Subscribe now

Total depravity – the great equaliser

May 2017 | by Tim Challies

I often feel that I have a ridiculously boring testimony. I can’t count the number of times I have sat through courses, seminars and Bible studies and have heard the value of a good testimony in evangelising the lost.

And like any long-time believer, I have heard some incredible ones. I have heard about women who were prostitutes giving their lives to the Lord and becoming active in ministry to women. I have met men who were drug dealers, living lives that would cause the most hardened of us to pale, but who were convicted of their sin and, through God’s grace, were saved. Compared to these, my testimony seems so bland.

My testimony goes something like this. I was born into a Christian home. I was a pretty good kid and never got into any real trouble. Sure, I lied a little bit and stole some pocket change from my mother on occasion, but I never did anything really bad.

At some point during my teenage years I became a Christian. I have no clear idea of when it was, but I do know that by the time I graduated high school I was a committed Christian. The end.

Strangely, no one has ever offered me a book deal or a spot on the speaking circuit to share that testimony with others!

Rebecca Writes

Rebecca Stark, of Rebecca Writes fame, expresses a similar sentiment in a recent article: ‘I came to Christ when I was very young. For almost as long as I can remember, I have been a crooked arrow being made straight rather than a crooked arrow spinning wildly. My testimony doesn’t start with, “I was a teenaged prostitute drug-dealing felon, but God saved me”. Nope. ‘I was a naughty five-year-old’ is about the worst I can do’!

(Incidentally, if I could recommend one, and only one, blog to people that would edify them the most, I would have a difficult time choosing any other than Rebecca’s. That her blog is not right near the top of the blogdom of God rankings is a pretty sad testament to the rest of us).

Rebecca expresses a belief that I share. ‘Total depravity’ is the great equaliser of believers before God. When we compare the most sinful of men to the young boy who was saved long before he even knew how to get into serious trouble, all men are equal before this law.

After all, the Scriptures teach that we are not sinners merely because of the degree of our depravity, but because of the extent. If we were to speak of a person who was totally depraved in degree, we would mean that the person was exactly as sinful as he could possibly be. Every thought of his heart and every action he undertook would be wholly, completely evil.

Clearly, there are some people in the world who are more depraved in degree than others. Thus the degree of human depravity varies from person to person. That is why we need to distinguish between degree and extent.

Depravity’s extent

When we speak of a person who is totally depraved in extent, we mean that every part of that person has been affected by sin. Their mind, body, spirit, motives, and thoughts are all corrupt and imperfect. In this measure, all men are equal.

The extent of my depravity is just as great as that of the worst sinner the world has ever known. The thoughts of his heart were continually evil, and so were mine. He hated God, and so did I. I had little opportunity to express this hatred and resentment, yet the Bible teaches that it was there all along.

Titus 3:3 tells us that: ‘For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another’.These words are as true of a child as they are of an adult. There are none who are truly innocent before God.

Ephesians 2:1-3 reads: ‘And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind’.

Rebecca writes: ‘Yep, there I was, in the evil band of those marching along the wrong path. I looked innocent enough, with my ringlets and ruffly dress and patent leather shoes, but what you couldn’t see is that I too was being energised by a spirit ruled by the prince of the power of the air. Yet God, in his mercy, reached down and plucked me from the power of darkness and transferred me to the kingdom of the Son’.

Were it not for the clear teaching in Scripture of total depravity, I may have cause to boast or to consider myself somehow more innocent than a person who instigated and endured much pain and suffering before being drawn to the Lord. Yet the Bible teaches me that my depravity, even as a child, was as great in extent as anyone’s. It was only God’s grace that kept me from being as corrupt in degree.

If God delights in saving us, who are depraved in extent, we know also that God can save anyone despite the degree of his sin. If I compare myself to others and find them more in need of a Saviour than I, I have made the mistake of comparing my sin to theirs, instead of comparing my sin to God’s perfection. God does not judge us by comparing one to the other, but against his perfect law.

God’s faithfulness

Before I close, I want to return briefly to those of us with what we perceive to be ‘boring’ testimonies. It is amazing — shocking really — that the miracle of being delivered from death to life can be considered bland by me or anyone else. Yet, we all love a good story, and my story does not seem particularly exciting.

But in reality I think the testimony of a person, raised in a Christian home, who was saved in childhood, is the most exciting testimony we can be privileged to hear. Is it not immeasurably beautiful that God is indeed faithful from one generation to the next?

He promised the Israelites that he would show ‘steadfast love to thousands [of generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Exodus 20:6). Perhaps this is best expressed (as the footnote in the ESV says) as ‘showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation’ of those who love him.

When the child of believing parents is given the gift of eternal life, we can marvel in God’s faithfulness to his promises. We can marvel also in his grace, that there are some whom he so blesses so that they do not need to experience such a degree of sin. Truly God is merciful.

Total depravity is the great equaliser, for it shows that the best and worst of men are all equally corrupt, in the light of God’s perfect standard. ‘The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard but doing it, he will be blessed in what he does’ (James 1:23).

I will close with Rebecca’s closing words: ‘Total depravity is both the nastiest and loveliest of truths, because it’s only by seeing exactly what I was that I can understand what has been done for me. Knowing the depth of God’s love comes only as I fathom how far he had to stoop to grasp me’. Amen.

Tim Challies

We are grateful to abcinsight (www.baptistsin Ireland.org) for permission to use this article from their Feb-Mar 2017 edition. Tim Challies (www.challies.com) worships and serves as an elder at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario. He is a book reviewer, co-founder of Cruciform Press, and has written five books.