In discussing what is commonly called total depravity, theologians usually concentrate on two aspects. The first is the totality of sin’s influence. Sin affects and controls not only all men, but all parts of every man. The second is the bondage of the will. Fallen man is morally unable to do anything pleasing to God. He is unable to obey, believe or repent. He is both unable and unwilling.
There is a third aspect that is not discussed as often. It is what may be termed the depth of depravity. The Bible describes sinners as far more evil than they realize. Just as Calvinism portrays a higher view of the sovereignty of God than other theologies, so it presents a far lower view of the sinful state of fallen mankind. In sum, fallen man is corrupt through and through, rotten to the core, and in desperate need of salvation.
The Depth of Depravity
The Bible speaks of some sins and sinners as worse than others (John 19:11; 1 Timothy 3:13. All quotations are from the NKJV.) But the “best” sinner is far worse than what we think the “worst” sinner is. He is not only totally sinful in all his thoughts all the time (Genesis 6:5), but nobody can plumb the depth of his depravity (Jeremiah 17:9). It is only because of God’s restraints in common grace that we do not murder each other. When God removes the restraints, we sin (Romans 1:24–28). That itself is a punishment. Sin is a punishment for sin.
We are all born with original sin. We are all natural-born sinners. This is the root of all thoughts and acts of sin. When a person becomes a Christian, he is forgiven all sin both original and actual. But the root is still there, even though it is counteracted by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is why Christians still sin, sometimes committing even worse sins than before their conversion. It is only by the grace of the Spirit within us that we do not constantly sin as we used to do.
Pelagianism says man is alive and well. Arminianism says man is sick. Calvinism says man is dead. The first two of these have more in common with each other than either has with the third, for a well man and a sick man are both still alive. Scripture repeatedly says that fallen man is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:2; 5:14; Colossians 2:13; 1 Timothy 5:6; Romans 6:13; Revelation 3:1). Our bodies are still alive but our souls are dead. Jonathan Edwards preached a powerful sermon on Matthew 23:37 with the thesis: “Wicked men’s bodies are as it were the sepulchres of their souls.”1 Abraham Kuyper compared fallen man to a mummy wrapped in self-righteousness concealing an ugly corpse.2 Romans 3:13 says our mouths are like an open grave.
Christ raised people from the dead to show that lost sinners are spiritually dead and in need of spiritual resurrection. We are spiritual zombies parading to hell, as it were (Ephesians 2:1–3). A dead body can do nothing but rot and stink (John 11:39). So with a dead soul. As worms and maggots devour a cadaver in the grave (Job 19:26; 21:26; 24:20), so sin eats away at all parts of a lost soul.
Fallen men are dead trees (Jude 12) that deserve to be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10; 7:19). They are useful only as firewood for hell. The lifeless stump of fallen man is rotten (Job 13:28). Christopher Love the English Puritan said, “Man’s heart by nature is a slaughterhouse to holy motions.”3 Man is not drowning, but already drowned dead and his skeleton has been picked clean by sharks, said Edwin Palmer.4 Man is dead.
The sinner is spiritually stillborn and unable to give birth to any good. Spurgeon once said, “You will remember while the sinner is dead in sin, he is alive so far as any opposition to God may be concerned.”5 Conversely, the Christian is alive to righteousness and should reckon himself dead to sin (Romans 6:4–13).
Depravity and Death
We sin because we are sinners. “Wickedness flows from the wicked” (1 Samuel 24:13). Original sin is the polluted fountain from which all individual sins flow. Since sin brings forth death (James 1:15), we are born with spiritually dead souls and physically dying bodies. We are on a death march from womb to tomb.
Lost sinners dread death for unrighteous reasons. For one, they do not want an end to their life of sin. By contrast, Christians long to be free from “this body of death” (Romans 7:24). They long to be free from sin at last. Too many Christians, however, prefer to stay on earth and are only grudgingly willing to go to heaven, contrary to Paul’s attitude in Philippians 1:21–23. We should desire to be free of sin, not just of death, pain and tears (Revelation 21:4).
In His wisdom, God does not free His children immediately from physical death or the presence of sin inside or around them. We must pray for godly patience to wait and to strive for holiness.
Death is the product of sin (Romans 6:23). For the unbeliever, death is the punishment he has earned. But for the Christian, while death is still “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), it has been transformed. On his deathbed, Thomas Goodwin the Puritan said, “Ah, is this dying? How I have dreaded as an enemy this smiling friend?”6 Death becomes the friend to escort us to God and a sinless eternity.
