What Total Depravity Is Not

In his Abstract of Systematic TheologyJames P. Boyce gives a classically Reformed presentation of sin. In four points, he affirms (1) all men have sinned, (2) all men are sinful from birth (i.e., they possess a sinful nature), (3) the world suffers from the corruption of sin, and (4) all parts of humankind are infected and affected by sin. Altogether, Boyce makes a Scriptural defense of ‘Total Depravity.’

However, in all of his efforts to affirm what Scripture teaches about sin and its effects, he simultaneously relates what ‘Total Depravity’ is not. In fact, he posits more statements related to what sin is not than what it is.  Consider these five.

1. Total Depravity Is Not Maximal in Every Person

Boyce writes,

This corruption has not been equally developed in all. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean such equal development. The Scriptures recognize degrees of wickedness as well as of hardening of the heart, and even blinding of the minds of some. But they also represent that the lack of this development is due to differing circumstances and restraints by which some men are providentially surrounded.

Put  concisely, common grace works to ameliorate the effects of sin. Therefore, sin is often not as bad as it could be. Total depravity recognizes this truth and affirms the blessed gift that common grace is, even as it affirms that every aspect of human life is tainted by sin.

2. Total Depravity Does Not Destroy Accountability

Boyce rightly reminds us that fallen men retain their accountability to the One who made them.

This corruption does not destroy accountability or responsibility. The Scriptures universally recognize man’s liability to punishment for all the thoughts . . . desires . . . emotions . . . [and] acts. . . . We do not excuse men because of any state of moral corruption.

Boyce affirms duty-faith. All men are commanded to repent and believe. No moral inability eliminates their responsibility, and in the next point he explains why.

3. Total Depravity Does Not Eliminate the Will

With accountability comes a statement about humanity’s volition.

This corruption does not destroy the freedom of the will. This is the ground upon which men are held responsible by God and by human law and conscience. The condition of man is indeed such ‘that he cannot not sin,’ but this is due to his nature, which loves sin and hates holiness, and which prefers self to God. When man sins, he does so of his own choice, freely, without compulsion.

This terse statement is generally correct. Though he does not cite Jonathan Edwards, it seems to follow his thinking. In Edwards’ masterful The Freedom of the Will, the New England pastor and eventual president of Princeton distinguished between natural freedom and moral freedom. The former continued in humanity after the fall and thus made men culpable for their actions; the latter was hindered by sin. So great did the fall constrict moral freedom, men are now born as slaves to sin (John 8:34; Rom 6:17-19; cf. Rom 8:6-7; Eph 2:1-3). This is teaching at the heart of total depravity. It does not eliminate man’s freedom to choose; it simply observes (on the basis of biblical evidence) that men have not the freedom to leave sin behind. As Charles Hodge put it, “Sin cleaves to all [man] does, and from this dominion of sin he cannot find freedom” (Systematic Theology2:264; cited by Boyce, Abstract of Theology, 245).

4. Total Depravity Does Not Deny Man’s Civic Goodness

On this point, Boyce follows Charles Hodge entirely. He quotes Hodge saying

The inability which is thus admitted is asserted only in reference to the things of the spirit. . . . It is not meant that the states of the mind in which these acts are performed, or the motives by which they are determined, are such as to meet the approbation of an infinitely holy God, but simply that these acts, as to the matter of them, are prescribed by moral law.

He explains that men can obey the moral law ‘externally’ even if they cannot obey God and circumcise their heart, turn from the idols, and love God with all their heart, soul mind, and strenght. Again citing Hodge, Boyce affirms man’s ability to God unto his neighbor. He simply withholds humanities ability to do God unto the Lord without a preceding work of grace in their heart.

5. Total Depravity Does Not Mean That All Men Are Equally Bad

Boyce finishes his section with this caveat:

This total corruption does not involve equality of sinfulness in all men. On the contrary, sin is increased by cherishing sinful thoughts; by indulgence in sinful habits; by throwing off the restraints of society; and is so affected by circumstances of birth, education, &c. It is also true that by natural inheritance some are more prone to sin than others.

Just as Jesus delineates various measures of punishment based on the ignorance of the sinner (Luke 12:47-48), Boyce recognizes that various social and societal restraints can lessen a person’s moral culpability. In fact, it might be argued that Christianity—even in its heterodox forms—functions as a cultural preservative because of the way that it’s moral teachings influence the cultures in which Christianity is prevalent. More broadly, God’s common grace as instituted in national governments and family communities also function to mitigate the effects of sin.

All in all, Boyce clearly defines what ‘Total Depravity’ is, and what it is not. We should do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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