Total depravity is a phrase that we commonly use to encapsulate the Bible’s doctrine of sin because it fits with other phrases to make a nice acrostic that summarizes the Reformed teaching on salvation. We are talking, of course, about TULIP, which stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.
While this acrostic helpfully encapsulates certain truths, many theologians have expressed reservations regarding TULIP because the phrases can be misunderstood. For instance, total depravity might suggest that people are as bad as they can possibly be, that they are totally destitute of any goodness whatsoever or cannot do anything that in any sense can be called good. Certainly, it is true that apart from grace we cannot do good in the sense of what is fully pleasing to God. Paul makes that quite clear in Romans 1:18–3:20. However, in the same passage, Paul also tells us that people also sometimes do what the law of God requires in an external sense. That is, sinners are capable of an outward conformity to God’s statutes. They can treat people kindly, love their children, be good neighbors, and so on. But apart from divine grace, they do not do these things out of a heartfelt desire to love God with their entire being. The good they do outwardly is not matched by what is truly good inwardly.
Since fallen people are still capable of doing good in an outward sense, we are not as bad as we could possibly be. The worst criminal in history could have been worse. Scripture tells us this in many ways. For example, in today’s passage, Jesus says that even we who are evil still know how to give good gifts to our children and that it is right for us to do so (Luke 11:11–13). As sinful as we are, we could still be destitute of all affection for other people. We could still live under no restraints of conscience whatsoever.
Total depravity is not utter depravity, which would mean that we always sin to the greatest extent possible in whatever we do. We are not as wicked as we could be, for God’s law is on our consciences and it holds back even the worst of us from descending into the vilest actions in every circumstance (Rom. 2:12–16). Nevertheless, total depravity means we are as bad off as we could be, for it means that we are at enmity with God. Because sin taints everything we do and are, we have fallen short of the glory of God and cannot merit eternal life (3:23). We are cut off from the Lord and cannot save ourselves.