As it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
The Apostle Paul (Romans 3:10-12)
Having established in chapter one of his book "What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace" that "the sovereignty of God at work in our salvation" is what the doctrines of grace are all about, Richard D. Phillips now begins his examination of the five classic reformed doctrines commonly referred to by the acronym "T.U.L.I.P". The first doctrine to be examined is total depravity.
Phillips begins by noting that there is sound insight in beginning the presentation of these doctrines with total depravity. He reminds us of the truth taught by Calvin, that "one may begin a study of theology in either of two ways, either with God or with man, since to know either correctly you must correctly know the other." If one begins with God-- as Isaiah did in his vision of the awesome, sovereign, holy God-- one's darkness becomes revealed in the holy light of God's presence. Yet one may also come to the same revelation by beginning with man, for the Scriptures continually declare that the heart of man is desperately evil, and its testimony is ratified by all the wicked acts of all men (including our own). An honest look in the mirror should provide ample evidence of our utter sinfulness.
Phillips argues that the understanding of man's sin that total depravity provides is critical to appreciating the gospel, thus it is fitting that total depravity is the "first" doctrine of grace. The teaching of total depravity, he surmises, is perhaps the central controversy among the doctrines of grace. This is because it shoots down the pride of those who ask "I am not really so depraved, am I?" and forces them to acknowledge the ugly, but essential reality, that yes, they really are that depraved. We all are. "It is against the backdrop of this terrible news about man in sin that we see the good news of the gospel as something far more wonderful than we have ever imagined." We know then, he writes, "what we are being saved from" and we better "grasp the glory of our salvation."
So what does exactly does total depravity show us about ourselves?
To explain this, Phillips first quotes Lorraine Boettner's definition of total depravity:
This doctrine of Total Inability, which declares that men are dead in sin, does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human will is evil in itself, nor that man’s spirit is inactive, and much less does it mean that the body is dead. What it does mean is that since the fall man rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation.
The chapter then continues with Phillips demonstrating that these truths are indeed taught in Scripture, and Phillips focuses especially on Paul's portrait of the human condition depicted in Romans 3:10–18. Here is an outline of various points made:
1. Man is universally unrighteous (Romans 3:10), but God requires that man be justified according to a standard of perfect obedience to the law (Romans 2:13, James 2:10). Therefore man's most profound need, is not companionship, employment, training in life skills, self-esteem, purpose, etc. but to "gain righteousness before God" and thus be "saved from the wrath of God" (the problem of justification).
2. Mankind is under the wrath of God because of its many sins, including the fact that he has a depraved mind that:
a) Makes him blind to the spiritual reality of God’s glory and righteousness (Romans 3:10, John 3:3).
b) Makes him unable and also unwilling to perceive spiritual truth (1 Cor 2:14, John 8:43).
c) Causes him to manufacture idols in his heart that he worships rather than seek God (Romans 3:11)[see also Romans 1:18-25]. "In his quest for meaning, truth, and salvation, fallen mankind will turn everywhere except to God."
Phillips writes that man wants the benefits and blessings God has to give, so long as "he doesn’t have to deal with God Himself". This is why the seeker-sensitive approach to conversion is so off-target biblically. Man isn't seeking God but he wouldn't mind going to a church that has "contemporary music", a "health and fitness center", a "casual and informal" atmosphere and teaches him "life-skills".
[Note: the following paragraph are my observations, building on Phillip's thought in the chapter].
If we design church to cater to these superficial needs yet neglect man's most urgent need --to be saved from the wrath of God through the justification found through faith in Christ alone-- we betray the gospel. We give the false impression that the Christian life is primarily about utilizing Jesus and His principles to get "your best life now", rather than leading people to the truth that the Christian life begins with the God-wrought miracle of salvation through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:1-10, 1 Cor 1:30, - and continues with grace-empowered faith (1 Cor 15:10, 2 Cor 5:7, Gal 2:20, 5:5-6, Col 2:7,12) that teaches us to locate all satisfaction in Him through whom all treasures flow (Romans 8:32, James 1:17, 1 Cor 15:28, Eph 1:11-14, 22).
Moral and Spiritual Bondage
3. Man is enslaved to sin:
a) Wicked speech (Romans 3:13–14,quoting Psalms 5:9,140:3,10:7).
b) Evil behavior (Romans 3:15-17)[see also Romans 1:28-31]
c) No fear of God (Romans 3:18)
d) His will is in bondage, not only to sin but also to the Devil(John 8:34,44).
"With sin corrupting our every faculty, we are no more able to will after God than a blind man can see, a deaf man can hear, or a mute man can speak." Phillips sums up:
This is the state of man’s will after the fall: enslaved to the desire of the Devil. Man’s bondage in sin results not from the lack of opportunity to do good and love God, but from the bondage of his heart that causes him to love evil and hate God. Here is the rub when it comes to total depravity: despite the glorious opportunity afforded to man in the gospel of Jesus Christ, such is our total depravity that we are not able in and of ourselves to turn to God.
Having completed this very unflattering portrait of the desperate state of humanity in its sin, one might ask, "what's so great about the doctrine of total depravity?"
As he did with his teaching on God's sovereignty, Phillips wants to show that these doctrines indeed have practical, "great" benefits for those who take them to heart. Thus he proceeds to examine the benefits of believing the truths involved in total depravity.
One benefit already mentioned is that the knowledge of how far we have fallen and how evil we are by nature-- so evil that we would not even turn to God-- increases our marvel and appreciation that God would save such "wretches" as we.
Second, an understanding of this doctrine is "vital to all true spirituality" for it causes us to be humbled before God (Luke 8:14), knowing that we cannot take any credit whatsoever before God in our salvation [1 Cor 4:7].
Third, the doctrine exalts the cross in our eyes and fills our hearts with a holy delight. Phillips writes, "Awe and gratitude drive the true Christian life and draw us joyfully to God’s grace in Christ. It is from the pit of our lost condition that we gaze up toward a God so high and perfect in His holiness. But from that vantage point we come to see fully at least one of those four dimensions of the cross that Paul would long to have us know: its height. The cross of Christ then rises up to span the full and vast distance that marks how far short we are of the glory of God, and that cross becomes exceedingly precious in our eyes.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation (Isaiah 12:1–2)
Arminianism vs Reformed Theology Series
Total Depravity of Man (abundant resources at Monergism.com)