Alfred Place Baptist Church

Total Depravity

Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Dr. Lloyd-Jones was hesitant about preaching on Sundays such doctrines as the five points of Calvinism. He was a Calvinistic Methodist and unashamed of that, but his approach was to permeate all his sermons with these truths and so to Calvinize people by showing them the greatness of our Sovereign Lord and his free redemption. However, when Dr. Lloyd-Jones took part in conferences and discussions he used theological and Calvinistic terms, but rarely did he do so when he preached on Sundays. People learning about Christianity must start in the infants’ school of trust in Jesus Christ before getting to the grammar school of election and the design of the atonement. I appreciate that wise response and have tended to take the same approach myself, but I also think times come when these truths, which are so preachable, need to be declared clearly. I do believe all five points and I want every Christian to believe them because they are the teaching of the Bible. They are historic Christianity. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was different from Dr. Lloyd-Jones as he asked his invited preachers to speak on the ‘Five Points’ at the grand opening of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, one point each evening for a week. London needed to hear the ‘Five Points” as it does today. No one would encourage a young preacher to begin his ministry with sermons on the ‘Five Points” but in one’s forty-third year one may be excused in preaching such a brief series as this for they are the neglected truths of Christianity, misunderstood, opposed and distorted by many preachers, and yet indispensable for the full health of the faith, a powerful means of evangelism and frequently used to bring revival to dying churches. Many of you have expressed your enthusiasm when I said I planned to preach on the Five Points. So today we shall start with the first point of the five which diagnoses the real state of man and judges him in his human totality as body and soul to be quite depraved.

Today there is an immense interest in the science of human behaviour, and a very specialized vocabulary is often used to express men’s assessment of the various lifestyles which different groups of people follow. We are familiar with such designations as ‘immorality,’ and ‘crime’; the Marxist speaks of ‘alienation,’ the Existentialist of ‘inauthentic existence’ while the Greens speak of ‘ecological neglect.’ With such phrases men express their own evaluations of their fellow men and their actions. Christianity too has a tremendous concern to understand human behaviour and to pass judgment on it, to diagnose it and describe certain remedies for its healing. To sum up the bleak analysis of the Bible this phrase has come to be used, that all mankind, every single man and woman without exception is ‘totally depraved.’ To the natural man this is an enormously offensive phrase; it is certainly not politically correct and it is also open to all kinds of misinterpretation. It goes against everything in the Church Growth Movement. This Movement encourages Christian worship and messages to be ‘user-friendly’ and ‘seeker-friendly,’ that is, that we be benign and non-challenging in our sermons in an attempt to attract the ‘unchurched’ Dai and Blodwen. The Church Growth practitioners emphasize non-confrontational approaches to spreading their religion, especially in their emphasis on music, and so they end up always presenting ‘a light gospel.’ Salvation is considered to be deliverance from meaninglessness and aimless living; that is the contemporary soft sell. So a preacher’s exhortations are to be clever, informal, positive, brief and friendly. That is what theological students are taught in every denominational seminary in the U.K. today. Such phrases as ‘total depravity’ are never to be used, except when linked with terms like ‘hell-fire’ and ‘fire and brimstone’ as phrases that only the primitive fundamentalist ‘yells’ at his congregation.

What does that approach tell men and women about the spiritual condition they’re in as God sees them? It is that God sees them as unhappy people. The sinner who wanders into a church and sits through skits, mimes, interpretive dances, and life affirming messages with frequent attempts at humour will conclude about the Christian religion that it is an optional, additional church dimension for those people who need that sort of thing. This will be confirmed to him in the absence of a single, clear, convicting message about his dangerous spiritual situation – that he is a depraved sinner heading for the eternal fires because he is a daily offense to a holy God. I am asking whether it’s not essential for a sinner to understand his imminent danger if he’s ever to look in faith and longing to our Saviour Jesus Christ. Paul knew the terror of the Lord and his work was persuading men and women to turn to Christ. God will put us in the balances and find us wanting, and I do believe that that is the most caring message for every minister to preach. Would a doctor be loving to a patient who had heart-disease if he constantly assured him not to worry, that his pains were mere indigestion? It may be comforting for the sick man to hear that, but what if the words are lies? Would he be a faithful doctor if he chivvied him along in the consulting room with banter about his needless worries, telling him a few jokes and stories to cheer him up? The man in pain is in fact dying of heart disease, and there’s a cure. Then why doesn’t the doctor tell him how grave is the condition he’s in and how wonderful is the deliverance. Because he is a quack, a false doctor. The Church Growth’s constant life-affirming messages may be good psychology but they are bad theology. Our text in Romans chapter three and verse 23 tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

