Recently I came across a church’s statement of faith that outlined the church’s belief in humanity’s “utter sinfulness”; the statement goes on to say that unregenerate sinners are “utterly depraved.” I think such language is unbiblical and lacks theological nuance. Rather than saying that unregenerate sinners are “utterly depraved,” I would say that they are totally depraved.
This distinction is helpful because the phrase “utterly depraved” might communicate that we believe sinners are always as bad as they could be. Despite the fact that fallen human beings commit gross sins, God’s restraining grace at work in the world leads me to conclude that things could be worse. In contrast, the doctrine of total depravity maintains that sin has affected all parts of man—mind, heart, will, and body (Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21-23). Man is a slave to sin (John 8:34; Rom. 6:20), cannot comprehend or relish spiritual truths (1 Cor. 2:14), is at enmity with God (Eph. 2:15), and does not seek the truth (Rom. 3:10-12).
That being said, we do recognize that human beings are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, they oftentimes perform good deeds and prove themselves to be exemplary citizens. Unbelievers produce great works of art, make music, and write poetry for all people to enjoy–including believers. All of these gifts come to us because of God’s common grace. Despite all of the good things we can say about fallen sinners, we remain sinners still. Well did Shakespeare capture the paradox of human beings:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312).
Consequently, those who come to faith in Christ do so because they are born again, not according to the will of man, but according to the will of God (John 1:12-13; cf. John 6:44). In his kindness God grants repentance (2 Tim. 2:25) belief (Phil. 1:29) and faith (Eph. 2:4-9) to fallen sinners who could not and would not believe otherwise. Truly, salvation “is a gift of God . . . so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8b-9).