As dreary as a study on depravity might sound. It is very theologically rich and beneficial. It is not until we have genuinely grasped the reality of who we are and what we have been saved from that we can see the riches and depths of God’s grace.
In the first article of this series, I worked to dispel some of the common misconceptions related to Calvinism. Moving forward, I will begin addressing the doctrines individually using the commonly known acronym, TULIP, as a guide for our discussion.
The TULIP acronym represents:
T – Total Depravity
U – Unconditional Election
L – Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible Grace
P – Perseverance of the Saints
It’s worth noting from the outset that the phrasing above doesn’t always do the best job in describing what each doctrine teaches. Some of the terminologies can be a little misleading. For example, the phrase “Limited Atonement” doesn’t outline who or what is limited (more on that in a later article), and that has led to some confusion over the years. Nevertheless, because TULIP is so well known, it makes sense to use it for our study. In cases where the terminology is weak or unclear, I will do my best to explain why and offer some supplementary phrasing that better captures the accurate teaching of the doctrine(s).
If one wishes to understand Calvinism rightly, there are a couple of core, bedrock principles to grasp. Total Depravity is one of them. I contend that every other doctrinal point in the TULIP acronym hinges on a correct understanding and application of Total Depravity. If you miss this one, it will likely skew how you process and apply the others. Though each doctrine is fully supported in scripture, the interworkings of each form a holistic understanding of biblical soteriology. Total Depravity is, in many ways, a systematic, theological linchpin for Calvinism.
Before moving on, I want to make it clear that Calvinism is biblical before it is systematic. Many critics point to the systematic nature of Calvinism as a fault, stating that it’s a forced reading of scripture in an attempt to fit doctrine into a system. This is simply not true. Reformed thought holds scripture in the highest regard, and any observed systematic reading in scripture is read because it is simply that – observed. The reformers were adamantly opposed to forcing doctrines, traditions, etc. Scripture is, and always will be, the final rule of Calvinism.
A right understanding of how sin has impacted the positional standing of mankind before a just and holy God is elemental to biblical and reformed thought. If we think too much of ourselves and our good works, we miss the entire point of the bible. This is because the true cornerstone of our faith, our salvation, our hope, and our glory is only found in Christ. He is the focus and glory of all of human history – not us. I once heard a theologian remark, “If your sin is great, your Savior will also be great.” This is how a study of Total Depravity helps us. It teaches us, who we are and what we naturally deserve: wrath. Total Depravity is a critical, first lesson that one must learn if they are to truly grasp the depth, beauty, and richness of God’s sovereign grace.
Stated plainly, Total Depravity teaches that original sin impacts and taints every person in every aspect of our being. In other words, the whole person is affected and dead in sin – the sum total of the person. Adam’s fallen nature was passed down to all of us when he sinned in the Garden of Eden, and ever since, humanity has had a genetic disposition towards sin. Our nature loves sin and hates God.
One should note that Total Depravity doesn’t teach that we’re all as bad as we can be. This is a case where the phrasing of the doctrine can be a little misleading. Many read “Total Depravity” and understand it to refer to the extent of one’s sinfulness. This is clearly not the case. Anyone, even Hitler, could conceivably be eviler. I believe it was the late R.C. Sproul, the Presbyterian theologian and pastor, who said he preferred the term “radical corruption.” I tend to agree. This wording more aptly describes the meaning of the doctrine.
Having said that, the severity of this depraved reality cannot be overstated. In a spiritual sense, we all are born dead in sin. When Adam, our federal head sinned, we died in the garden with him, and outside of God’s regenerative works, we do not inherently possess the ability to do good. Genuine piety, faith, repentance, and the like are completely foreign to our natures. Naturally speaking, we want nothing to do with God.
Consider this for a moment: have you ever had to teach a young child to be naughty or do they simply come by it naturally? Any parent will tell you that a kid’s nature is prone to disobedience, selfishness, and disrespectfulness. They must be taught how to behave. Like you and I, their hearts are enslaved to the power of sin and radical corruption. This is what the bible refers to when it speaks of us being slaves to sin (Romans 6:6).