Remembering our sin in this way, far from sending us into despair, deepens our assurance. For if Christ loved us then, while we wanted nothing to do with him, will he not surely go on loving us now (Romans 5:10)? Our sin reminds us that the love of God never rested on our worthiness — for we had none — but only ever on Christ’s.
It is a settled spiritual principle that small thoughts of sin lead to small thoughts of Christ. If we think we have been forgiven little, we will love little (Luke 7:47). The same principle applies, however, to those who have simply forgotten how much they’ve been forgiven. And to one degree or another, we are all prone to forget.
Hence the apostle Paul’s command to remember what life was like without Christ:
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh . . . were . . . separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11–12)
Remember, Paul tells the Ephesians, that you were once separated, alienated, estranged, hopeless. Because then, and only then, will it mean something that in Christ you are reconciled, welcomed, adopted, saved.
So too with us. If we are going to love Christ much, we need to remember the depths from which he saved us. If we are going to treasure all we have in him, we need to remember who we were without him.
The biblical authors never speak softly about our sin. Paul does not hesitate to describe us as “dead in . . . sins” (Ephesians 2:1), nor does John to call us “blind” (1 John 2:11). In Jesus’s eyes, even the most generous among us are nevertheless “evil” (Luke 11:13). We should not flinch, then, to apply to our pre-Christian selves the infamous label of “totally depraved.”
Despite popular misperceptions, total depravity begins with a rather modest claim. The doctrine does not suggest (as some mistakenly believe) that we are as bad as we could be, but only that every part of us is bad: our minds, hearts, wills, affections. None of our faculties left Eden unfallen. As J.C. Ryle writes,
We can acknowledge that man has all the marks of a majestic temple about him — a temple in which God once dwelt, but a temple which is now in utter ruins — a temple in which a shattered window here, and a doorway there, and a column there, still give some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design, but a temple which from end to end has lost its glory and fallen from its high estate. (Holiness, 5)
Fallen man walks the earth like a ruined temple, at once magnificent and miserable. Our minds, which once welcomed the light of truth, are now “darkened” and “futile” (Ephesians 4:18; Romans 1:21). Our hearts, which once pulsed with holy passion, are now “hardened” and “deceitful” (Ephesians 4:18; Jeremiah 17:9). Our wills, which once leapt at God’s commands, now refuse to heed his voice (Jeremiah 9:6; John 5:39–40).
The temple of humanity may still be standing, but sin inhabits every ruined room. Apart from Christ, we are totally depraved.
No, Not One
Total depravity becomes a more difficult doctrinal pill to swallow when we consider some of its implications. For example: in our fallen state, we cannot submit to God (Romans 8:7), we cannot please God (Romans 8:8; Hebrews 11:6), and most striking of all, we cannot do good (John 15:5; Romans 14:23). “No one does good,” Paul tells us — “not even one” (Romans 3:12).
How do we make sense of such a statement? Don’t we see non-Christians help their neighbors and care for their children every day? Don’t we ourselves remember doing various good deeds before we followed Christ?
To be sure, the biblical writers are willing to grant a kind of goodness to the godless. Even the evil can “give good gifts,” Jesus says (Luke 11:13). Likewise, Paul assumes that rulers know how to recognize “good conduct,” and that pagan citizens know how to display it (Romans 13:3). But God-ignoring goodness, helpful as it may be for a well-ordered society, can never please God — any more than a song of praise to Baal could please him simply because it had a few pleasant notes. If our goodness is not through God, for God, and to God (Romans 11:36), then we are singing in the service of an idol.