It is a settled spiritual principle that small thoughts of sin lead to small thoughts of Christ. If we think we have been forgiven little, we will love little (Luke 7:47). The same principle applies, however, to those who have simply forgotten how much they’ve been forgiven. And to one degree or another, we are all prone to forget.
Hence the apostle Paul’s command to remember what life was like without Christ:
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh . . . were . . . separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11–12)
Remember, Paul tells the Ephesians, that you were once separated, alienated, estranged, hopeless. Because then, and only then, will it mean something that in Christ you are reconciled, welcomed, adopted, saved.
So too with us. If we are going to love Christ much, we need to remember the depths from which he saved us. If we are going to treasure all we have in him, we need to remember who we were without him.
The biblical authors never speak softly about our sin. Paul does not hesitate to describe us as “dead in . . . sins” (Ephesians 2:1), nor does John to call us “blind” (1 John 2:11). In Jesus’s eyes, even the most generous among us are nevertheless “evil” (Luke 11:13). We should not flinch, then, to apply to our pre-Christian selves the infamous label of “totally depraved.”
Despite popular misperceptions, total depravity begins with a rather modest claim. The doctrine does not suggest (as some mistakenly believe) that we are as bad as we could be, but only that every part of us is bad: our minds, hearts, wills, affections. None of our faculties left Eden unfallen. As J.C. Ryle writes,
We can acknowledge that man has all the marks of a majestic temple about him — a temple in which God once dwelt, but a temple which is now in utter ruins — a temple in which a shattered window here, and a doorway there, and a column there, still give some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design, but a temple which from end to end has lost its glory and fallen from its high estate. (Holiness, 5)
Fallen man walks the earth like a ruined temple, at once magnificent and miserable. Our minds, which once welcomed the light of truth, are now “darkened” and “futile” (Ephesians 4:18; Romans 1:21). Our hearts, which once pulsed with holy passion, are now “hardened” and “deceitful” (Ephesians 4:18; Jeremiah 17:9). Our wills, which once leapt at God’s commands, now refuse to heed his voice (Jeremiah 9:6; John 5:39–40).
The temple of humanity may still be standing, but sin inhabits every ruined room. Apart from Christ, we are totally depraved.
Total depravity becomes a more difficult doctrinal pill to swallow when we consider some of its implications. For example: in our fallen state, we cannot submit to God (Romans 8:7), we cannot please God (Romans 8:8; Hebrews 11:6), and most striking of all, we cannot do good (John 15:5; Romans 14:23). “No one does good,” Paul tells us — “not even one” (Romans 3:12).
How do we make sense of such a statement? Don’t we see non-Christians help their neighbors and care for their children every day? Don’t we ourselves remember doing various good deeds before we followed Christ?
To be sure, the biblical writers are willing to grant a kind of goodness to the godless. Even the evil can “give good gifts,” Jesus says (Luke 11:13). Likewise, Paul assumes that rulers know how to recognize “good conduct,” and that pagan citizens know how to display it (Romans 13:3). But God-ignoring goodness, helpful as it may be for a well-ordered society, can never please God — any more than a song of praise to Baal could please him simply because it had a few pleasant notes. If our goodness is not through God, for God, and to God (Romans 11:36), then we are singing in the service of an idol.
Perhaps if God were peripheral to this world, if he were of merely marginal interest and importance, then non-Christian goodness would qualify as true virtue. Perhaps if, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, God were less of a Father in heaven and more of a “grandfather in heaven, a senile benevolence . . . whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’” (The Problem of Pain, 31), then even he would be satisfied with our secular kindnesses.
But what if God is instead the blazing sun of the universe? What if our highest duty (and happiness!) is to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30)? What if the very breath in our lungs is his gift (Acts 17:25)? What if he is jealous to get the glory he deserves from us (Jeremiah 13:11)? What if history is rushing toward a day when he alone will be exalted (Isaiah 2:17)? If that is the case, then there is no true virtue without true worship. There is no good without God.
In ourselves, we are totally depraved; in God’s sight, we are wholly displeasing. Those two facts, taken together, lead us to a third: without Christ, we are hopelessly condemned.
The judgment, in fact, has already begun. Paul writes, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). Is revealed, not will be revealed. And how is God revealing his wrath? By handing us over to our favorite sins. “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts. . . . God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . . God gave them up to a debased mind” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). We desired freedom from God, not realizing that, the freer we are from him, the more enslaved we are to sin.
The wrath of God already abides on us (John 3:36). And unless God himself intervenes to lift his wrath from us, our darkened minds become darker; our hardened hearts become harder; our bent wills become ever more crooked. We labor every day in service to our sin, stockpiling all the while the only wages this master can ever give: death (Romans 6:23).
Very soon, we will stand before the great Judge, whose eyes are too pure to look on evil, and before whom our secret sins are laid bare (Habakkuk 1:13; Psalm 90:8). What hope will we have in that moment? With every part of us depraved, and our best works displeasing, what can we say in our defense? Apart from Christ, nothing. We are hopelessly condemned.
The portrait of humanity under sin is a bleak one — so bleak that many would prefer to forget it altogether. Yet we do so at the cost of our deepest comfort.
When those in Christ heed Paul’s command to remember, and allow our sin to overshadow us, we arrive at a place we do not expect: not outside of Eden, with cherubim guarding the entrance; not beside the lake of fire, with the flames threatening judgment; but rather beneath the storm clouds of Calvary, where, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While we could not escape our depravity, while we could not win God’s approval, while we could not avoid condemnation, the Son of God spilt his precious blood.
Remembering our sin in this way, far from sending us into despair, deepens our assurance. For if Christ loved us then, while we wanted nothing to do with him, will he not surely go on loving us now (Romans 5:10)? Our sin reminds us that the love of God never rested on our worthiness — for we had none — but only ever on Christ’s.
John Newton famously said on his deathbed, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” The two statements always belong together. If our sin was small, then so is our Savior. But if we were depraved, displeasing, and condemned, then our thoughts of Christ cannot be too great.