Until quite recently, I’ve held what many might consider to be an extreme view of Total Depravity; I believed everyone (including me) will always make the most evil choice God allows them to make every time they make a choice, and that the only reason we do not act like Satan at every instant is the restraining grace of God. I can no longer hold this position, partly due to this verse: “But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every man shall bear his own burden.” (Ga 6:4-5) I am unable to make sense of this text, and many others like it, without abandoning my former position, so … I let it go, it’s history.
Evidently, there are degrees of real moral freedom within the boundaries of Total Depravity, such that we have some practical potential to do better or worse within these boundaries according to our own personal choices. Our depravity is evidently total in scope in the sense that all we do is tainted with sin (Is 64:6): we cannot ever do anything perfectly good (Ro 3:12), with 100% pure motives. (Pr 20:9)
However, while we may not be able to make any single choice with perfect motives, it is also evident we have some practical control of how far away we deviate from God’s perfect standard as we choose; we operate within some range of badness, and we can choose to be better or worse within this range. (2Ti 3:13) So, it appears that we are not totally depraved in degree, only in scope.
This is how we experience reality: we have moral freedom to make better or worse choices within some theoretical range of moral goodness, and this is also how God treats us; so, it makes sense that this is the reality, not just an illusion. Where these boundaries ultimately come from and how they appear within and impact each individual is mysterious, but a few things appear to be clear about it.
As a foundation, no human except Christ has ever been perfectly good at any moment (Mk 10:18); all the rest of us are rebels (Is 53:6), some more than others (Ge 13:13), but we’re all guilty (Ro 3:19), and God is perfectly just in punishing us in our rebellion. (Ps 145:17) We’re all sinners (1Jn 1:8) in need of a Savior to save us from this condition: we cannot save ourselves. (Ep 2:8-9)
That said, it is evidently also clear that we are not all equally bad; some of us make worse choices in our total depravity than others, and this difference is something we ourselves can and ought to control. God may even tend to reveal the gospel to those who are trying to make better choices within their unique range of moral ability (Ps 50:23), to those seeking eternal life. (Is 55:6-7)
This is not salvation by works; it is still God choosing to show mercy to the underserved (Ro 9:16), but it may also be God showing mercy to those who — though undeserving — are at least seeking mercy, trying their best (Ro 2:6-7), as bad as it is, within their own, unique degree of moral capability and freedom. (1Ti 1:13)
We perceive we are responsible to make the best choices we can, that it is up to each of us as individuals to do so, of our own free will, and that we don’t always want to make the most evil choice available to us, and that our actions are not all predetermined or compelled by any internal or external forces. Most importantly … we are commanded to live accordingly, and not assume we have no practical control or influence in determining our eternal destiny. (Lk 13:24)
If this is how we experience reality, and it is also how God describes reality, and it is also how He actually treats us, there’s sufficient reason to try to interpret all of scripture in accord with this perspective.