Understanding Total Depravity and its practical implications

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Confessor

Puritan Board Senior
Right now, I essentially have a few propositions in my mind regarding Total Depravity, but they are not systematized. So, I am going to list what I already have established and questions stemming from them. (Feel free to correct whatever I already think is established, for I could very well be wrong.)

Already established:

(1) Man is entirely unable to save himself, and is entirely averse to conversion without God's help.
(2) Man can still achieve some moral good without being regenerated, although this good necessarily stems from God, Who is the fountain of all things good.
(3) From (2), therefore, man would choose the maximum amount of evil at all times without God's grace, yet this is not the state of men denoted by Total Depravity. That is, if God were to provide no grace (and I don't mean grace in the salvific sense; I am a high Calvinist) at all to assist a natural man's moral faculties, then that natural man would choose the maximum amount of evil; yet even with this grace, the natural man can be regarded as totally depraved.
(4) What Total Depravity denotes, then, is that all of men's faculties are averse to putting faith in Christ and submitting oneself to His lordship; it is not purely tied to man's moral goodness. This is patently obvious given the fact that some (many) nonbelievers are not raving, murderous demons. In fact, the augmented moral state of many nonbelievers can help conceal their complete spiritual enmity against Christ.
(5) To paraphrase Joel Beeke and restate (2) above, Total Depravity implies not that all natural men are wholly evil in all their decisions, but that none of their decisions are wholly good. This seems to be the case because "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). To add on to this, Jonathan Edwards contends that all actions that are perfect, i.e., completely virtuous, are ones that seek to display God's glory. And all actions that do not ultimately seek the display of God's glory are defective in varying degrees.

And now, my questions stemming therefrom:

(I) When I make a moral decision, and especially when I choose an option that seems to honor God's law and avoid sin entirely -- i.e., when I am amidst tribulation and I choose not to sin -- I very rarely have "I want to display God's glory" in my mind. Although Jonathan Edwards makes for a very convenient bifurcation between what counts as sin and what doesn't, with the entire distinction boiling down to whether God's glory is sought or not, is his distinction accurate? Perhaps I need to understand more ways in which God is glorified: for instance, if I have in mind, "I want to keep God's law," or, "I do not want to pierce Christ," or, "I do not want to grieve the Holy Spirit," is it possible to logically transform any of those motives into a motive to glorify God?

(II) If Total Depravity pertains only to spiritual aversion to Jehovah and not necessarily to a specific amount of moral depravity -- e.g., some unbelievers are kind and honest -- then why can believers, myself included, always point to the significant moral change that occurs post-regeneration? Drunkards, homosexuals, sex addicts, idolaters, etc. can all talk about the supreme moral change God has wrought in their lives when they converted. Yet Total Depravity refers mostly to a spiritual hardness of heart. So how is Total Depravity related to the moral state of man, keeping in mind that many unbelievers are "nice people," at least compared to many believers? I have a feeling that this question is answered by the mere fact that although Total Depravity refers to a total spiritual and not moral depravity, our spiritual faculties affects our moral faculties, such that any improvement in the former (e.g., those which occur by regeneration and sanctification) necessarily causes a betterment in the latter. But I would appreciate more input, or perhaps confirmation, regarding this point.

(III) This is somewhat tied to (I). What does it mean to do everything in faith (per Romans 14:5)? I do not necessarily have God in my mind when I, for instance, choose to get pepperoni pizza rather than cheese pizza. Does that make such an action sin? Assuming it does not, why not?

(IV) Is there any way to discuss Total Depravity with unbelievers as some segue to give evidence for or explain the doctrines of Christianity? Unbelievers are quick to point out an evidential argument that they believe is against Christianity, viz. that they know many moral non-Christians; therefore Christ is not necessary to be moral; therefore Christianity is false. Is there a converse to this? For example, if I were to present the Gospel, and if I tried to explain that natural men are trapped in sin and cannot save themselves to any degree, is there any way I could say, "Look at person X, etc.; this evidences Total Depravity" (in such a way that is consistent with the ninth commandment, upholding my neighbor's good name :))?
 

