This post will get a little more philosophic but I think it is so misunderstood today and a right understanding of it is necessary to really live out the faith well.
Three Cons of the Typical View
In Reformed thinking Total Depravity forms the T on the five key concepts known as TULIP. The understanding of it also shapes the rest of the concepts into an overall distorted picture. In at least common Reformed thinking I hear today Total Depravity is seen as human beings having the total lack of ability and practical doing of good (outside Christ) and in fact only do evil. Now I agree with this to a degree as I think scripture clearly teaches that we are dead in our sins without Christ (Eph 2:5), that all of our deeds are in the end unworthy of God and not “good” (Romans 3:10 and Isaiah 64:6). However, overall this view begins to go astray in at least common Reformed thinking in 3 related ways:
Con 1: It is too black and white in that it considers deeds either good or evil end of discussion. When some deeds clearly seem to be more neutral. An example would be choosing the salad dressing, it is not a good decision or an evil decision.
Con 2: Con 1 I think leads to a misunderstanding of how a person’s actions toward salvation might be necessary but not good.
Con 3: It doesn’t adequately allow an explanation for how Jesus’ disciples could in sense progress in knowing Him before they were officially saved. This leads I think to an overall misunderstanding of how we can as disciples of Jesus really act in ways that are progressing towards Christlikenss.
Given these cons what would be a Biblically adequate way of thinking of Total Depravity? As I said above scripture certainly teaches all of our deeds outside of Christ are sinful and not righteous. Isaiah puts it this way:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
– Isaiah 64:6
And in Psalm 14,
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,[a]
who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;Psalm 14:2-3
there is none who does good,
not even one.
Those Outside Christ Doing Good
So, then none of what we do is good and the non-believer and the believer not acting in Christ act in an evil way all the time? I think scripture tells us this is true in a sense and not true in a sense. For instance, one example that comes to mind is the Centurion Cornelius.
In the beginning of Acts 10 we read this Roman centurion was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God”. In fact, God’s noticing of these traits was the reason He sent an angel then Peter to witness to him. Peter’s conclusion is telling:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34a-35
So, how can there be no one doing right, if there are people all over who fear God and do what is acceptable to Him?
Fallen Good vs. Good that God requires
I think the answer is found in our separation from God in all we do. When we look at the Biblical story we see that God set Adam and Eve up in a role to rule over the whole Earth (Gen 1:28) as His designated rulers under His overarching sovereign rule. Yet, at the very start humankind fell from this position by not trusting God and desiring to set up a kingdom of their own in a sense by becoming “like” God. From that moment on sin entered the world (Romans 5:12, 1 Cor 15:21). This sin is a corruption in our nature and also is a kind of living life separate from the ultimate source of life (Isaiah 59:2).
However there is still more complexity to good. As fallen people we have a desire to do good but ultimately no hope without Christ to truly fulfill it. Paul says that the law was given to people by God to show us two things, one that we know and desire to do good and two that we are helpless to do it.
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.Romans 7:12-15
So, our actions outside Christ always fail to meet the full sort of good that God created us for. The law shows that and as Jesus and the commandment to covet for instance point out true goodness comes from the heart out. It seems though that while all of our deeds are stained an unclean we can still do “good” relative to our state. The sad thing is this good is always related at its heart to a wrong view of God, and therefore to the world and everything else.
There are also layers of good and evil. We know this through simple reasoning murder is worse than a white lie and there are all kinds of degrees within different sorts of wrongdoing that we can clearly see are more or less bad. Without God ultimately all of our actions are evil in that they fail to truly acknowledge God as the trustworthy and good creator. However, our actions can also more or less act out the desire to do good that is still present within us and from scripture we see God notices that!
The Faithward Journey
My point is we are called to pursue Christlikness. Step by step being sanctified in this life from our current state to one where we could truly be called good. This involves doing good that is progressing toward the true good, call it sin stained good that is working out the stains. Christ has justified us in putting His righteousness on us before God and so we are considered righteous but the practical day to day working in of that righteousness, applying the indwelling Holy Spirit and Word to our lives and then action, is a process. Seeing our actions as good in the sense that they are moving toward the right yet still not quite where they should be is a huge “Aha!” moment, if we can grasp it we can see that work towards being in the Word towards sharing our faith, toward prayer, towards exercising spiritual gifts etc. can be an in-progress kind of good thing and that is actually just as it should be.
This can also help us in approaching non-believers because we don’t have to say your deeds are all completely evil in every sense instead we can engage people on how our actions fall short and are sinful in a real sense but that good actions in charity etc. are things God values.