Total Depravity as a Doctrine of GRACE

One of the primary tenets of reformed theology is the fact that all of humanity has been born dead in sin.

  • Ephesians 2:1 (HCSB)
    And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.
  • Psalm 51:5 (HCSB)
    Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.
  • Genesis 6:5 (HCSB)
    The LORD saw that man’s wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time.

This doctrine has commonly been referred to as Total Depravity. Loraine Boettner explains,

This doctrine of Total Inability, which declares that men are dead in sin, does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human will is evil in itself, nor that man’s spirit is inactive, and much less does it mean that the body is dead. What it does mean is that since the fall man rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation. (Emphasis added.)
(quoted in Richard D. Phillips. What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? [p. 21]. Kindle Edition.)

In short, because of the fall we are unable to please God. As God says in Genesis 6:5, “every scheme [human minds] thought of was nothing but evil all the time.” Anything that does not have the mantra, “To God alone be the glory” (“Soli Deo Gloria”), is anti-God and also evil. Therefore, because fallen man is summed up by Paul in Romans 3:11 when he writes, “there is no one who seeks God,” we are totally depraved because we don’t give God the glory that He deserves.

And if i left the post on that note, i’d be a fool and deceiver. That’s the bad news. We are sinners. We don’t seek God.

But Total Depravity is the first pillar of the Doctrines of Grace. Therefore, grace is shown through this doctrine. And if we compare this truth to the rest of the pillars, grace is quickly seen in that people who don’t deserve salvation, and have no way to merit salvation, are totally and completely saved.

But there is a much more basic way in which grace is seen in Total Depravity. (This journey will require more bad news. Forgive me.)

As i have pointed out above, “no one seeks for God” before being graciously regenerated. No one who is an unbeliever lives in a way that gives God all the glory. No one who is an unbeliever has any hope to flee the presence of sin in his/her life. As Richard Phillips explains,

In his quest for meaning, truth, and salvation, fallen mankind will turn everywhere except to God. This is why such manifestly foolish ideas as the theory of evolution gain so much traction in our world, propping up fallen man’s desperate quest to find a replacement for God. As Calvin famously quipped, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” This being the case, the one thing depraved man will not do is seek after God.
(Richard D. Phillips. What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? [pp. 24-25]. Kindle Edition.)

Calvin said that man’s heart “is a perpetual factory of idols” (edited by McNeill, Institutes: Book 1, XI, 8, page 108).

And this is where the photo heading this post comes in: The golden calf incident of Exodus 32. This was the first explicit breaking of the 2nd Commandment (2nd Commandment Violation, 2CV) in history. The commandment reads,

Exodus 20:4-6 (HCSB)
Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.  You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,  but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands.

Now if we fast-forward to Exodus 32 we read the following:

Exodus 32:2-4 (HCSB)
Then Aaron replied to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the gold rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He took the gold from their hands, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
(emphasis added).

When Aaron made the golden calf, he was not intending to make a false god. According to verse 4, the calf was meant to represent God.

What this shows–at its most basic level–is just how easy it is to be deceived into breaking the 2nd Commandment, even as God’s people.

The Westminster Longer Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?” The answer follows:

The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense: Whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.
(Westminster Larger and Smaller Catechisms, WORDsearch CROSS e-book.)

Two things stand out clearly from this brief exposition of the 2nd Commandment:

  • the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it
  • the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them

It is not simply images of God–seeking to represent God–that fall under the 2nd Commandment. It is also images of other things.

And it doesn’t have to be something carved out of gold or wood or bronze that you worship. If that was the case, then no one in Western Civilization would be guilty of breaking the 2nd Commandment.

However, we all have idols. We all have things that get elevated over the gospel of Jesus Christ, over the glory of God alone.

  • Sex
  • Guns
  • Money
  • Politics
  • Theology
  • Education
  • Social Justice
  • Racial harmony

Don’t hear me say what i’m not saying. I’m not saying these are bad things. I’m not saying that these things should not be pursued. I’m not saying these things inherently carry a curse from God. These are good things, but we must be careful not to exalt them to the place of “god things.”

I am saying that none of them trump the gospel of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. I am saying that these are all things that prove our depravity. I am saying that recognizing these idols as violations of the 2nd Commandment is a step toward finding grace in Christ.

I said above that “Total Depravity is the first pillar of the Doctrines of Grace.” And this is my point: whatever we set up as a god in place of Jesus Christ is a violation of the 2nd Commandment.

If you are not a believer, your idolatry is proof that you are created to worship. I would plead with you to reorient your worship on the only One worthy: Jesus Christ. He died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later to break the power of sin over you. If you trust Him with your life, His death on the cross took the curse that you deserve for your idolatry. If you refuse to believe, you will bear that curse for eternity in hell. Flee from idolatry and WORSHIP CHRIST ALONE (but not images of Him). Please repent today! Trust in Jesus!

And if you are a believer, crush your idol like Moses ground up the golden calf. We are too easily swayed to false worship. Look to Christ. Fix your eyes on Him. He died for you. Stop saying, “He is not worthy,” by worshipping false gods!

What idols do you need to crush today?

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Gratia


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s