What does the Bible mean when it describes all of mankind as spiritually “dead”? A dead person is darkened in their understanding. A dead person is callous to the truth. A dead person is (of course) blind, unable to see God’s glory. And let’s be clear: a dead person won’t respond when spoken too, even if the best news in the world is being shared with them! This biblical “you were dead” is total depravity.
Total depravity. Many have misunderstood this term (especially since it is not the best term, as we’ll see below), so in this post I’d like to clarify what it means. And the reason is not just to get theology right; it’s because I think people who are starting to see the Reformed doctrines of grace in the Bible will more freely embrace the fullness of God’s grace if this misunderstood term is explained clearly. And in this, God will be more glorified for his grace (Ephesians 1:6).
So, what does the (often misunderstood) term “total depravity” actually mean?
What “Total Depravity” Means
Total depravity means that there is a depravity (a corruption, a brokenness, a sinful nature) in the human heart which affects everything we do and makes us completely dependent on God’s grace to intervene if we’re to be saved or do anything to please God.
That may sound like a lot, but we can break it down into two manageable parts: 1) We have such a sinful nature that 2) it makes us completely dependent upon God and his grace to be saved or to please God.
In our sinful condition we’re so spiritually blind that we cannot see the kingdom of God without God’s intervention (John 3:3). We’re so spiritually dead that we cannot follow God, obey God, even hear God’s call to believe (Ephesians 2:1; 4:18-19). And we’re so corrupt that we can’t do anything to please God without God’s intervention (Romans 8:8). In this way, we’re totally depraved.
“You Were Dead”
We can explain this even better by using a biblical term (since “total depravity” is not a biblical phrase). The Bible uses many analogies to explain our sinfulness, some which we just mentioned: we’re blind (John 3:3); we’re in the dark and hate the light (John 3:19); we have hard hearts (Ephesians 4:18); and we’re enslaved to sin (John 8:34). But the best and most encompassing term is the idea of being “dead.” Why? Because it implies many of the others: a dead person is blind, in the dark, imperceptible to God’s grandeur, goodness, and grace.