Desperately Wicked

People are bad, really bad, intensely evil (Job 15:16), desperately wicked; God says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Je 17:9

Total Depravity, a basic Christian doctrine, is simply stated: Every choice we make is tainted with sin. In our natural state we consistently seek our own way (Is 53:6); we often do so with relentless, unyielding intensity (Ro 3:14-15); we cannot do anything perfectly. (Je 13:23)

This is not because we don’t have the moral capacity to choose good; we are all made in the image of God and are equipped with a moral compass to discern between evil and good. We make less than perfect choices because over time we have built into ourselves a mindset and world view which is in varying degrees contrary to God’s ways. (Ro 8:7-8) It’s irrational at best, this mystery of iniquity within us, but it’s very, very real. (Is 64:6)

Our depravity is total in scope (Is 64:6), encompassing all of our actions and motives (Ro 7:18), but the degree and depth of our depravity may vary from one person to the next, between one choice and the next, and our moral inclinations and tendencies may change over time as we make better or worse choices. (2Ti 3:13, (1Th 4:1)

We all experience total depravity in our moral imperfections, in our unwillingness to submit to God completely, to love Him with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves. (Ro 7:21-24) Even so, we have no idea how bad we really are, because we have very limited understanding of what perfect righteousness and holiness look like. Yet as we begin to encounter God Himself (Job 15:15-16), we begin to see ourselves more clearly, as we really are. (Is 6:5)

We’ll never experience the full degree and depth of wickedness, as in Satan himself, either in ourselves or others; God limits or controls our wickedness, holding us back (2Th 2:7), restraining us according to His sovereign purposes. (De 18:14) This is God’s irresistible grace, enabling us to make better choices than we otherwise would (He 12:28), with better motives (15), moving in us to be less wicked, more righteous. (Php 2:12) It’s a gift, something He does in us. (Ep 3:7) One Day He’ll step back and turn the wicked over more fully to their evil ways (Re 6:4), and we’ll see again how wicked mankind can be. (Ge 6:5)

Our depravity humbles us, dismissing all hope of meriting God’s favor as a lie, and exalting anyone to a position of spiritual authority over others as harmful. (Mt 23:8) It’s the key to soteriology, how God’s unconditional election and limited atonement align with His genuine, universal offer of eternal salvation. (He 5:9)

Depravity explains how God can be in absolute, total control over all things, yet how Man still has free will. It even moves Hell itself into glorious context, as awesome, unarguably appropriate and just. All these truths appear hopelessly irreconcilable until we understand Total Depravity. There’s comfort, peace and joy in seeing it all from God’s perspective. (2Co 13:11)

Yes, it seems the world’s “going to Hell in a handbasket,” it sure does, but it shouldn’t surprise or alarm us. God has a glorious purpose in all He allows. Let’s pray for and be concerned for others, and for our world, while exulting in God, being anxious for nothing. (Php 4:6-7) He knows what He’s doing.

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6 thoughts on “Desperately Wicked”

  1. Additional scripture (and my commentary) supporting this concept:
    — And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every (no exception) imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil (nothing else) continually (consistently, without abatement, no wavering). (Ge 6:5)
    — there is none (zero, nada, zilch) that understandeth, there is none (zero, nada, zilch) that seeketh after God. They are all (no exception) gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable (zero goodness); there is (absolutely) none that doeth (anything perfectly) good, no, not (even) one. (Ro 3:11-12)
    — whose mouth is (chock) full (with an abundance) of cursing and bitterness: (Ro 3:14)
    — there is no (zero, nada, zilch) fear of God before their eyes. (Ro 3:18)
    — For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no (perfectly) good thing: for to will (to be perfectly good) is present with me; but how to perform that which is (perfectly) good I find not. (Ro 7:18)
    — in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; (2Ti 2:24 — Evidently, until God gives repentance, no one will repent on their own.)
    — And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds. (Re 16:10-11) (For example, no one will repent on their own, even when God tortures them because of their rebellion.)

  2. The key point isn’t that people are intrinsically bad (this is obvious); it is a question of how bad.

    Though we have the moral capacity/ability to choose good, without God intervening and restraining/enabling, does fallen Man have the slightest inclination to choose good? His choices may vary in their badness, but will he ever choose good or God on his own?

    Total Depravity says “No.” To answer differently is to say Man has some ultimate goodness in himself apart from God, an inclination to choose God or good entirely independently of God (i.e. “on his own”).

    This is not to say we are all equally bad; some may be more wicked than others, and some choices better than others. We may not make the most evil choice in the most evil way every time we make a choice, even if left to ourselves, but we can never make a perfectly good choice with a perfect motive.

