Our Question Box

Rev. Harlan G. Vanden Einde is pastor of the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.


From a Michigan reader comes a question about total depravity. In the context of the letter from which the question comes, there are a considerable number of references to Scripture which point to the fact that Jesus and His disciples urgently proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, and called people to repentence and faith. Implied in the reader‘s letter is the thought that the church is not being faithful to that task today. Against that background, the reader asks: “Do we still believe in total depravity?”

Though the reader does not identify the “we” in his question, I assume he is referring to the we in the Christian Reformed Church. If my assumption is correct, then, from the point of view of the doctrinal position of our denomination, the answer is “yes, we do.” And in the paragraphs that follow, I will attempt to explain what it means and why we believe it.

Let me begin with the “why?” I have no doubt but that this is not the most popular doctrine among us, nor that some would hedge on confessing it too openly or publicly among some of their friends. Its a truth that hurts. There is a strong emphasis in religious circles today on healing and helping and building up, all of which is fine, as long as the foundation for all of that building is not of sand. But therein lies the problem, for so much of this healing and helping and building up is attempted on the basis of the supposed inherent goodness of mankind.

It is an understatement, of course, to say that the Bible is an honest book. In His Word to us, God “tells it like it is.” But that is not always what wc by nature want to hear. If, however, we really want to hear the Good News, we first of all have to hear and understand the bad news, which is that all of us by nature are sinners. The Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ is absolutely pointless and meaningless to the person who doesn‘t know he needs it.

The Bible makes our need very clear. Wrote Jeremiah in 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt; who can know it?” And Paul, in Romans 3, quotes from Psalm 14 when he says: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God . . .” (vss. 10, 11); and “for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (vs. 23). Again, in Romans 7:18 he says, “For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not.” Again, in Ephesians 4: 18 he writes, “being darkened in their understanding alienated from the life of God, because of the hardening of their heart.”

So it is very obvious from the Bible that the message of the gospel hurts before it heals, it breaks down before it builds up. It very honestly tells us that by nature we are sinners who have offended God by our sin and who are alienated from Him. Only when we know that does the message of salvation through His Son begin to make sense.

But what do we mean when we say that by nature we are totally depraved? It is important that we do not misunderstand this doctrine, lest we do violence to the Scriptures, and hinder the progress of the gospel. The doctrine does not mean that we are as bad as we can be, or that there is not a single praiseworthy thing that anyone can do even in relation to his fellow men. But it does mean that sin has corrupted every part of our nature, intellectual, volitional and emotional, so that we are unable to do any spiritual good. Even those things for which others might praise liS on the horizontal level are radically defective in God’s sight, for they are not prompted by love for God, nor are they done in obedience to Him. So we are totally depraved in the sense that sin has penetrated into every part of our being; it has left no part of us untouched. Outside of Christ, we can do no spiritual good.

There is only one solution to our “total depravity” problem, and that is new birth in Christ. “You must be born again” said Jesus to Nicodemus. That is the message which must be proclaimed. And it is heard and believed through the Spirit’s work, then as new creatures in Christ, we have a small beginning of new obedience, and begin to walk in the light of God’s commandments. Not until that happens do we have a solid foundation on which to heal and help and build up, so that there may be growth in grace. Thanks he to God for His unspeakable gift—Jesus Christ!