Not too long ago, Christian (2019 update: Taoist) hipster musician Michael Gungor caused a minor ripple in Christian social-media by firing off a flurry of (what he later called) “cranky tweets” about the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity.

The doctrine of total depravity is a lie. And a harmful one  …  it defames creation … “You are total trash. You were born total trash. Believe the right things so I can forgive you.”

Here are 7 reasons why the doctrine of Total Depravity (TD) is not a lie but rather a liberating truth.

1. It Affirms Human Value.

Many people react strongly to TD because they imagine it to be a general attack on human value. Gungor’s “You are total trash” encapsulates the caricature.

Total Depravity affirms the dignity of humans. It says sin matters because we matter. It demonstrates the tragedy of human existence by depicting us as good creatures and bad people.

But TD affirms the dignity of humans. It says sin matters because we matter.[1] It demonstrates the tragedy of human existence by depicting us as good creatures and bad people. Calvin, despite his strong condemnation of human moral worth, urges us not to “forget our original nobility which [God] bestowed upon our father Adam,” (Institutes 2.1.3). Reflecting on the Christian duty to love our neighbour, he tells us that we should not treat people according to their failings but “look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honour and love” (Institutes 3.7.6).

2. It Clarifies the Distinction between Common Virtue and Righteousness.

The Westminster Confession says that fallen humans are “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (6.4).

This is too much for many people. “Wholly inclined to all evil?” Really? Don’t sinful people love their children? Don’t we see goodness and compassion among all people? Aren’t there non-believing heroes and philanthropists?

Of course. But the goodness being described here is not common decency but “righteousness and communion with God” (6.2). Ordinary virtues are beside the point. William Smith compares them to courage and loyalty amongst pirates—honourable in their own way, yet completely overshadowed by the context:

In a gang of pirates we may find many things that are good in themselves. … courage and fidelity … they may be strictly honest, one with another, in their transactions, and the division of all their spoil. Yet, as respects the government, and the general principle, their whole life is one of the most wicked dishonesty. Now, it is plain, that while they continue in their rebellion they can do nothing to recommend them to the government as citizens. Their first step must be to give up their rebellion, acknowledge their allegiance to the government, and sue for mercy …  While they continue pirates, their sailing, mending, or rigging the vessel, and even their eating and drinking, are all sins in the eyes of the government, as they are only so many expedients to enable them to continue their piratical career, and are parts of their life of rebellion. So with sinners. While the heart is wrong, it vitiates everything in the sight of God, even their most ordinary occupations.[2]

This is the strength of TD. It fixes our attention on the big problem. It helps us see what David means when he tells God that his real sin is “against you” (Ps 51:4); what Isaiah means when he writes that our “righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is 64:6); what Paul means when he says that we have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23).

3. It Tells the Truth about Humanity’s Dirty Secret.

Postmodern theorists and psychologists talk about how human thought can be co-opted by hidden agendas: human reason is subverted by self-interest, tribalism and the quest for power. TD, reflecting Scripture, agrees. All of us have a hidden agenda—we don’t trust God and we don’t want to admit our guilt.

Thus, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed,” (John 3:20). Thus too, Paul talks about us “suppressing the truth” by our unrighteousness (Rom 1:18) and having futile minds, darkened understanding and hardened hearts (Eph 4:17-19).

4. It Warns us not to Look within Ourselves for Salvation.

TD says this basic hostility to God subverts every area of our lives—”total” in its extent. This too raises objections. Don’t we still make choices? Aren’t we still capable of reason? Aren’t we still capable of seeing the glory of God in the world?

No doubt. But none of these will be enough to bring us back to God. Unless God intervenes, the testimonies of our natural lives will be like damning evidence in the hands of a defence attorney—something to be hushed-up or got-around. In the assessment of A. A. Hodge:

Human nature since the Fall retains its constitutional faculties of reason, conscience and free agency, and hence man continues to be a responsible moral agent. Yet he is spiritually dead, and totally averse to and incapable of the discharge of any of these duties which spring out of his relation to God.[3]

5. It Blows the Whistle on Religion.

The fact that we are hostile to God (Rom 8:7-8) doesn’t mean we necessarily feel that way. For every atheist; there are many others who avoid God through religion. Some pursue vague spiritualities in flight from the God who speaks and commands. Others follow stringent regimes in an attempt to prop-up their consciences.

But none of them is thoroughly sincere. Each conspires to reduce God’s claims and offer fig-leaves for guilt. John Piper puts it well:

It is a myth that man in his natural state is genuinely seeking God. Men do seek God. But they do not seek him for who he is.[3]

As far as Jesus is concerned the only effective religion begins with confession of total religious failure: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

6. It Shows us that our Only Hope is in God

The greatest virtue of the doctrine of TD is its insistence on our absolute dependence on the work of Christ and his Spirit.

By reminding us that we have no capacity within ourselves to make things right with God, TD urges us to give up on proud human wisdom and embrace the message of Christ crucified (1Cor 1:18-31). It drives us to God who “showed his love for us” and “reconciled” us “by the death of his Son” while we were still “weak” and “enemies,” (Rom 5:6-10).

By reminding us that we have no capacity within ourselves to make things right with God, the doctrine of Total Depravity urges us to give up on proud human wisdom and embrace the message of Christ crucified

By facing up to the hidden agendas of our sinful hearts TD affirms the biblical testimony that nobody can come to Jesus unless God draws them (John 6:44) and that those without the Spirit cannot accept the things that come from God (1Cor 2:12-14). This should make us more grateful for our own salvation, and more prayerful that God would work in our unbelieving friends.

7. It Makes Us Cry for the New Creation

Those who reject TD often do so because they perceive it as a denigration of creation. But TD is all about creation. It says that God has begun to restore his broken world through Christ and that the first manifestations of this renewal occur in human hearts. That’s why Paul connects the groaning of creation with Christians “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,” (Rom 8:19-23). It’s why he tells the Corinthians that their ability to accept Christ is the beginning of a new creation:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. … If anyone is in Christ, he is [or “there is”] a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 4:6, 5:17)

TD isn’t about telling you that you are “total trash.” It’s about being honest about our own predicament and giving God the glory for what he has done through Christ. It’s about how we become the people that God created us to be. It’s the bad news that clears a path for the very best news of all.

Photo: Stuart Richards, flickr

[1] Thus C. S. Lewis, despite generally frowning on the doctrine, admits that he comes close to it in his theory that sin’s seriousness is proportional to the greatness of the being who sins. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream, Signature Classics edition (London: Harper Collins, 2002), 105.

2] Quoted in Lorraine Boettner, “Total Depravity

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Piper, “Total Depravity”, https://www.monergism.com/thet…