Total depravity is the doctrine that human nature is thoroughly corrupted and sinful as a result of the fall. This doesn’t sound like good news. But it changed my life.
It was a Sunday morning in 1996 when I heard the sermon. As a single man of 28, I had struggled with same-sex attraction for much of my life. For years, I had been acting out on that attraction.
And, I was a Christian. I knew from an early age that the Lord had chosen me to be his. As I struggled with a confusing and unwanted sexual desire that was nonetheless intoxicating, I gradually learned how to lie to others and to myself, simultaneously justifying and denying the reality of my sin. I lived a double life: I was the good Christian to everyone I wanted to impress, and I was the flirt and tempter to all the men I wanted to draw into my embrace.
With each passing year, the ease with which I justified my sinful behavior grew. Particularly when I felt lonely, unloved, unaffirmed, tired, or ashamed, I ran into the arms of lovers with less and less resistance. I was Pavlov’s dog, mouth watering for satisfaction each time I heard the ringing bell of my emotional emptiness.
Accruing Guilt and Shame
With the momentary pleasure of sin, however, came a mounting awareness of guilt and shame. They were the weeds that kept me from truly enjoying the flower of sin. No matter how often I pulled those weeds, new ones sprang up. Though I didn’t see them as such at the time, the guilt and shame I felt (and despised) were the Holy Spirit’s tools to teach me, through pain, that sin is not what I was created for.
Over the years, that guilt and shame compounded in my soul with interest. It was like accumulating credit card debt. I’d made a thousand small impulse purchases—and couldn’t ever pay off the balance. The burden felt increasingly crushing.
My theology was an uninformed and strange mixture of Arminianism and Christian perfectionism. I felt a certain love for God and from God. But the haunting awareness of my love of self—and of the pleasure sin brought me—undermined any assurance I had of God’s love for me. Surely, I felt, I need to somehow accumulate more “good” toward God than “bad.” But I had a sinking feeling, for I knew this was impossible.
Back to the sermon. The preacher was James Boice, the church Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia. And the sermon was the first in a series through Romans. The first topic: total depravity.
I’d never heard that concept before. I thought people are essentially good—sin is just an anomaly to be overcome. Even with my guilt and shame, I thought I was essentially good. If only I could put my same-sex issues behind me, I told myself over and over, then I’ll be all right.
I thought homosexuality was my biggest problem. And because I had tried unsuccessfully to change, because I had prayed without answer 10,000 times that God would give me the same lust for women I had for men (or, that he would make me a practical eunuch and remove all sexual desire forever), I was convinced I could never overcome it.
But hearing about total depravity was a game-changer. I was being told that I wasn’t essentially good, that everything about me was broken by sin. Neither homosexual behavior nor the same-sex attraction that drove it was my biggest problem. My heart was.
I was confronted with the reality that I could never repay my sin debt to God. The problem wasn’t I hadn’t tried hard enough; the problem was the debt itself was impossible to pay. And that is precisely why Jesus had to come and die in the flesh, as the propitiation for my sin—because my debt of sin was so overwhelming, so comprehensive, it utterly bankrupted me.
Joy in Total Depravity
The doctrine of total depravity became an encouragement because I began to see for the first time what familiar verses actually meant: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” (Eph. 2:4–5)
I was born spiritually dead—not just spiritually indebted, as I’d thought. God loved me, and through no work of my own, except the faith he himself granted me as a gift, he made me alive together with Christ. Here was grace, only grace. It had to be this way. Because I really am that bad.
The flip side of total depravity is that now, inseparably united to Christ, I share in his righteousness. This isn’t the moral perfectionism I previously tried to cultivate; it’s the unmerited love of God the Father declaring me just before his throne. Christ was “made . . . to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And that unmerited declaration of righteousness is meant to empower ongoing repentance. As Paul says in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”
War Goes On
The reality of total depravity is that it is “total.” Even in repentance, the brokenness of everything in me and about me can lead to times of fear and despair. Victory has been secured, but the war wages on. The enemy will fight until the bitter end.
The comfort is in knowing that though I am thoroughly corrupted and hopelessly lost, Christ has chosen to love me and rescue me. He completely paid off all my reckless debt—even the debt I continue to accrue through my faltering love for him. On top of it all, he delights in making me his own forever.
Total depravity changed everything for me. Not because of its message of brokenness, but because for the child of God, it’s a gateway to hope. Only through total depravity do the beauties of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints come into their full glory. Only through understanding how indebted we are in Adam do we ever even begin to perceive how deeply loved we are in Christ.