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The nature of man’s problem and the locus of man’s hope.
When considering the doctrine of total depravity, there are, no doubt, a myriad of ideas and assumptions which come to mind. Whatever Calvinistic presuppositions one has, total depravity is helpful for understanding both the nature of man’s problem and the locus of man’s hope. To understand what it means that mankind is totally depraved, one might recall the oft-repeated anecdote concerning G. K. Chesterton’s infamous quip when asked for an essay by the London Times. The request was for an analysis on all the wrongs which plagued the world, to which Chesterton cheekily replied, “Dear Sirs, I am. Yours sincerely.” As coy as this response might have been, its wisdom is not diminished. Indeed, as has often been said, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.
By total depravity, then, it is not meant that every human being is acting as sinful as possible at all times. “We do not mean,” Millard J. Erickson explains in his Christian Theology, “by total depravity that the unregenerate person is totally insensitive in matters of conscience, of right and wrong” (572). One’s understanding of total depravity must make room for the altruistic efforts of even those who are unregenerate. Nonetheless, the doctrine of total depravity suggests that however well-intentioned one’s actions, there are no truly good deeds that derive out of entirely pure motives. This is so because the seat of sin is in the heart, mind, and soul of every person. The entire being and makeup of an individual is corrupt.
Consequently, what makes one a sinner is not, necessarily, their transgressions and sinful action. Instead, sin, rebellion, and perversion spring out of mankind’s sinful soul (Matt. 15:18–19). The problem of sin, then, is not a problem of inappropriate behavior, as Jesus Christ makes clear in his trenchant discourse, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17–48). The problem of sin remains a problem of man’s heart needing to be entirely changed and made new, which, as it happens, is precisely what the Lord Jesus has effected in his death and resurrection.
Accordingly, the locus of mankind’s hope does not hinge on new information which inspires new actions, since there is no action able to be performed by man that is capable of solving the problem of the human heart. “Sin, as Erickson plainly says, “is inescapable” (574). As Jesus suggests to a bewildered Nicodemus, the only solution is new birth (John 3:3). It is precisely the news of “new birth” and “life everlasting” which Christ’s Spirit whispers in the ears of every unregenerate soul who happens to come under the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 10:17). Because God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4), those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) — that is, those who are totally depraved — are yet able to respond to the salvific initiative brought about by the proclamation of the Word and the ministration of the Spirit.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).