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Ask A Pastor: How Do I Explain Total Depravity To Someone?

Question:

What would be the best approach if you were to explain our utter depravity and sinful nature to someone?

Answer:

A good way to teach someone what total depravity is (I think) would be:

Step 1: Give the definition. Something like this: Total depravity is the reality that we are completely corrupted by our sinful nature. It is not “total” in that we are all as bad as we could be or that we are totally and completely evil. But it’s “total” in the sense of: We are so corrupted by sin that unless God does a radical work in us, we would never seek selfless good or Him.

Step 2: Walk through the Bible to show how this is taught, in 4 parts.

  1. Show the big change: That we inherit a sinful nature from our parents: Adam and Eve’s son Cain is not perfect. By murdering his brother Cain shows that he has inherited a sinful nature from his parents (Gen 4:8). By the time we get to the flood with Noah, God says this: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). These two verses show us that sin passes from parents to children, with the later speaking of just how corrupt the human race is because of it.

Psalm 51 backs this up: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa 51:5)

  1. Show the continued pattern: The pattern in the Old Testament confirms that we have a major sin problem: After Gen 3, the Old Testament is continually dealing with sin. Sin has multiplied over the face of the earth. Clearly something is really wrong. In Isaiah 1:5b-6, God Himself describes the human condition: “The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment.”

Even with the Israelites—God’s own people, given every blessing by God and performing many religious rituals every single day—they cannot help but sin. The Old Testament pattern shows: We don’t just need to try harder, or even to be more “religious”—but we need God to come and radically change our hearts; to change our desires.

  1. Show the promises that begin to come near the end of the Old Testament: God promises to change our heart. For example, Ezekiel 36:25-27, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”

These three parts, if we read and study the Bible from Genesis to the end of the Old Testament—by the time we get to the end of the Old Testament—Should cause us to confess: “People are sinners. Complete sinners. And no religious exercise even can change that. We need God to come and do as He promises: To give us a new heart. To change our nature and set us free from sin.”

And then…

  1. Show that Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the answer to God’s promise: Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins, so that God the Father would allow Him to send His Holy Spirit. God the Father can forgive our sins if Jesus pays for them on our behalf, and the Holy Spirit changes our heart: John 3:1-21.

Step 3: Return to the definition again, and press it home to them. (And say something like this): “This is why we conclude that we are totally depraved.” Perhaps a better term for “total depravity” is “radical corruption”—the Bible teaches that we are so radically corrupted that God must do a radically change in us, or we’ll never be saved. And then ask them: “Don’t you see this in yourself?”


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