Scott1

Puritanboard Commissioner
Confessor
(1) Man is entirely unable to save himself, and is entirely averse to conversion without God's help.

Yes.
It’s not merely a matter of God’s helping us so we can be saved (I realize you are not saying it is, but Arminian influence often explains man as needing “help.’)

We might say only man is totally unable to save himself. Regeneration (as election, justification and adoption) are100% acts of a sovereign God acting according to the good pleasure of His will. (cf Ephesians 1 and 2).



(2) Man can still achieve some moral good without being regenerated, although this good necessarily stems from God, Who is the fountain of all things good.

God looks at both the outward act and the inward heart in determining whether an act is “good.” A “good” outward act is not really “good” if it is done for a reason other than obeying, pleasing God.

The reformers called works that were outwardly good (but not from a right inward heart toward God) acts of “civil virtue.” Their merit is only among men.

Westminster Confession

Chapter XVI
Of Good Works

I. Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word,[1] and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.[2]

II. These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith:[3] and by them believers manifest their thankfulness,[4] strengthen their assurance,[5] edify their brethren,[6] adorn the profession of the Gospel,[7] stop the mouths of the adversaries,[8] and glorify God,[9] whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto,[10] that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.[11]

III. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.[12] And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of His good pleasure:[13] yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.[14]

IV. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possibly in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.[15]

V. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins,[16] but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants:[17] and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit,[18] and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment.[19]

VI. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him;[20] not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreproveable in God's sight;[21] but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.[22]

VII. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others:[23] yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith;[24] nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word;[25] nor to a right end, the glory of God,[26] they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God:[27] and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.[28]

(II) If Total Depravity pertains only to spiritual aversion to Jehovah and not necessarily to a specific amount of moral depravity

One of the ways we might understand total depravity is to say that the fall affected every aspect of man's being- his mind, will, emotions, even his body. It's not that man is as bad as he possibly could be always- but it is that the fall into sin is comprehensive to all his being. In all his being, man is inclined toward, has a bias toward, is in bondage to his sin nature- and this is not acceptable to a Holy God.
 

ewenlin

Puritan Board Junior
Hi Ben, got this from a mini article I wrote awhile back,

It is important to note that when Total Depravity is used, it is an extensive description rather than an intensive one, such that man is not intensely sinful (as sinful as he can be) but rather that sin has extended to his whole being. So, being totally and radically corrupt, man is incapable of acting in any way contrary to his nature or to change his current state and disposition to sin. This is affirmed by the many “cannots” in the Bible (Matthew 7:18; John 3:3, 5, 6:44, 65, 14:17, 15:4-5; Romans 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14, 12:3; James 3:8; Revelations 14:3), hence known as Total Inability.

It's perhaps helpful to distinguish as Robert Reymond does, between Total Depravity (which is extensive) with Total Inability.

Regarding question 4, I rarely like to get into theological discussions when witnessing. Do remember that Christ didn't die to make us moral. The best way is not to point to someone else to demonstrate total depravity. Use the 10 commandments and show them their depravity. With the mirror of God's law address their conscience. I wouldn't see this as a violation of the 9th.

Link to the article here.

Hope this helps
 

Edward

Puritanboard Commissioner
(2) Man can still achieve some moral good without being regenerated, although this good necessarily stems from God, Who is the fountain of all things good.

God looks at both the outward act and the inward heart in determining whether an act is “good.” A “good” outward act is not really “good” if it is done for a reason other than obeying, pleasing God.

The reformers called works that were outwardly good (but not from a right inward heart toward God) acts of “civil virtue.” Their merit is only among men.

I agree. The point of departure is at point (2). The acts of the reprobate may be beneficial, but they aren't good.

Since 2 fails, then 3 also fails:

(3) From (2), therefore, man would choose the maximum amount of evil at all times without God's grace,

There appears to be confusion here between 'total depravity' and 'absolute depravity'.
 
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