1. ALL OF US ARE SINNERS IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.

The Word of God looks at human life not in terms of human standards – the moral consensus, social approbation, the voice of conscience in a particular age – but rather Scripture judges human life in terms of one great norm, that of the law of God, and it weighs a man’s life in terms of those scales, God’s absolute and eternal balances. It is in terms of them that it passes its own assessment upon our human behaviour. Sin is not a violation of the expedient, or the practical, or the politically correct. It is a violation of the law of God. There are in fact four different words used in the Bible to describe sin;

i] Sin is missing the target. Every human life should aim at conformity to the law of God. Think of the senior archer teaching the novice to hold his bow and fire his arrow at the bull’s eye. The target God places before us is to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Scripture says that every human life has missed that target. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We haven’t just missed the bull’s eye. Our lives have completely fallen short of the target.

ii] Sin is trespassing across the boundary. There are the frontier posts that mark out life in the kingdom of God. The first says that we are to have no gods except the true and living God. The second says that we are not to make and serve idols. The third says that we are not to take God’s name in vain. The fourth says that we are to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. The fifth says that we are to honour both our father and our mothers. The sixth says that we are not to do violence to anyone. The seventh forbids sexual sin. The eighth tells us to respect the private property of others and not to take what is not ours. The ninth condemns lying, while the tenth tells us that the itching longing for anything that belongs to our neighbours is a trespass. God has driven in deeply those boundary markers and no one may remove those landmarks. Within those ten demarcation points we are to live our lives. Outside them is the total exclusion zone where trespassers will be prosecuted by the Lord, and yet we all wander there quite deliberately day after day. Sometimes we will crash through the barriers of God’s great negatives into those no-go areas and do it again, and again – every single one of us. Sin is transgression.

iii] Sin is disobedience. There is the great voice of the Creator echoing in every heart in the things of his law written there, made known in most lands in an earlier grace, and clarified in the Bible. “This is my will for you . . . fathers behave like this . . . mothers behave like this . . . young people behave like this . . . preachers preach these truths . . . neighbours love your neighbours in this way.” These are the Creator’s rights over the creatures who live and move and have their being in him in his creation, and there is the constant, defiant human response of, “No! We will not have this Lord rule over us.”

iv] Sin is rebellious lawlessness. Men and women are not meant to live an autonomous existence in this world. In other words, they are not meant to say, “Well this is how I think of God and this is how I consider the good life.” That is lawlessness, because such people are a law unto themselves, and that ends in chaos. We are meant to live a theonomous existence, finding delight in the will of God, loving him with all our hearts and our neighbours as ourselves.

So in those four ways we learn more specifically what the Bible means when it says that all have sinned; every life has missed its target; every life has transgressed the boundary lines of God; every life has disobeyed the voice of God; every life is a lawless life. The standard before us is God in his glory, and that is what we have fallen short of. But the Bible does not merely state these truths in a theological fashion. It brings our emotions to bear on this truth to wake us up to our plight, and it does so by describing sin as a hard heart, a stiff neck, self-inflicted blindness, a ferocious beast crouching at the door to destroy us, beautiful wedding garments stained with an indelible scarlet dye, a limp in the walk, a parasite growing increasingly virile, a leprosy covering us with untreated wounds from head to toe. That is sin!

2. ALL OF US SIN INWARDLY

According to the Word of God sin is something inward. Of course there are obvious actual, visible, concrete sins, and when we think of sin then commonly we think of such deeds as the obscene expense accounts of Members of Parliament, and glaring incompetence of airports that result in lost luggage and flights delayed for hours, of the list of thefts that fill columns of the local newspaper each week, of returning home from a holiday to find our house burgled, of violence, and drunkenness, and drug abuse, and cruelty to children and to animals. Our disgust is always directed to the external. We are concerned about men’s actions, and observable human behaviour, and of course all that is immensely important.

The Bible is much more rigorous. It looks not simply on what is outward and observable. It goes right down to the depths of human life and says that there you will find sin. Not just in our words and actions but in our thoughts and ambitions, our desires and emotions, our aspirations and affections we will meet the effects of sin. Jesus said that it was not what went into the body in eating ‘unclean’ pork and crab and venison that defiled a person but what came out of man’s heart that led to greedy, cruel, lustful, destructive actions. The heart of the problem is the human heart. It is not that human action has missed the target, or human speech but our hearts.