    This understanding enables me to consistently hold a number of otherwise apparently contradictory biblical claims at the same time. (Free Will vs God’s Sovereignty, Limited Atonement vs Universal Gospel)

  3. Total Depravity need not necessarily mean all people are equally depraved; some of us seem to have more actual capacity for and inclination toward evil than others.

    This accommodates my definition of humility: to esteem others morally better than ourselves; we might each indeed be, apart from God’s grace, the most evil person in all the world for all time.

  4. Total Depravity does not mean fallen Man has never had the actual capacity to choose good or do good. That would mean Man is not responsible for his evil choices and it would implicate God in creating Man with an evil nature.

    We must hold that Man is always responsible for his choices, that he is responsible to choose God and good, and that, even if he has now totally forfeited his capacity to choose perfect goodness due to having chosen evil and ensnared himself, destroying his own capacity to seek after God, at some point each soul has freely chosen evil of his/her own free will and is rightly held accountable for all of his/her actions.

    Each soul is also constantly in flux on the moral spectrum, moving either more toward total wickedness or more towards perfection in every choice we make. While we will never reach either absolute perfection or the ultimate depth of total wickedness, the farther we go in any direction the easier it is to continue going in that same direction. It is imperative then that we make the best choices we can possibly make, and free ourselves as much as we can from the dominion and enslavement of sin. It does matter what we do; we will reap what we sow, we will reap more than we sow, and we will reap later than we sow.

  5. The way I am reading the text (as emphasized in my commentary), particularly Ro 3, may not leave much room for discussion.

    The question remains, and it is an important one: how do I know if I am reading this text correctly?

    This is a different question, which I answer more generally in my blog post Rightly Dividing, and in comments on that post.

    In summary, in my view, in order to rightly divide the Word, the interpretation/application/teaching:
    –[1] must not contradict any other scripture; we must be able to reconcile any claim with all of scripture without doing injustice to the context and/or grammar of any other biblical passage.
    –[2] must not force the grammar of the passage at hand or deviate from the plain meaning of all the words in the text, unless:
    —–[A] doing so would either generate a contradiction (as in case [1]) or necessarily be inconsistent with the immediate context, and
    —–[B] a special/unique definition is reasonably required and/or understood from history and/or the larger context which validates and supports the wording of the immediate context.

    I don’t see how my reading of Ro 3 does any injustice to the text itself, or to the immediate context, or to the entire context of scripture.
    — I think it does no injustice to the immediate context:
    —— “every” can easily mean absolutely all, no exceptions.
    —— “only” can easily mean nothing else, no exceptions.
    —— “continually” can easily mean all the time, relentless, without abatement, no exceptions.
    —— “no” and “none” can easily mean absolutely none, zero.
    —— “all” can easily mean absolutely everyone, no exceptions.
    —— “full” can easily mean completely and totally full, leaving no room for anything else
    — I think it does no injustice to scriptures which command us to choose good, since it is right for God to command us so even if we are entirely unwilling to do so when left to themselves, or “on their own”.
    — I think it does no injustice to scriptures which demonstrate people choosing good, since I can attribute this to the grace of God working in them, whether they are believers or not, and that they are not doing so “on their own”.

    I think to read the above texts, and Ro 3 in particular, in any other way, and conclude that some people have the inclination to choose good/God on their own, without God’s aid, one would have to have a legitimate reason for doing so, which would necessarily be one of the following:
    — [i] a text of scripture exists which plainly states fallen Man has the inclination to choose good/God all on his own, without God’s aid, which would imply using the plain meaning of words in the text at hand openly contradicts the plain meaning of this other scripture (to my knowledge, there is no such text)
    –[ii] the grammar of the text supports the alternate reading without distorting the plain meaning of words (which I think is unreasonable, since then “no, not one” and “none” and “every” must really in this particular context for some reason mean “few” or “most”, which is not the plain meaning of the words)

  6. In my original post I did not differentiate between scope and degree, thinking everyone is as wicked as God will let them be in every choice they make.

    My new position is that total depravity refers to the scope of depravity, encompassing every moral choice, but I no longer believe every choice we make on our own is as wicked as it could possibly be. I think some people are more wicked than others, and some of our decisions are more wicked than our other decisions.

    I am thinking now that every person has some control over how wicked they become and can make better or worse choices to move towards or farther away from moral perfection on their own. Though we are all sinful, I think there are degrees of freedom in our moral choices which we can control. So, it is important for everyone to do as well as they can with the current nature and moral capability they have so they will become less wicked and move towards the kingdom of Heaven.

    In summary, I am seeing more of a collaborative process in our calling and sanctification, whereas before I thought it was entirely one-sided where God does everything, and we essentially could do nothing, that our election was unconditional and there were no moral differences between those whom God chooses. It may actually be that God tends to choose those who He knows beforehand will seek eternal life and order their lives as well as they can, and that our seeking may not necessarily be a consequence of our election, but vice versa.

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