvation is of the Lord.