What does total depravity mean and not mean?

To clarify what total depravity does and does not mean, a few points are helpful.

First, depravity is total in that it refers to all people. Paul here speaks of “all”, “none is righteous”, “no, not one”, “no one”, “all have turned aside”, and “no one does good, not even one”.

Second, depravity is total in that it infects and effects the totality of our being. Think of it like a cup of clean water that then has polluted water added to it. The polluted water dirties the entire glass in the same way that sin dirties the entire person.

For clarification, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. Utter depravity means a person is as completely sinful and evil as possible. Although people are totally depraved, Romans teaches that they are not utterly depraved for three reasons:

  1. God has given us a conscience that knows something of right and wrong even if we do not know God (Romans 2).
  2. God has allowed death to occur so that sinners are brought to an end, and to deter people from reckless behaviors that cause death (Romans 5).
  3. God has provided governments and laws to punish some wrongdoing which helps restrain much evil (Romans 13).

Most people also struggle to believe that they are also totally depraved sinners. Sin is not just we do, but who we are. Sin is not just doing bad things, but also the failure to do good things. Sin is not just outward, it is also inward and includes our motives, thoughts, and desires. Sin includes living independently of God and doing what we want rather than what He created us for and commands us to do.

For those who struggle to see themselves, or others, as bent toward sin, consider for a moment, that you had unlimited resources, no restraints, and no consequences as no one would ever know what you did, you could never be arrested, and you could not die. Once those variables are removed, you can be sure that your shadow side would emerge and you would increasingly do things that were dark, depraved, and damnable. What restrains us is not our goodness but God’s goodness to help save us from ourselves.

What is curious about sin is that we are far more aware of, sensitive to, and judgmental of all sin but our own. People continually march for justice, demand wrongs be made right, and argue ad nauseum on social media about system sin using all the various -isms (racism, sexism, nationalism, classism, ageism, etc.). What you never see is someone equally upset about their own wrongdoing. As sinners, we tend to want law for everyone else, but grace for ourselves. Like a person who owns binoculars but not a mirror, we clearly see everyone else and somehow never see ourselves for who we truly are.

In areas of your life are you a hypocrite, being much more critical and harsh towards others sins than your own?

This is an excerpt from Pastor Mark’s Romans 8-9 commentary Duck Duck Doom. You can get a free e-book copy by clicking here or get a physical copy for a gift of any amount during the month of March here.

To find the new, free Romans 6-11 digital study guide for individuals and small groups, hear Pastor Mark’s entire sermon series on Romans, or find a free mountain of Bible teaching visit realfaith.com or download the Real Faith app.

Leave a Comment