Total Depravity – Part Two

by: Roger Smalling, D.Min

Excerpt from Smalling's book, Unlocking Grace


Importance of the doctrine

A good grasp of the doctrine of the inability of man puts our pride in its place. Why should we be proud about something we never accomplished? Instead, we receive a new security in our relationship with God. After all, if God could overcome the natural resistance of a sinful nature to change our obstinate heart, surely He can preserve us for his eternal kingdom, despite the resistance of our sinful flesh.

The instant the Christian realizes that his will is not the grounds of his salvation, then the word ‘grace’ takes on its correct definition. The believer learns that he did not convert himself and that salvation is not a cooperative work between God and man...Salvation is of the Lord. The biblical grounds of this teaching are…

Original Sin

God created Adam with marvelous gifts. One of these was the ability to choose between good and evil. We call this faculty, Free Will.

When Adam fell into sin, his entire being became enslaved to sin, including his will. The Bible never insinuates that any of Adam’s faculties escaped the power of sin. To imply the neutrality of the human will is to assume that this faculty escaped miraculously when Adam fell. Does the Bible imply this?

The effects of the fall of Adam are explained in Romans 5:12-21. In this passage we learn that we inherited Adam’s death, condemnation and judgment. The guilt of the sin of Adam was attributed to his offspring.

From this we derive a central fact of human existence:  Man sins because he is a sinner; he is not a sinner because he sins.  Man is condemned first because of what he is; only secondarily because of what he does.

What about ‘innocent’ children? No such thing. All are born under the condemnation and slavery of sin.

The heart governs the man, not his will

Keep your heart with all diligence, For out of it spring the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23

 A widespread presupposition exists that it is the will of man that decides his actions. This not only contracts the Scripture, but it also contracts logic. How can a human will be ‘free’ from the nature of the person in which it is found? One always chooses that which he likes. That which we like reflects what we are in heart. So, it is the heart, (that is, the internal nature), that directs a person’s choices, not his will.

The will is never ‘free’ from the true nature of the creature in which it is found.

Put a duck, for example, between a body of water and a sand pile. It will always choose the water. Why? Because it chooses according to its desires. It has free will only within the limits of its nature.

Christ himself underlined this principle when He said to the Pharisees,

Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  Matthew 12:34

The Bible teaches it is the heart of man that governs him. (Matthew 12:33-37; 15:18-19 & Proverbs 4:23) If his heart is dominated by sin, then so is his will.

An illustration: The coyote is an animal that cannot be domesticated. By nature it will always be wild, even if raised by humans. Nevertheless, let us suppose for illustrations’ sake, that during a walk in the woods, we encounter a coyote. We think, How lovely it would be to have a coyote as a mascot! Let’s persuade the coyote to come with us!

So we approach the coyote and say, Coyote, if you come with us, you will have plenty of food. You’ll be protected from your enemies. We will be friends, and have a good time. Thinking that the coyote is now persuaded, we extend our hand to pick him up.

What will the coyote do? Being the kind of animal he is, he will bite. Here is where we face the central question: Does the coyote have free will or not?

This question is a trap. A straightforward and absolute answer does not exist, because it depends on the angle from which we deal with the question. If we define the will of the coyote as the ability to choose between wild and domestic, then we would say that he does not have free will. But if we define free will as his ability to choose within the limits of his nature, then yes, he has free will.

This illustration suggests to us a more realistic definition of free will and more in accord with biblical data. The sinner has free will within the limits of his nature. If sin governs his nature then he will choose sinful autonomy rather than submission to God, since that is what he truly prefers. For his mind to change, it is essential that God work some changes in the man’s nature. We will see how this happens a little later when we study the New Birth.

Dead? Or just sick?

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.  Ephesians  2:1-3

The carnal man may perceive himself as a sinner, but never morally dead in the sense of total inability to be otherwise. But the Bible says that we were ...dead in trespasses and sins.

Religious groups that believe in free will (in the sense of moral neutrality), frequently preach as though the sinner were simply sick. They may even use illustrations taken from the field of medicine. The sinner is portrayed as seriously ill, but with a certain ability to accept the ‘medicine’ of the Gospel if he wishes. Such a concept is unbiblical. The Bible presents the sinner as dead, not sick; totally incapacitated, not with some ability to please God if he happens to wish it.

Can the dead raise themselves? ‘Dead’ implies total inability. But the pride of man will not tolerate such news about himself.

Paul continues his discourse in Ephesians 2 by showing that we were conformists.

… according to the course of this world ... 

We went through life under the illusion that all our thoughts were really our own. We thought we were being original, without realizing that we were typical products of a perverse society. The only thing original about us was original sin.

Paul also reveals that we were puppets of an evil being… .the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience ...

Finally, Paul exposes that our will was not controlling us after all, because it was enslaved by our flesh. …fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind ...

In short, the Apostle Paul appears distinctly unimpressed with the condition of man’s ‘free will’.

Another text underlining the total inability of man is Romans 3:9-18. According to verse 9, all are  ‘under sin’. This domination is expressed in the following:

There is none righteous, no, not one;  There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. verse 10-11

If there are none who understand, then can a sinner grasp the essence of the gospel on his own? Can we allege that the sinner has an inherent power of will to seek God, if Scripture declares that nobody ever does so? If no one can do good, then may we suppose that the sinner possesses the power to commit himself to Christ? Is that not a ‘good’? If there is no fear of God in them, may we expect them to throw themselves on God’s mercy on their own accord?

This state of affairs is illustrated by C.S.Lewis,

Agnostics speak openly about seeking God. For me, it makes more sense to speak of the rat seeking the cat… . God trapped me. [i]

If there exists the least suspicion that the carnal nature of man could submit to God, Romans 8:7 is sufficient to put it aside for good:

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.  Romans 8:7

Every aspect of man’s being is controlled by sin

The sinner neither understands nor seeks after God. (Romans 3:11). His understanding is darkened. (Ephesians 4:18) He is blind to spiritual things and considers them foolishness. (1Corinthians 2:14). His mind cannot submit to God,  (Romans 8:7) he is God’s enemy  (Colossians 1:21) and blinded by Satan, (2Corinthians 4:4). The thoughts of his heart are evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

His will is controlled by Satan, (Ephesians 2:3), so that he is unable to repent without God granting him repentance. (2Timothy 2:26) He cannot come to Christ unless God draws him. (John 6:44,65).

Someone asked the great theologian San Augustine if he believed in free will. He replied, Of course! Without Christ, we are totally free from all righteousness!

[i]      Quoted from  C.S. Lewis, in Gathered Golden, John Blanchard, Evangelical Press 1989 pp. 74.

Questions or comments for Dr. Smalling