Total Depravity: God’s Grace Is Undeserved
This month we are going to explore five biblical truths about salvation through Jesus. These five truths are sometimes called “the doctrines of grace” because they highlight just how completely our salvation depends on God. They’re often summarized using the acronym “T.U.L.I.P.” (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints). Maybe these terms are very familiar to you. Maybe you’ve never heard them before. Either way, I hope this month’s letters will deepen your gratitude and love for the undeserved, sovereign, personal, compelling, and enduring grace of God.
The T in T.U.L.I.P. stands for total depravity. That’s a pretty somber place to start! But many stories with happy endings have tragic beginnings, and so does the story of God’s grace.
“Total depravity” means that every part of who we are as human beings has been touched and corrupted by sin. It’s not just that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23); Paul says the problem runs even deeper, “as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands,’” no one even seeks for God, Paul says (vv. 10-11).
Like an iceberg that’s mostly below the surface, the problem of sin is easy to underestimate. We prefer to think of ourselves as basically good people who just have a few flaws and have made some mistakes, that with a little help from God we can overcome those flaws and mistakes to become that better version of ourselves that we really are underneath. But the Bible’s picture of human nature is much less flattering, and none of us gets an exemption from it.
Ephesians 2 is particularly vivid. Before God stepped in to change things, Paul says, “You were dead”! Not just sick, not just needing some help—“dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” living “in the passions of our flesh”; we were “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” In other words, what people need is not just a spiritual hand up. We need a miracle—a miracle of resurrection, of new spiritual life where there is no spiritual life at all.
The Bible says that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Romans 8:7), and simply will “not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). That means spiritually dead people not only can’t save themselves by their works; they can’t even receive God’s salvation by faith—unless God takes the initiative in grace to give them spiritual life.
Grace-Based Action Point
Total depravity is not a pleasant place to begin, but it is foundational to understanding God’s grace, and it should provoke in us an attitude that it is fundamental to true Christianity. I’m talking about humility. God’s grace is totally, one hundred percent undeserved. We would never even reach up to God for help if He did not first reach down to us in mercy.
’Tis not that I did choose thee, for Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse thee, hadst thou not chosen me.
Thou from the sin that stained me hast cleansed and set me free;
Of old thou hast ordained me, that I should live to thee.
(Josiah Conder, Trinity Psalter Hymnal #428)
Yours in Christ,