How Total Is Total Depravity? Some Thoughts and Reflections

Photo credit: David Gunter via flicker.comI was asked recently about the Christian doctrine of total depravity. The questioner was a Christian brought up in Wesleyan circles.

“Don’t we believe that the depravity of man is not total?” she asked. Then she added, “If it were total, wouldn’t that leave man devoid of anything that God could appeal to in calling him to salvation?”

I replied that Wesleyans among others believe that the image of God in man (the Imago Dei) is blemished but not destroyed by Adam’s fall. All humans, however sinful, continue to bear the image of God. And there is a prevenient grace (the grace that goes before) that keeps even the vilest of sinners capable of responding when the gospel appeal is made.

Her question prompted me to write down some notes about the subject of total depravity.

The question is, how total is total depravity? Besides being a profound theological question, this is also a serious pastoral question.

In the eighteenth century John Fletcher, the Swiss-born immigrant, went from his homeland to England, was converted in a Methodist setting, mastered the English language, and was ordained as an Anglican (Episcopalian) minister. He served a church at Madeley and became known as Fletcher of Madeley. He was chosen by John Wesley to be his successor but preceded Wesley in death.

Fletcher was learned in theology and wrote Five Checks to Antinomianism, which were an answer to the extremes of Calvinism in the England of his times. Here is a statement from him on the seriousness and extent of sin — which can be regarded as a fair presentation of Methodist theology on this question.

“In every religion there is a principal truth or error which, like the first link of a chain, necessarily draws after it all the parts with which it is essentially connected. This leading principle in Christianity . . . is the doctrine of our corrupt and lost estate; for if man is not at variance with his Creator, what need of a Mediator between God and him? If he is not a depraved, undone creature, what necessity of so wonderful a Restorer and Saviour as the Son of God? lf he be not enslaved to sin, why is he redeemed by Jesus Christ? If he is not polluted, why must he be washed in the blood of the immaculate Lamb? If his soul is not disordered, what occasion is there for such a divine physician? If he is not helpless and miserable, why is he perpetually invited to secure the assistance and consolations of the Holy Spirit? And, in a word, if he is not born in sin, why is the new birth so absolutely necessary that Christ declares with the most solemn asseverations, without it no man can see the kingdom of God?”

For Wesleyans, how total is total depravity? We are sometimes charged with having a casual or shallow view of sin, of being semi-Pelagians. (That is, to believe that one is saved by God’s grace but man adds something to it by his cooperation. The issue is, does Christ get all the merit for salvation or is it shared?)

Here’s an excerpt from Wesley’s Sermon 44, on Original Sin: “ ‘God saw all the imaginations of the thoughts of (man’s) heart . . .’ It is not possible to find a word of a more extensive signification. It includes whatever is formed, made, fabricated within; all that is or passes in the soul; every inclination, affection, passion, appetite; every temper, design, thought. It must of consequence include every word and action, as naturally flowing from these fountains, and being either good or evil according to the fountain from which they severally flow.”

He does not use the term “total depravity” here, but that is certainly what he is describing. When Wesley revised the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion into his Twenty-Four (plus one), he shortened the one on sin but retained the words: “. . . it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil and that continually . . .”

Do the Scriptures support such sobering words? “Sin lurks deep in the hearts of the wicked, forever urging them on to evil deeds” (Psalm 36:10). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:9ff).

Twentieth century Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner writes, “Sin understood in the Christian sense, is the rent which cuts through the whole of existence.”

Here are some clarifications of the doctrine of total depravity by an American theologian of our own day, Donald Bloesch. As I see it, he is trying to bridge the theological differences in the evangelical ranks and make a statement for contemporary “evangelicalism.” I believe him to be a moderate Reformed scholar attempting to correct or clarify the extremes of Reformed doctrine. Please note the qualification he adds for each affirmation.

Bloesch writes that total depravity can be thought of as having four meanings:

“First, it refers to the corruption at the very center of man’s being, the heart, but this does not mean that man’s humanity has ceased to exist. Second, it signifies the infection in every part of man’s being, though this is not to imply that this infection is evenly distributed or that nothing good remains in man. Third, it denotes the total inability of sinful man to please God or come to him unless moved by grace, though this does not imply that man is not free in other areas of his life. Fourth, it includes the idea of the universal corruption of the human race, despite the fact that some peoples and cultures manifest this corruption much less than others.”

The goodness that Bloesch acknowledges is of a social or moral nature. It in no way contributes to one’s salvation. All saving virtue is with Christ.

One can scarcely miss the fact that among evangelicals at the present time the doctrine of sin as total depravity does not hold a compelling place in study or preaching. With perhaps the following results:

1. A cardinal doctrine of Christianity is being seriously muted. The three major issues of the Christian scriptures are God, sin and redemption. It is right to talk to our people about the love of God, but that is not enough. The seriousness of sin must also have a prominent place in our message.

2. The blessing of grace can be felt at the heart level only by those who have felt the sting of their own sinfulness. “Where sin abounded, grace much more abounded” (Romans 5:20b) A shallow view of sin means a shallow view of grace. And perhaps an anemic and watered-down sense of God’s forgiveness.

3. This neglect may account for a casual view of holiness on the part of many believers. The clear command of both Testaments is, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15,16). The consequence of casualness in this matter may be a stunting of character formation among Christians and a scarce witness to the everyday world. But as well, with this casualness may come a reduced ability to take responsibility for wrongdoing of the more subtle kind.

When we as believers remember well “the pit from which we were digged” — or the sins from which we are delivered — and beyond that the heinousness of sin in all its expressions, it gives depth to our devotional life, our love of the Scriptures, our need for public worship, and our faithful service for our Lord.

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2 thoughts on “How Total Is Total Depravity? Some Thoughts and Reflections

  1. Thanks for this post, Bishop. I too am very concerned about the way the doctrine of total depravity is being downplayed in contemporary Christianity. It is just as you have said – a shallow view of sin means a shallow view of grace. I think sometimes Christians are concerned to stay “positive” and focus on the love of God, but the truth is that we cheapen the love of God when we fail to recognize the depths of human depravity.

    I also agree with you that Wesley clearly stood in the tradition of the Reformers on this question, although he was sometimes a bit reticent about the specific terminology. The important point is that he viewed the unregenerate as completely helpless and totally dependent upon God’s grace for salvation.

    Keep on blogging!

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