I have long been drawn to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. I even have a little Poe doll on my desk at church (don't fret, I have Calvin and Spurgeon busts on my shelves to balance things out). I recently came across something Poe said in a letter that speaks to the nature of man and the impotence of the human will.
I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active--not more happy--nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.
- Edgar Allan Poe
Poe has some understanding of the doctrine of humantiy's depravity. Some. He understands that there is a level of brokenness in the human race that leaves us incapable of bettering the world in any significant way.
Of course this is one sentence from a letter and much more needs to be said, and our theology must be derived from Scripture. But let me say, I think his observation is correct. As a human race we are no happier than we have been in the past, and no better overall. Sure, some cultures are more prosperous than others. Some people live in abject poverty while others live lives of ease and comfort. But it has been this way since the fall. Our technical advancements may have made the world faster, but not better. To use Poe's word, the human race is incapable of achieving "perfectibility." We've had thousands of years to work on it and have failed miserably.
But just how broken are we? How deep does our depravity go, and why would knowing this matter? In the Reformed tradition we have come to say that mankind is totally depraved, and this is a matter of great importance for life and ministry.
What Total Depravity Does Not Mean
When we say humanity is totally depraved we do not mean that every man is as bad as he could be in his living. Total Depravity does not teach that people are incapable of doing social good or being relatively good neighbors. It does not imply that there is nothing good about humanity.
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 any one in entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil in itself, nor that man's spirit is inactive, and much less does it mean that the body is dead.
- Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination
What Total Depravity Does Mean
Total depravity means that every person is corrupted in every part of their being, so corrupted in fact that we are left incapable carrying out any moral and spiritual duty perfectly. It means "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. His corruption is extensive but not necessarily intensive." (Boettner)
All of us are born into this world made in the image of God but corrupted by sin. The image of God remains with us, but is marred. This means we can love, create, rule, serve, and work, but not as we were intended. We can only do such things in incomplete ways with impure motives. The human heart is so bent in on itself that it will not seek God and cannot please God.
What Total Depravity Requires
What total depravity requires is grace. Sin-covering, heart-renewing, nature-changing grace. We need the grace of God to draw us to Christ, to open our hearts to respond to the Scripture, to cause us to be born again, to grant us faith and repentance, and keep us in the faith to the end. Our total depravity has left us helpless but not hopeless, for the grace of God is given through Jesus Christ.
What Total Depravity Means for Life and Ministry
To put it simply, depravity demands dependency. In a practical sense the doctrine of total depravity should produce at least three things in us. First, it should make us profoundly thankful for the grace of God. We know apart from God's grace we would be totally lost and under terrible condemnation. He has and does truly rescue us, and the result should be profound gratitude. Second, the doctrine of total depravity should lead us to be earnestly evangelistic. We know that mankind's only hope of experiencing God's saving grace is the power of God at work in the preaching of the Gospel. Only God can save, but he only saves as we tell others where salvation can be found. Third, the depravity of man should make us passionately prayerful. Mankind is so dead in sin that he cannot come to Jesus on his own. He cannot be argued into the Kingdom. He must be converted by the power of God, which makes us entirely dependent on God to do what we cannot.
If you want to take this doctrine seriously (and you need to) you should read a heavy hitter on the subject. Today I'm recommending Boettner's classic, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.