John 8–9 records the profound resistance that Jesus encountered during His earthly ministry even when He taught things and performed signs that demonstrated He was sent by God. This resistance shows us that the opposition to our Lord was not due to a lack of evidence regarding His identity and mission. Something deeper was going on in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ opponents that made them unwilling to accept the many proofs that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God. In theology, we identify this something as total depravity, which is the pervasive corruption of human nature by sin. So that we might better understand our depravity and its consequences, we will take a short break from our study of John’s gospel and base our studies on Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Total Depravity.
Many people are reluctant to affirm that all people are depraved, and there are likely two main reasons for this. First, we tend to think of depravity as a characteristic of only the most heinously evil individuals. Mass murderers, rapists, and the like are clearly depraved, but can we really say the same thing of ourselves when we are not criminally evil? Here it helps us to understand that the notion of total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We are not saying that people are as bad as they can possibly be, that all of us engage in the worst possible behaviors. Instead, we mean that sin affects the totality of our personhood—our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
The second reason that many of us might be hesitant to say people are totally depraved is due to the influence of our culture. Every day we hear about the importance of good self-esteem and about the many accomplishments of human beings. We see philanthropists working to end disease, hunger, and other ills, and we experience the generosity of other people and are generous in return. As a result, surveys routinely show that a majority even of those who profess a high view of Scripture believe that people are inherently good.
As we will see, total depravity does not mean that people are utterly incapable in every sense of doing good things. Moreover, the doctrine of total depravity depends on the highest view of human nature possible. To suffer such a fall that every part of us is now tainted with sin requires that humanity originally enjoyed an exalted place in creation. We have fallen so low because God made us in His image and to reflect His perfect goodness (Gen. 1:27). We are totally depraved because we no longer live up to this high calling.