We can parallel so many of the ten commandments from other religious codes. You can find in them the great emphases of the moral law, but there is one thing that is peculiar to Scripture and it is this, “Thou shalt not covet.” That tenth commandment condemns the yearning for something or someone belonging to somebody else. Do you realise that the Word of God is not looking simply at what we say, or what we do? It goes right down to the well-springs of human behaviour and it condemns that aching itch for what belongs to another. It says that covetousness is a sin. It might never lead to sinful words. It might never lead to sinful behaviour, but the sinful desire for what cannot be yours, the envy we feel toward the possessions of others, that illegitimate sinful desire is sin. It may never register itself by a flicker of disapproval on your face and yet the desire itself is sin. Sin is not in action or in word alone, but it is sin for us if it is entertained in our hearts. I think we are inclined too much to dream that so long as we can keep the lid on sin so that it doesn’t burst out in words or actions then it is not sin, but the New Testament says that the very desire to sin is sin – that illicit lust, that inordinate desire is itself sin, because sin is something inward.

Think again of another emphasis of our Lord as he explains the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” He tells his disciples that that doesn’t mean that you shall not assault a person physically and violently. It is not only referring to muggings and assaults on your wife and children. It is not just condemning manslaughter or suicide bombings or abortion or euthanasia. While all those are condemned that sixth commandment also forbids hatred, and anger, and despite. The angry thought might never express itself in a scowl. We may keep the lid on all that well of iniquity and yet inside us there is a core of hot contempt. It is restrained by the constraints of respectability, and the desire for a good image and even the criminal law, and these things may prevent the outburst of these things into violent words and deeds. Yet Christ says that to hate someone is a sin.

Our Lord does the same thing with the law condemning adultery. It is not a question of the actual action but the question of the unlawful desire, of lust and sinful longing. It may never express itself in action or word, and yet the reception and savouring of such attitudes in our hearts are sinful in and of themselves. We have to address ourselves and say, “Sin is not simply a matter of words, and it lies not only in our actions, but it is also what lies in the depths of our own hearts.”

All have sinned thus. You see depravity particularly clearly in children. Very often they lack the physical strength to express their sin in actions but in their voices and their constant cries for attention and complaint you see their depravity. There is the heart that says contantly, “More, more, more, more . . .”, that quickly discards new toys at Christmas and longs for the ones a sibling or cousin has received given, and that is sin. The heart that is angry, that is hateful, that is discontented and dissatisfied is the chief problem of every person. Think of the complaints of the elderly, the demands for attention, the grumbling, the accusations, the chilly atmosphere of the lounge in many an old people’s home and you see that the frail grey-hairs have to learn to go to God and confess those sins. It is not simply that we have said and done sinful things but that our affections and feelings and ambitions have been tarnished by sin.

Or again you consider the whole realm of our emotional lives and how much in them is depraved by sin. How much sinful anxiety is there in the most well-adjusted person here? How much sinful depression is there – something that is scarcely more than prolonged sulking? How much fear when there should be trust in God’s promises, and how much paranoia, that I am being persecuted for my righteous stand or for my theology, the feeling that people don’t think of me as highly as they ought to? How much sinful escape from reality is there into a make believe world? How often do we react excessively emotionally to certain situations? How much do we react insufficiently emotionally to others? We can look at violence, and hear of tragedy and refuse to be moved as we ought. Our hearts are not breaking when they should be, and that is as sinful as the tears that ought not to be shed. So when we talk about the totality of a person being depraved by sin we are referring to the inwardness of our behaviour, not simply our words and actions but our thoughts, and intentions, and desires, and emotions, and aspirations – sin is in them.

3. ALL OF US ARE SLAVES OF SIN.

There is no moment and no action and no area of human life in which we are unaffected by sin. How can I say this? Let me take one of those great biblical words and explain it to you. We are slaves of sin; I am reading from this letter to the Romans chapter six and verses 16 to 18; “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” The whole Roman congregation were once slaves to sin, according to the apostle Paul. Or think again of those simple words in the letter to the Galatians, chapter three and verse 22, “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.”

Let me take that in the most literal way. You understand what it meant to be a slave; he was his master’s property. The slave had no time of his own, no property of his own, no talents of his own, no wealth of his own; he had no single moment in the day which he could claim, “This is mine alone,” snarling at his master, “Back off!” There were never such times; he was always his master’s. His every talent and possession belonged to the one who owned him. Paul reminds these liberated children of God of the state from which they had been delivered, prisoners and slaves of sin.

