The Gospel and Total Depravity

Article by   June 2014
This month, I want to continue in my studies of the Affirmations and Denials on the Gospel and Sanctification, which touch upon so many significant issues.  Having started with Article 1, which says that Legalism Is a Real Problem, I move now to Article 2, The Gospel and Total Depravity.
We start with the affirmation: 
We affirm that unregenerate man, being totally depraved, is unable to obey or please God unto salvation.
This affirmation is allied to a strong embrace of justification through faith alone. The problem is not that God does not accept righteous works. Paul statement that "the doers of the law will be justified" (Rom. 2:13) is true for those who keep the law perfectly, in all its points, through all their lives (see Gal. 3:10). Indeed, we have one great, shining example of justification by works in the perfect life of Jesus Christ. But if there was ever an exception that proves the rule, it was the life of Christ. For there is no other person like him, no other descendant of Adam who can be justified by his works. The reason for this is total depravity. This doctrine states that no part of fallen man is free from the crippling corruption and the condemning guilt of sin. There is nothing I might do that is not tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6). Moreover, since the effect of total depravity is the spiritual inability of the sinner (Eph. 2:1-3; 1 Cor. 2:14; Jn. 6:44), the "unregenerate man... is unable to obey or please God unto salvation."

The doctrine of total depravity provides vital insight in our ministry to unbelievers both with respect to faith and works.  We know that unregenerate people are not able to believe by mere human persuasion but only by the supernatural power of Christ working through the life-giving Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23; Rom. 10:10). Therefore, we appeal to the non-Christian by preaching Christ, who alone is able to give them new life in order to believe and be saved. We are also not surprised at the generally downward trend of every non-Christian society. The explanation for moral decay is the corrupt nature of the totally depraved sinner and his society.

There is virtually no controversy among Reformed Christians regarding the total depravity of unbelievers. But what about believers? Are we also totally depraved? If we are, then our expectations and ministry practices toward believers will be virtually the same as they are toward unbelievers. In particular, we will teach that Christians should not expect spiritual and moral change in their lives and that Christian leaders - whether they are pastors or parents - should not harass believers by urging them to turn from their sins. Remarkably, this has been the teaching of some voices in the so-called Contemporary Grace Movement. This matter is addressed in the denial of Article 2, which rejects such teaching: 
We deny that the believer, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, remains unable to obey or please God, by grace and in Christ.
When we deny that the believer in Christ remains totally depraved, we are not doubting that the influence of sin remains a reality in every part of a Christian's life: his or her thoughts, will, affections, and actions. While Christians are free of the penalty of sin we are not free of the presence of sin in our present lives, from the bottom of our feet to the top of our heads. So what are we denying? We deny that the born again Christian remains spiritually unable, which is the point of total depravity. The Christian has been changed, so that he or she is now able in Christ, by grace, to lead a new and increasingly godly life that serves and pleases God. As Paul wrote to Titus: "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age" (Tit. 2:11-12).

The reason the Christian is no longer totally depraved is the reality of the new birth as a fundamental change in the believer's life. Paul explained: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Moreover, by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian has divine power for godly living. Paul thus prayed that Christians might know "the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe," which is the power of the very Spirit who "worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places" (Eph. 1:19-20). We dare not teach, therefore, that Christians are unable to turn from sin and to honor and serve God! We are born again with a new nature in Christ, the point of which is to free us from the dominion of sin. While we continue to sin, it is no longer because we must sin. As Augustine categorized the regenerate Christian so long ago, we are now able not to sin. Moreover, we have the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us through faith, a divine resource for holiness and good works.

Let me briefly point out some implications of Article 2 and a balanced view of total depravity: 
1. Because the unbeliever is totally depraved, he can ordinarily be saved only through the effectual call of Christ through the ministry of God's Word. While Christians rightly emphasize godly morality and societal norms in a general sense, we know that the spiritual state of the unregenerate will incline them to unbelief and sin unless they are born again. For this reason, our banner in the world must not be Christian culture but Christ himself, crucified for sin and resurrection for new life.  

2. The new birth, by which the sinner believes and is saved, is a decisive change that enables Christians for both faith and works. We should therefore have the same high expectations for Christian conduct that are found throughout the New Testament. 

3. Since regeneration does not eradicate indwelling sin, we know that Christians will never be perfect in this life. We therefore should not be surprised to see sin in the lives of Christians and to realize that the process of sanctification is a difficult struggle.

4. Despite the difficulty of sanctification, Christians should have confidence in God's grace at work in us through faith in Christ. Our Lord calls us to take off sin and put on righteousness (Eph. 4:22-24) because he intends to bless our faith-driven obedience to his Word. Therefore, spiritual leaders like pastors and parents should not convey a cynicism towards sanctification but a positive expectation that relies on the Spirit's power and anticipates the blessing of God's grace.

5. Since sanctification is, like regeneration, a supernatural and gracious work of God, Christians should rely on the means that God has provided. Primary among the means of grace is the mighty Word of God, which has power from on high to fuel spiritual life in Christ's people.  Psalm 1 says that the believer who diligently applies himself to the ministry of God's Word will become like "a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither" (Ps. 1:3). Likewise, we believe that a life of prayer and the blessings of worship in the church and communion with Christ through the sacraments will provide spiritual power to advance us in holiness, joy, and love.  

Thank God the believer in Christ is no longer totally depraved! We show our thanks and affirm our new status as Christ's people through a changed life that obeys and pleases God. The apostle John put it this way, celebrating the victory of grace that Christ achieves through our faith: 
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith" (1 John 5:3-4).

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.


reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login