Total depravity is a reality, both taught in Holy Scripture and experienced in life, with important implications not only for pagans but also for Christians. Very often we think of this Biblical doctrine in connection with those who are unregenerate, or with regard to Christians before their conversion, but we reflect less frequently on the depravity which still infects those who have been saved by grace and reborn of the Spirit. This is a serious omission, for misunderstanding or underestimating the continuing corruption in the believer leaves the Christian unprepared for the warfare of sanctification and leads to a variety of spiritual problems.
There are many errors propagated in evangelical circles on this subject, the two main tendencies of which are: perfectionism and antinomianism. The former asserts that the Christian life is (or ought to be) characterized by complete victory over sin. Hence, Christian life as intended by God is “higher life” or the “victorious life.” Perfectionistic teachers not only distort the biblical teaching on holiness, but also dangerously underestimate the believer’s struggle with indwelling sin (setting up the tender-hearted Christian for a real struggle with depression and assurance).
In sum, the perfectionist tends to deny continuing depravity in the believer, while the antinomian implicitly denies the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification to be an essential component of our salvation. Of total depravity in the believer’s life, the perfectionist says (of the ‘victorious Christian’) “it no longer exists,” while the antinomian says (of the ‘carnal Christian’) “it doesn’t matter.” Over against both these mistakes, the Bible teaches that when a person becomes a Christian the dominion of sin is broken, but the presence of sin is never abolished in this life (see Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life [Banner of Truth, 1987], 125ff).
In sorting out this doctrine and its implications, there are several great principles to be kept in mind. Let me mention four of them here.
Believers are still sinners
Depravity is still part of the believer’s reality. We not only fall victim to the depravity of others in this life, we continue to see the fruits of depravity in our own character and conduct. As the Westminster Confession puts it: “The corruption of nature remains in the regenerate during this life, and although it has been pardoned and mortified through Christ, yet both itself and all its tendencies are truly and properly sin” (WCF 6.5).
This is why Martin Luther could speak of believers as simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and sinner”). He did not mean that Christians are no different after conversion than before, but he did mean to acknowledge that sin continues to be a constant reality in the believer’s experience (Romans 7:14-25). Even in the Christian, the residue of depravity is scattered throughout the whole man –mind, will, and affections– and is in that sense still “total.”
So when certain religious teachers speak of “the higher life,” “perfection,” “entire sanctification,” “living without sin,” or “perfect love,” as the ideal for Christians in this life, they betray their contradiction of Scripture. This truth brings with it a two-edged sword of conviction and comfort. This truth moves us to grieve the way we continue to displease our loving Lord, but it also allows us to be realistic about our spiritual growth. When we see remaining sin in us, we are reminded that God has not yet completed his final domination of sin. Its bondage is broken, but its influence is still keenly felt. The lives of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul all testify to the continuing influence of sin even in the lives of mature believers. It was not a backsliding believer, but the Apostle Paul who said: “the good that I wish, I do not do; but practice the very evil that I do not wish” (Romans 7:19).
Believers must, by the Spirit, strive against sin
This truth of the continuing influence of sin in believer means that there will be God-instigated internal spiritual warfare in the lives of all true Christians. The new principle of life and holiness implanted in us strives against the remains of depravity. This warfare is not only not the exception to the rule, it is the rule! Though sin’s dominion is ended by regeneration, its presence is not. In consequence, the Spirit wars against the remaining corruption that “grace might reign through righteousness” (Romans 5:21).
As J.C. Ryle reminds us “a holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier’s life, a wrestling, are spoken of [in Paul’s Epistles] as characteristic of the true Christian” (Holiness, xxvi). Christians are not to be passive in this warfare (a favorite “higher life” teaching), nor are we to become complacent about remaining corruption (a dangerous result of antinomian teaching).
Often, perfectionistic teachers assure us that victory over sin will be ours if we will only “let go and let God” or “be still and yield ourselves to God.” All we need do, they say, is believe and the conquest of depravity will be assured. These instructions are not only unintelligible, but also impractical. They don’t work! Though it is true that faith is instrumental in sanctification as well as justification, sanctification is not an instantaneous work and the Bible calls us to “watch, pray, and fight,” as well as “believe,” in the struggle for sanctification.
The vocabulary of the New Testament requires an active response, not merely a passive yielding, on the part of the believer in the fight against sin. Our efforts are empowered by the Spirit and done in a framework of grace, to be sure, but we ourselves are nevertheless called by God to fight.
Believers are no longer under the dominion of sin
Though sin still remains in true Christians, and we see in ourselves the evidence of a great struggle between flesh and Spirit, yet in Christ we have been “freed from sin” (Romans 6:7). This is not merely a freedom from judicial consequences, but a freedom unto holiness. Thus sanctification always accompanies justification: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he frees him from his natural bondage under sin” (WCF 9.4). Where there is grace, there is righteousness. Where there is no righteousness, there is no real grace, because “grace reigns in righteousness” (Romans 5:21).
As a result of our liberation from sin’s dominion our affections are no longer enslaved to worldly desire. Our wills are enabled to prefer spiritual good. We are motivated to live in accord with the law of God and not the law of self. Those who would saddle us with the “carnal Christian” doctrine underestimate God’s works of regeneration and sanctification and thereby tempt some to apathy with regard to indwelling sin.
But as the Westminster divines reminded us long ago “the corruption of nature (which remains in the regenerate during this life) and all its tendencies are truly and properly sin” (WCF 6.5) and as such it is to be hated and mortified by the Christian. This means we will work and pray against the remaining sin in our experience, and never glibly excuse it by saying “well, I am already forgiven.” The doctrines of justification and adoption were never intended to produce presumptuous attitudes toward sin, nor to lead us to discount the doctrine of sanctification.
Christian life is characterized by growth and holiness, but not perfection
Finally, the Christian’s walk will neither be marked by complacency towards sin, nor spiritual perfection. “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he . . . enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet, because of the sinner’s remaining corruption, he does not perfectly or only desire that which is good, but does also desire that which is evil” (WCF 9.4).
When perfectionistic teachers assure us that we can come to a point when we no longer consciously sin and that the spiritual believer is one who is beyond the struggle against sin, they stumble at three points. (1) They underestimate sin (which is more than willful acts, but extends to thoughts and disposition). (2) They underestimate perfection (which involves more than a superficial outward conformity to the law, but requires whole-hearted obedience in behavior, pure motivation, dependence on God, and desire for his glory). (3) They evidence a longing for cessation of spiritual hostilities this side of glory (which the Bible does not promise!).
No, the true Christian will walk through this world in a fight against sin, not just in others but in himself. Sadly, depravity remains a reality for believers – all too real in our thoughts, words, and actions sometimes. But God has broken the dominion of sin by uniting us to Christ, given us the Spirit to empower our obedience, given us his word for an unchanging standard of righteousness, and filled our hearts with a desire for his glory and eternal fellowship with him as our goal. Sin will not have the last word.