Sin subtly hides itself from us, encouraging us to believe that we are actually free men and women, that the choices we make are all flowing from our ‘free will.’ Yet it is sin that is guiding and directing our paths each day as completely as the master controlled his slave. Just try to escape and you will learn how tightly sin controls you. There was a film made ten years ago called The Truman Show. In this movie, a man named Truman Burbank thinks he is a desk clerk for an insurance company, but his life is a total masquerade. The community in which he lives is in fact an immense studio with hidden cameras everywhere, and all Truman’s friends and the people around him are actors who play their roles in what is the most popular TV-series in the world: The Truman Show. Everyone in the world is spying on him. Truman began by thinking that he was an ordinary man with an ordinary life; he had no idea about how he was being exploited. Until one day . . . he found out everything, and then how difficult it was for him to escape from the bondage of his totally controlled environment.

All of us are prisoners of sin. According to the Bible sin is actively addressing everyone in the world every day saying winsomely or authoritatively, “Ignore Jesus Christ . . . don’t think about your sin and guilt . . . don’t bother to read the Bible . . . when your Christian friend starts to talk to you about her Lord change the conversation . . . don’t think about death . . . don’t pray . . . don’t start challenging the fantasy that this world came about by a series of lucky events . . . don’t go to church . . .” And so on, and everyone is kowtowing to Lord Sin with a, “Yes sir!” The whole world is a prisoner of sin. It is the most staggering concept, and such a shock to our complacency. That what I thought was my own free decision to reject God the Son as my Lord originated in sin, that I am a prisoner to sin, every part of me, so that I cannot do what I want. I cannot go to Christ unless God the Father exerts a more powerful influence than sin and he draws me to his Son (Jn. 6:44). I can’t change and subject myself to God’s law (Roms. 8:7). I don’t have the strength to do so because sin prevents me. I can’t accept the things that come from the Spirit of God – the offer of life and forgiveness and fellowship with God – for they are foolishness to me while I am a slave of sin (I Cor. 2:14). That is the divine diagnosis, that all of us are slaves of sin.

4. ALL OF US ARE AFFECTED IN EVERY PART BY SIN.

Finally we have come to the notorious phrase ‘total depravity.’ It does not mean that all men are equally depraved, nor does it mean that all men are animals, nor are they devils, nor as depraved as they will be, or as they might be. It means that in the totality of our beings, as God knows our secret inward thoughts, that there is no faculty of our souls that has escaped the influence of sin. We suffer from total depravity in the sense that our whole natures are corrupt, that from a moral and spiritual point of view our hearts and souls in all their operations and powers are putrid. There is not a single part of me that has been left a totally sin-free zone. I am completely lacking in original righteousness. Do you understand the implications of what the Bible says? There is no hope in me whatsoever because sin has corrupted everything I am. My very righteousnesses are as filthy rags. That is the emphasis of God’s word, isn’t it? “Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness,” (Is. 6:5&6). There is no area of life which has escaped the control of sin.

i] The human intellect. Let me remind you of the human intellect. You will say, “Surely that has escaped.” But there, perhaps above all, there is depravity. The history of science has been bedeviled with men imposing their own theories and world views and values upon God’s creation. Let us remember that even our powers of observation and gifts of logical deduction and analysis have suffered from sin’s pernicious influence. You hear the saying, ‘The camera cannot lie’ and yet we have seen photographs which have utterly distorted actions; kind men have appeared to be leering cheats, and fraudsters have appeared to perform miracles. Let us remember that there is no such thing as an unbiased mind. Neutral observation does not exist. Sin has destroyed and impaired our logical powers and removed the whole possibility of impartiality. Every human mind is prejudiced. Every human mind is anti-God. Every human mind is unholy. Every human mind will look at the reality of the existence of God in his creation and they will hold down that testimony in their unrighteousness. They will suppress the truth and distort it, and wrest it to their own distruction. We have to lay the axe to the root of our own pride of intellect, and our pride in living in the 21st century, and our scientific achievement. We have to remind ourselves that at the very heart of human logic and at the very basis of human experimentation and verification in our acts of observation there too is sin.

ii] The human conscience. You think, “But hasn’t the human conscience escaped from sin?” No, the New Testament says. Men will take the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount and they will crucify him in conscience. They will murder him on theological grounds. They will kill him and think they are thus doing God a service. They will persecute, and harass, and torture those who follow him. They will incarcerate him in stinking dungeons in total darkness for years. They will commit every kind of abomination on their persons because the light that is in them is darkness. Conscience is no safe guide; it is depraved. Think of the conscience of the cannibal; he does it all in conscience. Think of the tremendous abominations of Islam and Hinduism and animism and humanism and they are all conscientious abominations. Their consciences tell them that blowing themselves up in a crowded tube train and killing and maiming all standing around them is doing their god a service. Our intellects are sinful and our consciences are sinful.

