What Is Meant by Total Depravity?

indexThe problem evil is by far the most challenging obstacle for many skeptics. They see God as the author of evil, and therefore feel no inclination to worship him, or they conclude that evil would not be possible if a “good” God existed. St. Augustine is credited with solving this riddle of evil. He explained that God did not create evil, because evil is not a created thing. It is, instead, the deprivation of the good, by the thoughts or deeds of free will beings in opposition to the perfect will of God. While we see and experience the harmful effects of these thoughts and actions all the time, it is the quality of the thought or action as violating God’s will that makes them evil in the first place. Since the Fall of man, Augustine taught, men and women are in a self-imposed total bondage to sin. They are, in short, depraved or corrupted in their thinking and reasoning.
Some Christians take this belief to its ultimate extreme, that the corruption at issue amounts to “total depravity.” After all, the Bible does include multiple passages reflecting how impossible it is to please God and reminding us that despite any intent to the contrary, we cannot do the good with seek to do, but instead do evil. Even our “good works” are like dirty rags to God. This leads to an interesting question: if “total” depravity means what it appears to mean, then any act, however well-intentioned, is “depraved” and therefore displeasing to God; why, then, isn’t accepting God’s grace – by which we attain salvation –  also an evil or corrupted act? Or put another way: if we are all totally depraved, are we even capable of accepting the gift of salvation? 
I think the necessary conclusion that one must draw to reconcile all of the Bible’s teachings is that “total depravity” does not mean “absolute” depravity. In other words, though our natures are indeed corrupted, such that we cannot please God in our present state, we are not completely devoid of the ability to see good, to understand good, and to make some choices as it relates to God’s gift to us. If I were to conclude that total depravity meant absolute depravity, then much of the Bible would be rendered non-sensical. Why would there be any talk of free will? Why would Jesus admonish us to cut off our hands if they are the source of our sin? Why would the Great Commission of making disciples be necessary? What sense would it make to exhort us to love God with all our mind, soul and will? Much of what Jesus himself teaches relates to repentance – turning away from sin and accepting his gift. Again, none of this would even be possible if our depravity were absolute. 
I conclude, instead, that total depravity means that without God’s grace we are incapable of reuniting with him. God does all the necessary work in that regard; it is he who corrects our natures. He does this to make us “perfect” in some sense that we cannot at present understand, perfection being necessary for us to re-enter God’s direct presence. God does it all… except for one thing – because we are talking about love, it must be given and accepted freely. That’s why we were built with such an ingrained need for companionship, fellowship, affection, and belonging. All these bear witness to the need for love to be free, if it is to mean anything at all. So, God gave us free will; he gave us the grace necessary to overcome our depravity, but he does so in a way that is perfectly fair, so that in the end, the choice we make is the one we want to make. The one we choose with our free will.
The Holy Spirit acts first – he provides the grace sufficient to overcome the depravity. He seeks us out first, so that all of the work – finding us and saving us – is God’s. The Holy Spirit does not cause us to accept Christ, however, for if he did, we would no longer be free will beings. So though we are fallen and capable of much evil, there remains within us the ability to respond to God’s love and to assent to his offer to do for us what is necessary to restore us to right relationship with him.
Posted by Al Serrato
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