I have had discussions in the past concerning the doctrine of total depravity. I believe the doctrine of total depravity is true, yet I feel I must write concerning the doctrine's misuse*, especially when it comes to total depravity and believers.
What is total depravity?
The doctrine of total depravity as I understand it runs thus:
Because of the fall (Genesis 3), man is unable by or of himself to believe in the gospel of salvation. Man is from birth rebellious against God. He is dead, blind and deaf to the things of God (Matthew 13:13). His heart is corrupted, his will is bound to Satan (Ephesians 2:1-2), and his inclination is constantly towards evil (Genesis 6:5). This depravity affects man physically, mentally, and spiritually, so that every part (the total) is depraved.
Are believers totally depraved?
You tell me: according to the historical definition of total depravity, can believers properly be defined as remaining in this state? Are believers unable to believe in the gospel of salvation (Acts 15:11)? Then how are they believers? Are they rebellious against God? Then how are they united to Him (Romans 6:5)? Are they dead, blind and deaf to the things of God? Then how can they have a relationship with Him (Galatians 4:6)? Are their hearts corrupted? Then why does God say He has given them a new, clean heart (Ezekiel 11:19)? Is their will bound to Satan? Then why does God say He has set us free (Galatians 5:1)? Is their inclination constantly towards evil? Then why does the Bible say believers desire the heavenly (Hebrews 11:16)? Why do they seek to be Christlike?
In answer to the question, I say no, believers are not totally depraved. Total depravity is a pre-Christ state. It is what we were, not what we are. When we are in Christ, we are set free, changed, renewed, redeemed, forgiven, restored, adopted, sanctified, glorified, justified…the change is endless (1 Corinthians 6:11, Romans 8:30). We are a new creation. The old has passed away (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are recreated in Christ Jesus. Reborn. We have the indwelling Spirit. We abide in the Vine. Our eyes are opened, our ears can hear, and our hearts can respond to the gospel.
Does this mean believers don’t sin? Not at all. We sin and struggle on every plane, physically, mentally and spiritually. The effects of total depravity still linger in us. But believers are not totally depraved. That is not our condition. Not according to the historical definition, which indicated and indicates unsaved people. The doctrine of total depravity is not meant to define Christians, but to define humanity. We have a new existence in Christ Jesus. God sees us differently in Christ than outside of Him. Christ makes a difference - a major one. We have to consider our familial reality.
We still speak of being totally depraved in terms of acknowledging one side of the coin, which is our dependency upon Christ in all things. We are weak. But the reality is that, not only do we as believers depend on Christ for everything, but Christ fulfills every dependency we have! He is our strength when we are weak. This is why we are pronounced clean. This is why the epistles declare believers saints, not sinners. Our identity is changed. God has removed us from our sin, separating them as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). He has drowned our sins in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).
The believer's reality
Our reality is settled in Christ. The ability that we have been given is only by God’s grace in enabling us to do the good works He has foreordained (Ephesians 2:8-10). He has called us to act in righteousness, and He provides the way for us to do so. My ability to be good is not some sort of apart-from-Christ merit. Apart from Christ we can do nothing – but this implies that in and with Christ, we can do something.
We are the Body of Christ. Christ works through us in order to bring about His will on earth. There is an intriguing relationship between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. People pray for the salvation of a friend, and when the friend is saved they glorify God, not thinking that their prayer was the means, yet their prayer was the instrument God used in order to bring about His sovereign will in saving the friend. This is a glorious truth: God includes us in His plan and purpose. He is active in relationship with His people. He moves and creates and speaks and involves us. He allows us to participate in doing good works for His glory. That’s why we share the gospel or serve others in love: not to “be good”, but because God is good and He has allowed us a part to play.
Live, then, in the light and the joy of this reality. Live every day as though God has a plan and a purpose for you - because He does! He has plans for you far beyond what you can imagine. He is with you every moment. Christ does not forget about you, not even for a second. Leave the hours and the minutes of your life in the hands of the Sovereign God Who has pronounced you clean, Who has declared you worthy to be a steward of His righteousness, a messenger of His glory, a child who is welcome and loved. Leave your doubts and your confusions, and even your certainties, with the all-wise Saviour, Who knows you better than you know yourself. Look to Jesus, and be ready.
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:21-22 ESV)
*I don't doubt that I have misused the term in the past; this blog is an attempt to correct my own errors as much as to address the errors of others.