iii] The human will. Most of all, our wills are depraved by sin. There might be a certain desire or even admiration for what is good, but no will power to do it. Men have no resoluteness in terms of which a change of life can be carried to its completion. Man’s greatest bondage is the bondage of his will. Jesus said to the people of Jerusalem who had seen some of his great miracles and heard his most wonderful sermons, “I would have gathered you . . . I pleaded with you . . . I would have protected you from all that would destroy you in this world and the next . . . but you would not be gathered. You would not come to me that you might have life.” The human will, left all to itself, cannot gather all the facts about Jesus Christ, his virgin birth, his atoning death, his resurrection on the third day, his future judgment of the world and his invitations to come to him for rest, and then conclude, “O.K. I will receive him as my Saviour.” Their wills are polluted by sin; they will not come to Christ. Every sinner needs the drawing of the Father to turn his back on sin, pour contempt on all his pride, and cast all his hopes of heaven in the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ. His free will will never do that without the power of the Holy Spirit.

You remember why aren’t we all Christians? It is because of our free wills. Our wills refuse to come to Christ because we are unwilling to come. It is not lack of knowledge, or lack of entreaty. There is the sincere offer of God that if we come to Christ we will be saved, but you will not come. It is entirely a matter of the will because that is the citadel of the soul, and that is where sin reigns and where you let it reign.

5. ALL OF US WILL PAY THE WAGES OF SIN.

The wages of sin is death. In other words you serve sin and you receive its wages. You sow the seed of sin and you reap the harvest of judgment, because you are not machines or puppets. You are responsible men and women who answer to God for your sin. There is not only the sowing, there is the reaping; there is the harvest; there is always the problem of the wages, the moment when God sends in the bill and the account has to be rendered. There is the solemn fact of physical death, and beyond that the judgment, and beyond that the solemn and awesome reality that the book of Revelation calls the second death, the place Jesus spoke of so often, warning his hearers of the place of woe where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That is the logic of sin in all its depravity. It ends in the cosmic incinerator. I will say three things in closing:

i] If there is any doctrine for which there is historical and empirical evidence it is this truth. Look at Western Civilization with its allegedly Christian foundation and you ask what characterizes it today? The destruction of unborn children in their millions. The constant erosion of the whole institution of marriage. It is a civilization of sexual promiscuity, addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, greed and over-indulgence of every kind. This is not the sin of savages but of men and women who have been kept in school until they are 16 years of age living in a land which has never been so wealthy. It is the sin of people who can read and write poetry, gourmets, aesthetes, philosophers, scientists and affable family men. I think we have to stand there in a great corporate silence with every mouth stopped and all of us totally depraved before God.

ii] For salvation to be accomplished there was only one way, that the eternal Son of God had to come, take flesh and blood and lay down his life for us. God was in Christ reconciling us to himself. Only thus could man’s depravity be overcome. He did not come all the way from heaven to be a mere example to us of how we should live. He came to take the guilt of such sin and bear the judgment that it deserves in his own body as he hung in the anathema of God on the cross, where God did not spare him. He entered there on Golgotha the bottomless pit and the lake of fire as our substitute. That was the only way grace could triumph over depravity.

iii] For salvation to be applied to us there was only one way, that God the Holy Spirit had to come into our individual lives. He had to convict us of our depravity. He had to illuminate our understandings so that we could know who Christ is, why he lived and died. He had to come and give us spiritual life. He had to give us that faith that enabled us to entrust ourselves to the blood of Christ alone for salvation. He had to come and be the new power in our lives. He had to come and cleanse us from our sins by his sanctifying energy. That is the only way we could be delivered from depravity.

So what are the implications of this for Christian mission? Let us show men their true condition. Let’s be sure never to allow them to rest in their own power to make a decision to come to God when and where they choose. Let’s give them no encouragement to hope in themselves. Let’s never think, let alone say to them, “Now God’s hands are tied. God can do no more. Now it is all up to you.” No! We say, “See your helplessness and guilt and cry to Jesus Christ with all your might that he might have mercy on you, and deliver you. Millions have been delivered. A company of people as numerous as the sands of the seashores are destined to be delivered. Why not you too? Only your free will is preventing your crying mightily to the Lord to have mercy.” “But in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing,” you say. “I will in no wise cast you out,” says Christ. “But I am totally depraved, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet,” you say. “I will in no wise cast you out,” says Christ. “But I have served Satan all my days,” you say. “I will in no wise cast you out,” says Christ. “I have sinned against light and mercy,” you say. “I will in no wise cast you out,” says Christ. “I cannot come to him except the Father who sent him draw me.” Correct. Then ask him to draw you, and do not cease until you know his answer.

30th March 2008 GEOFF THOMAS