Some Earthy Illustrations
The Bible employs some earthy analogies to describe the depth of human depravity. Man is like snake venom (Job 20:14; Romans 3:13), putrefying sores oozing pus (Isaiah 1:5–6; Leviticus 15:2; 1 Kings 8:38), gangrene (2 Timothy 2:17), a menstrual cloth (Isaiah 3:22; 64:6; Lamentations 1:17), mud and dog’s vomit (2 Peter 2:22), and scum and filthiness in a boiling pot (Ezekiel 29:11–12).
Fallen man is a maggot that feeds on filth and dead bodies (Job 25:6). Even David confessed that he was a worm (Psalm 22:6). John Calvin said fallen man is a “five-foot worm.”7 Liberals and even naïve evangelicals have sometimes substituted sinner for worm in Isaac Watts’ famous hymn, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” Men are worms whose hunger is never satisfied, as Jonathan Edwards said, “They are like a filthy worm that never feeds so sweetly as when feeding on carrion or never has its nature so suited as when crawling in the most abominable filth.”8
Philippians 3:8 uses the Greek word skubalon to describe the best, not the worst, of man’s pretended righteousness. It means refuse, garbage, something is that thrown out. It sometimes means excrement. Thomas Watson the Puritan observed, “Some think sin is an ornament; it is rather an excrement.”9 Calvin often said we are “dung and stench.”10 Man is not a beautiful angel but a filthy and disgusting sinner.
Worse Than Animals
God created man lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5) and higher than the animals (Genesis 1:28; Leviticus 24:21). But because of sin, man is worse than any beast. Animals do not sin; we do. Isaiah 1:2–3 says oxen and donkeys are better than we are, for they know where to be fed by their masters but man does not. Chicks run to their mother hen, but sinners run from God (Matthew 23:37).
The Bible often compares man with hogs (e.g., 2 Peter 2:22). Thomas Watson said, “The sinner is a swine with a man’s head,”11 a kind of half-man half-beast like a centaur.12 George Whitefield popularized the analogy of man as half-beast and half-devil.13 Spurgeon said that analogy is an insult to beasts and devils.14 We are worse than both.15
Scripture also compares sinners with dogs (e.g., 2 Peter 2:22; Philippians 3:2). This does not refer to cute puppies, but as Calvin said, “mean, mangy dogs.” Sinners are mad dogs foaming at the mouth with spiritual rabies. They are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15; John 10:12) and wild dogs, bulls and lions (Psalm 22:12–16). Worse still, we are like disgusting vermin. Calvin said we are worse than “worms, flies, lice and vermin. For there is more worth in all the world’s vermin than there is in man.”16 The worst, vilest animal is an angel compared with the best man.
Thomas Watson said man is worse than animals, for animals fear fire but sinners do not fear hellfire.17 Unless we are transformed into Christ’s lambs, lost sinners are dogs who will be excluded from heaven (Revelation 22:15).
Children of the Devil
What is more, sinners are called snakes (e.g., Matthew 12:34; 24:33), for they are sons and daughters of Satan the great Serpent. They are a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (John 8:44). Spurgeon aptly said that the pure image of God has been defaced and sinners now resemble Satan more than God.18 If you want to know what Satan looks like, look in the mirror. Examine your heart. There is enough sin in even the best sinner to reproduce another Devil.
Not all sinners are demon-possessed as such, but all are possessed by Satan as his willing slaves. Thomas Watson said we are “devils in the shape of men”19 and “devils covered over with flesh.”20 Calvin said, “To hear us tell it, we are angels, but if someone looks closely, he will find we are worse than devils.”21 Religion alone does not help, as Watson said: “A moralized man is but a tame devil.”22
Because we pass original sin on to our children, we beget further children of the Devil. This does not mean that Christians ought not to have children. But it serves as a wake-up call to Christian parents to pray for the salvation of their little ones and not assume they are Christians because their parents are. Parents should realize their children are born sinners and need to be born again as Christians.
Lovers of Sin, Haters of God
Since the Fall, mankind has things upside down and backwards. Instead of loving God (Matthew 22:37) and hating sin (Romans 12:9), sinners love sin and hate God. They delight in abominations (Isaiah 66:3), drink sin like water (Job 15:16) and love pleasure rather than God (1 Timothy 3:4). Psalm 52:3 says, “You love evil more than good.” John 3:19 says, “Men loved darkness rather than light.”
