Total depravity. What a devastating and hard to swallow description!
Maybe you've had it happen to you. A friend tells you they want to talk to you, and when you get together, you realize that what they really wanted to do was confront you. You're not really excited about being told bad things about yourself, but this is your friend, so you're willing to listen.
As they begin to lay out their concerns, you begin to feel pain inside. You can't believe what you're being told about yourself. Silently and inwardly, you begin to rise to your own defense. You marshal arguments that you're a better person than the one being described. You want to believe that what you're hearing is a distortion, lacking in accuracy and love, but you know you can't. You're devastated because deep down you know it's true. Deep down you know that God has brought this person your way. Deep down you know what you're being required to consider is an accurate description of you.
Such a description is found in Genesis 6:5, "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." (ESV) What a devastating description! It's hard to swallow isn't it? You want to think that this biblical description is of the people who are more sinful sinners than you and I are. But this verse is not describing a super-sinner class. No, it's a mirror into which every human being is meant to look and see himself. It is capturing in a few powerful words what theologians call "total depravity."
Now total depravity doesn't mean that as sinners we are as bad as we could possibly be. No, what it actually means is that sin reaches to every aspect of my personhood. Its damage of me is total. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, motivationally, socially, I have been damaged by sin. It's ravages are inescapable and comprehensive. No one has dodged it's scourge and no one has been partially affected. We are all sinners. It reaches to every aspect of what makes us us. Sadly, when each of us looks into the mirror of Genesis 6:5, we see an accurate description of us.
Now, you have to ask yourself: Why is Genesis 6:5 so hard to accept? Why do we spontaneously rise to our own defense? Why are you and I devastated when our weakness, sin, and failure is pointed out? Why do we find confrontation and rebuke painful even when they are done in love? Why do we want to believe that we are in the good class of sinners? Why do we want to believe that we are deprived, but not depraved? Or that we are depraved, but not totally? Why do we find comfort in pointing to people who appear to be worse sinners than we are? Why do we make up self-atoning revisions of our own history? Why do we erect self-justifying arguments for what we have said or done? Why do we turn the tables when someone points out a wrong, making sure that they know that we know that we're not the only sinner in the room? Why do we line up all the good things we've done as a counter-balance for the wrong that is being highlighted? Why is this all so hard to accept?
There's only one answer to all of these questions. There's only one conclusion that fits. We find this all so hard to accept because we studiously hold onto the possibility that we're more righteous than the Bible describes us to be. When we look into the mirror of self-appraisal, the person we tend to see is a person who is more righteous than any of us actually is!
We were at the end of a wonderful service at Tenth Presbyterian Church, that had been punctuated by a powerful sermon from the Ten Commandments. I immediately turned to my wife at the end of the service and said, "I am so glad our children were here to hear that sermon!" She didn't even have to say anything to me. She simply gave me that look. You know, the one that says, "I can't believe you are actually saying what you are saying." Immediately I felt embarrassed and grieved. It had happened to me so subtly and quickly. I had placed myself outside of the circle of the sermon's diagnosis. I had accepted the fact that whatever Exodus and Phil Ryken were describing did not include me. And I was glad that the people in my family who really needed the diagnosis had been in attendance.
"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God." (Romans 5:1, ESV)
If the Bible's description of us is accurate, then God's grace is our only hope. Thank God that He has given us big grace! Each one of us needs grace that's not only big enough to forgive our sin, but also powerful enough to free us from the self-atoning prison of our own righteousness. We're not only held captive by our sin, but also by the delusion of our righteousness as well. Resting in God's grace isn't just about confessing your sin, it's about forsaking your righteousness as well. So we all need the big grace that's only found in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must all, with humility, say to the God of big grace, "Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me...Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin!" (Psalms 51:1, ESV) And then rest in his righteousness alone.
Paul Tripp is the president of Paul Tripp Ministries, a nonprofit organization whose mission statement is "Connecting the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life." Tripp is also professor of pastoral life and care at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, and executive director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Care in Fort Worth, Texas. Tripp has written many books on Christian living that are read and distributed internationally. He has been married for many years to Luella, and they have four grown children. For more information, visit paultrippministries.org. Read more by Paul Tripp at his blog on Christianity.com.