Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Total Depravity vs. Utter Depravity
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Genesis 6:5ESV
Question 25 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?” It gives the answer, “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called Original Sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.” Last time we looked at this question we examined the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. Today we consider how man’s fall is in some ways limited.
The Scripture at the head of this article affirms the substance of the doctrine of total depravity. That is, there is no good thing in fallen man. Everything, every thought, every word, every action is “only evil continually.” There is no good thing whatsoever remaining in the fallen nature of mankind. The Bible repeatedly affirms this truth in many unnuanced, simple statements, such as this one: “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one,’” (Rom 3:10-12). How can this be?
First of all we must remember we are talking about man’s fallen nature. In regeneration man truly receives a new nature, the “new man,” which is renewed in knowledge (Col. 3:10) and is being conformed to the image of Christ in holiness and righteousness (Eph. 4:24). Regeneration is real. Sanctification is real. Salvation in Christ begins and continues a change in people so that they begin to love God, hate sin, and do good works. However, apart from God causing sinners to be born again with a new nature, the old, fallen nature of every person has no good thing in it.
Here we might be tempted to think of many people in our lives, who do not believe in Christ, who do not follow or worship Him, and yet do many “good” works. We all have or know unbelieving relatives or neighbors who are faithful to their spouses, who discipline their children, who are polite and courteous, law-abiding citizens. They pay their taxes and give to charities. They get your mail for you when you are on vacation, they pick up your garbage cans when they are blown into the street, they return your dog when he gets loose, they freely lend you tools or help you when you are in need. Are not these things good? How can we agree with the Catechism and with the Scriptures cited above (and many others like them) that apart from salvation in Christ no one does good, and all that we do is evil?
All of these examples of “good” things are what Calvin called civic virtue or civil righteousness. They conform outwardly to God’s law and we benefit from this outward obedience. Therefore, we can and should thank God for them, and thank people when they do “good.” But can God count any of these works or the thoughts that impel them as good? Does the unbelieving man lending you his car when you need transportation do it to the glory of God? Does he consider acting out of conscious deference to His Creator in order to glorify Him? Is his intention to obey God’s commandment to love his neighbor as himself. No, not at all. He does what he thinks and chooses to be good and right but it is for some reason other than God. Though his reason for being is to glorify God, he does nothing to that end. Thus, all that he does, even “good” things, are acts of rebellion against God. Even when he outwardly conforms to God’s commandments, his intention or purpose is evil, for it is never to glorify God. In effect he robs God of His glory in all of his outwardly good works. Therefore nothing he does is or can be judged by God to be good. As Martin Luther declared, only the Christian can truly do good works.
We can thank God that much of what unbelievers consider to be right actually is right. This is proof of man’s being created in the moral image and likeness of God: that nearly everyone agrees that telling the truth is good, that stealing and lying are wrong, and many other things like that. And God continues to maintain that image in fallen men, for He will not allow man to utterly escape His calling. Thus, what Calvin called “preventing grace” is operative in all human beings. Even atheists believe they are “right” to be atheists! God does not allow man to embrace evil, for man is not utterly depraved: he is not as evil as he possibly can be. But his depravity is total in that everything he does must be judged by God as evil for he does nothing as a humble creature seeking to glorify his God. Praise God that in regeneration our heavenly Father gives us a nature that wants to do just that!