On June 17, a twenty-one-year-old man entered Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat down with a small group of parishioners who were there for a Bible study. After about an hour of listening to teaching and discussion on Mark 4:16–20, he pulled out a pistol and fatally shot nine people.
In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, pundits on television and people on social media labeled the tragedy “inexplicable” and “senseless.” While well-intentioned, these words are inaccurate. This young man’s deadly violence is indeed explicable. It does make a sort of twisted “sense.” We know why these nine people were murdered. We know why sex-trafficking thrives. We know why we cheat on our spouses. The reason for all that is wrong in the world is summed up in one word — sin.
The Bad News First
It may sound trite, but it is profoundly true: You can’t fully understand the good news if you don’t understand the bad.
When God first created the world, only two descriptors applied to all that he made — “good” and “very good.” But in his mysterious providence, he made the man and woman capable of rejecting his benevolence and disobeying his command. Our forefather Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and that death has spread to all people (Romans 5:12). The biblical teaching that Adam’s sin has been passed down to all people like a terminal spiritual disease is called “total depravity” (Romans 3:10–12, 23).
Extensive, Not Intensive
The depth of mankind’s sin nature is commonly misunderstood. Human beings are not as bad as they possibly could be. To be absolutely sinful means that a person’s every thought, word, and deed is malicious. But this isn’t our experience.
People demonstrate benevolence all the time. They donate money and clothes to help the poor. They become teachers to inspire young people to thoughtfulness and service. They take care of their sick parents.
Total depravity describes an extensive reality, rather than an intensive one. It means that sin extends to every aspect of our humanity. Each person’s mind, will, and emotions have been corrupted by sin. No part of any human being has a defense against depravity. But this teaching does not mean that people do as much evil as they possibly could. Total depravity does not speak of the intensity of sin in a person, only that every part of a person has been touched by it.
Protection from Progressivism
The biggest enemy of our embracing this biblical truth is the contemporary belief in the inherent progress of humanity. The rapid advances in scientific knowledge during the Age of Enlightenment and the technological shifts during the Industrial Revolution deluded us into thinking that we behave better over time. The idea of sin seemed passé in the midst of tectonic changes from traditional to modern life. This reality gave rise to the idea of “progressivism.”
Progressivism teaches that — given enough time, information, and good will — people will become progressively better on their own. Societies will become more humane, science will teach people all they need to know, and nations will become more civilized.
Human-centered progressivism undergirds the modern secular mind, and tragically it is sending people to hell. It causes people to turn away from God and seek salvation in science or activism or themselves. In the philosophy of progressivism, the serpent still whispers, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). The biblical truth of our total depravity must be protected from progressivism, to help people seek Christ for salvation instead of themselves.
Our Need for Good News
The biblical doctrine of total depravity teaches the complete futility of all efforts at self-salvation. Human beings are not just sick in their trespasses and sins, but dead (Ephesians 2:1). No matter how hard we try to do good in our own power, we will always act selfishly in the end. These problems do not arise from a lack of willpower, but from a lack of life. Only an external power stronger than sin and death can overcome the depravity that resides within us. The biggest implication of total depravity is that humankind needs a savior.
Jesus Christ was the only human being ever born who did not inherent Adam’s sin. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, he lived a sinless life and was thereby worthy of eternal life. Yet because he so loved his chosen people, he willingly subjected himself to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). On the third day, he rose again, vanquishing sin and the last enemy, death. Now through faith in Christ we too are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). Christ has freed us from the power of sin.
In Jesus, we are able to fight our sinful nature and live holy lives to his glory. Christ’s sin-crushing power in us does not represent a mere foray into enemy territory but a complete takeover. Just as depravity once affected us in our totality, by faith in Christ, holiness now permeates our entire being. This change does not mean that we never sin. Even Christians suffer from the disease of sin and its effects, but the difference for believers is that sin no longer controls us.
Potential for Evil
Total depravity implies that the same seeds of murderous anger that led a young man to slay nine people in a Bible study reside in us as well. Just because we haven’t committed particular sins doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing them or worse. Total depravity should lead all believers to humble circumspection about their own potential for evil.
But God gives more grace. He has provided ways for us to continually dismiss the darkness with light. Sin flourishes when Christians are isolated, but it withers in the midst of community. God has given us the church to build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We are to exhort one another so we will not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). God has also given us prayer, the preached word, and the sacraments to keep the haunting presence of total depravity from our hearts.
Heinous acts have sin as their source, and we are all born totally depraved. But thanks be to God for the grace he has shown us in Jesus Christ, who transforms the depraved into his disciples.