Total Depravity



Ezekiel 37:1-6

1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,

2 And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

3 And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.

4 Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

5 Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.


There is a doctrine of Christianity that has an ugly name—Total Depravity. Part of the problem is that the ordinary meaning of “depravity” is not the theological meaning. When we speak of “depravity,” we think of corruption, of moral perversion, of a degenerate act. We think of the orgies of some of the Roman emperors. We think of something beyond bad Depravity is evil raised to the nth degree. In 1994, in Rwanda, Hutu tribesmen slaughtered at least 500,000 Tutis—men, women, and children--mostly with machetes and axes. That was depravity.

But that is not exactly the way the church uses that word. It might help to remember that the English word “depravity” comes from the Latin “pravus” whose base meaning is “crooked.” So when theologians speak of human nature as “depraved,” they mean that our nature is bent toward evil and sin. We are born with a nature that is permanently crooked toward love of self not love of God, and so we naturally fall into sin. We do not naturally seek God.

This is opposed to what most religions say. Most religions say that a human being is born with an innate love of God and naturally turns to God and seeks to God and thus all religions should be valued equally because all religions are just man’s way of seeking God.

Christianity does not say that. We say that people do have an innate knowledge of God. We know that there is a God, and we do naturally turn to God when we are in trouble, when we need God. Thus, we seek God not for God’s sake, but for our sake. Most human religion is not about God at all, it is about me. What human beings naturally desire is fame and glory and approval for me.

But, when we say that our nature is depraved or crooked, we are not saying that we always do evil things. We may do good things. For example, someone asks you for $5 to get something to eat, and you give them the $5, and that is good. You feel good about it. You feel right righteous. You even feel that you may be a notch above most other people. That is bad. That is sin. The problem is that all our actions have mixed motives. We have good intentions, we do good things, but that all gets mixed with our ego and our pride, and suddenly we are wrangling about who gets credit for what was done, and something good is then not good at all.

Christians have always been aware of depths of human psychology that other religions mostly miss. In the study of religion, we might divide all religions in this way: On the one hand, there are human attempts to get God to admire us, and, on the other hand, is the gospel. All religions except the gospel are human attempts to gain God’s admiration. All other religions say, in one way or another, live a good life, do good things, God will accept you because of what you do, and you will go on to heaven.

Christianity says that no one leads a good life, and no one can be saved by what they do. Christianity says that our nature is so perverse that we spoil even our best acts by our egotism, so none of us is good. Thus Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Paul is so intent on us getting this message that he says the same thing again in 5:12—all have sinned.

The only free will we were born with is the freedom to sin. Thus, because of our depraved nature, because of our crooked nature, everything we do is tainted, and unacceptable to God. This is the doctrine of Total Depravity. We are so lost and mired and tainted by sin that there is no possibility that anything we do can reconcile us to God. Calling on the name of Jesus does not save us. Jesus himself told us that. He said many will call upon my name, and I will say depart from me. I never knew you. Joining the church does not save you. Nothing we do saves us. That is what “Totally Depraved” means. We are totally and completely unable to do anything, say anything, think anything that might save us.

Romans 3:10-12:

10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:

11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.

12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

Now some preachers, trying to describe our position as sinners before an angry God, use the illustration of disease and sickness. We are sick with sin, they say, and the gospel is the healing medicine that we need. Everybody in the world has this sin-sickness and Jesus is the all-healer. It seems like a good illustration of the gospel. I have used it myself sometimes, but really it does not go far enough in describing our condition. We are not sick in our sins; we are dead in our sins. We were incapable of any life with God.

A sick person can do something toward healing themselves. They can eat or drink or take medicine. They can help themselves. That is not a description of our sin condition. We are dead in our sins. We are totally depraved. That means that we are completely unable to do anything to help ourselves, to justify ourselves, to save ourselves. Perhaps a better name for our condition would be total inability. We have no ability or power to change our crooked nature and make ourselves acceptable to God.

Put it another way. We have this problem. The problem is that God hates our sinfulness. The way we are is not pleasing to God. That is the problem. But we cannot solve the problem.

I remember opening a book on higher math, several years ago. And my eyes fell upon a set of equations, and the question was, give all possible solutions to this set of equations. After looking at the equations a few seconds, I realized that I did not even have a clue. Not only could I not do the problem. I did not really even know what the question was.

When it comes to our own sinful nature, we are pretty much in that same condition. We convince ourselves that we are good folks. We ignore our arrogance and self-centeredness. We congratulate ourselves on our good acts and ignore our evil thoughts. We are all right. That is part of the perversity of our nature. We always think too well of ourselves.

Consequently, we don’t even realize that we have a problem. This is the way most of the world is. Most people are indifferent to God. They never have a thought about their sins. They live for themselves and die by themselves and go on to hell which is what they deserve.

But some people through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, are led to consider their relationship with God, and therefore begin to realize the enormity of their sins. How they ask can I be saved?

That is a question that the disciples asked Jesus. In Matthew 19, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (24). The disciples were astonished by what he said, because obviously camels do not pass through eyes of needles. What Jesus said was that it was impossible for a rich man to go to heaven? The disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus said, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” When it comes to people trying to save themselves, it is not going to happen. That is the camel going through the needle’s eye. But God can save us.

Ezekiel was a prophet who lived during the sixth century bc. He lived in exile in Babylon. Israel and Judah had been conquered. Not only that, many of the people of Judah had been deported to Babylon. So there seemed no possibility that they could rise up and form a nation again.

But God gave the prophet a vision, a gruesome vision of a valley of bones. Ezekiel walked about this valley and saw nothing but piles of dry, hard bones. And God asked Ezekiel a question, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “O Lord GOD, thou knowest.” That is, I don’t know Lord, but I assume that you do.

God’s answer is to command Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones—which seems absurd. Imagine this fellow going around talking to piles of bones. Anyone seeing him would have said that he was mad, but it was a divine madness.

We read beginning in v5, “Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.”

The point of all this was that the nation of Judah had been destroyed and there was no possibility that Judah would ever exist again. Judah was the valley of dry bones. But what was impossible to man was possible to God. God could and did restore Judah.

And this has an application for us. We were the valley of dry bones. We were sinners, we were lost in our sins, and totally unable to do anything about our sins. It was impossible that we could be saved. But God saved us.

God sent Jesus to us and Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that we might be forgiven of our sins, that our crooked nature might be made straight.

Total depravity is an ugly word. But our condition without God is an ugly condition. The good news of the gospel is that our ugliness is made beautiful in Jesus Christ. His body was broken for us. His blood was shed for us. It had to be that way to make us acceptable to God.

Our response then is to adore Jesus for what he has done, to give thanks to God that we are, through Jesus Christ, children of God.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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