Conversely, sinners hate God—precisely because God is God. They are “haters of God” (Psalm 81:15; Romans 1:30). Men would kill God if they could, but their arrows do not reach God’s heart. Their nails hit Him at Calvary. The great Robert Murray M’Cheyne commented: “If the heart of God were within the reach of men, it would be stabbed a million times in one moment.”23 Men hate God with as obsessive a compulsion to murder Him as Captain Ahab had to kill Moby Dick.
Man is the inveterate enemy of God. Calvin once said that even if God broke the arms of rebellious sinners, they would still kick against Him with their legs.24 Sinful man deserves divine wrath. Jonathan Edwards preached that there is a “mutual loathing” between God and man.25 Calvin said we deserve to have the angels spit on us.26 Sinners make God nauseous. Christ will vomit lukewarm hypocrites out of His mouth (Revelation 3:16). Man is bad—very bad. And God is mad—very mad.
In spite of God’s sober warnings and loving invitations, sinners refuse to repent, for that is an abomination to them (Proverbs 13:19). Thomas Watson said that sinners dare God to punish them and they sin so greedily as if they were afraid that hell’s gates would be shut before they got there.27
Ultra-environmentalists sometimes say that mankind is a disease on Mother Earth. They are more right than they realize. God cursed the cosmos because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:20). Earth does not sin; we do. Our sin moves creation to want to vomit us out (Leviticus 18:25, 28; 20:22).
Yet sinners delude themselves into thinking, “I’m not that bad.” This is because, as Jeremiah 13:23 says, they are accustomed to their sins. Calvin said sinners do not detect their sin “just as a pig does not smell its own stink.”28 Pelagians and Arminians would do well to heed Anselm’s response to Boso: “You have not yet considered the exceeding gravity of sin.”29
If God removed the restraints, there is no end of the sin that even the best saint would commit. Remember David, Moses and Peter. Spurgeon wisely warned: “No man knoweth what villainy he is capable of; he only needs to be placed under certain circumstances and he will develop into a very fiend.”30
The Bible is a mirror that shows how evil we really are by nature (James 1:23–25). We must hold it up to lost sinners so they will be convinced and convicted. Believers also need to examine themselves. We dare not say, “I’m sinful, but there are some sins I would never do.” Self-deception is a symptom of sin. Yet God is merciful in not letting us see the full depth of our depravity. We couldn’t stand it.
Indwelling sin remains in all Christians. Scripture disproves the Wesleyan-Nazarene error of a second work of grace that removes the root of original sin and produces entire sanctification and sinless perfection (1 John 1:8; Philippians 3:12). The only experience that leads to sinless perfection is death (Hebrews 12:23).
We must humbly beseech God to protect us from ourselves (Genesis 20:6), and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:13). The good news is that the Holy Spirit produces good fruit in us and one day will remove the root of original sin in us. One of the glories of heaven will not only be holiness but impeccability, like the elect angels and our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 19:806.
2 Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 280–281.
3 Christopher Love, The Works of Christopher Love (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 1:81.
4 Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 18.
5 Charles H. Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1981), 5:131.
6 Herbert Lockyer, Last Words of Saints and Sinners (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1969), 56.
7 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), I:v.4.
8 Jonathan Edwards, The Blessing of God (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 282.
9 Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1999), 108.
10 John Calvin, Sermons on Psalm 119 (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 1996), 112, 184.
11 Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, 41.
12 Thomas Watson, A Plea for the Ungodly (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), 351.
13 George Whitefield, The Sermons of George Whitefield (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 1:249.
14 Charles H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1981/87), 22:298, 47:337.
15 John Calvin, Songs on the Nativity (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2008), 13.
16 John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (London: The Banner of Truth, 1973), 133.
17 Thomas Watson, Religion Our True Interest (Edinburgh: Blue Banner Productions, 1992), 14, 202.
18 Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit, 5:70.
19 Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (London: The Banner of Truth, 1971), 173.
20 Watson, The Beatitudes, 181.
21 John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1–7 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2008), 580.
22 Thomas Watson, Discourses on Important and Interesting Subjects (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 1:353.
23 Andrew Bonar, ed., Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1978), 441.
24 John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1987), 1162.
25 Jonathan Edwards, The Puritan Pulpit: The American Pulpit (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2004), 120–130
26 John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 3:189.
27 Thomas Watson, The Crown of Righteousness (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), 54–55.
28 John Calvin, Sermons on Jeremiah (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 110.
29 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1909), 1:21, 50.
30 Quoted in Edmond Hez Swem, ed., Spurgeon’s Gold (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), 142.