It is often asserted that total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be but rather speaks of the permeating reach of sin. In a very important sense, this is true. God kindly restrains humanity from the depths of evil that our hearts would cherish and chase. While the breadth/depth distinction clarifies something, however, we must be careful. Taking total depravity lightly manifests depravity; trivializing it masks its deceptive power.
Paul notably urges us to take sin’s force seriously:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:1–3)
Sinners, apart from grace, live under the dominion of “the prince of the power of the air”—Satan himself, to whose authority we eagerly, earnestly, and necessarily submit, while we pursue our hearts’ passions and surrender to our minds’ distortions. Sinners walk as dead men, alive to the power and presence of sin and dead to the blessedness of God.
Just as Genesis 2:17 warned, disobedience to God ends in death. James accordingly describes each link of the unbreakable sin chain: sin’s source (our nature), sin’s acts (our behavior), and sin’s outcome (our death): “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).
We sin necessarily because of what we are naturally since the fall: totally depraved. Though manifestations of depravity differ by person and degree, depravity is total and universal. Without exception, sin disfigures everyone everywhere. Sinners to their core, individuals and communities spend their lives in rebellion against God. Whereas we once reigned as servants of glory, we now stagger as slaves of sin. Yes, here we stand. Because of total depravity, we can do no other.
I am no fan of zombie movies, though this genre dramatically pictures what is true of the dead: they act according to their depraved minds and hearts.
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Rom. 1:29–32)
Enraptured with self-interest, sinners are not happy as loners. Dizzied in their death and damnation campaigns, the depraved recruit. Sinners seek teammates. And when they secure their recruits, like zombies, they cannibalize them. Unsatisfied with isolated rebellion, they delight that those whom they recruit share in ultimate defiance and certain damnation.
Reading these words, you may say to yourself: “I’m a pretty good person, all things considered. I don’t see myself here. Did total depravity skip me?”
Claims of innocence betray self-deception. Under divine inspection, every sinner’s heart aces the perversion test.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind.” (Jer. 17:9–10)
Sinners’ hearts are “deceitful” and “desperately sick,” their deeds never wholly good. Seeming goodness suffers from a subterranean subterfuge. This means not that everything you do is 100 percent evil but that nothing you do is 100 percent pure. In the eyes of God, incomplete holiness is unholiness. Mixed motives are not pure motives. Partial truths are distortions, violations of God’s will and Word.