Lessons From the Old Testament: Total Depravity

Cover of "Heart of Darkness (Hesperus Cla...
Cover of Heart of Darkness (Hesperus Classics)

The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5)

Where does the Old Testament stand on the condition of human beings?  Are we basically good people?  Are we basically bad?  Without doubt there are tales in the Old Testament of some pretty amazing people who live extraordinary lives.  Some, like Joseph, son of Jacob, seem to demonstrate flawless attitudes and behavior.  But by and large, even our greatest examples of faith and obedience have feet of clay and betray a remarkable penchant for foolishness and wickedness (Just think of Abraham twice telling everyone his wife is his sister and nearly losing her and the promised seed to a pagan).

Incredibly, though, this part of the narrative of history we have in Genesis 6 describes a time when every single human being except Noah and his family could be described as all evil all the time.  How is this possible?  Interestingly, after the flood that destroys this wicked generation, God puts in place some new restraints against such wickedness.  He, in essence, invests human government with some sharp teeth.  He requires men who murder to lose their lives also.  He imposes the death penalty (Genesis 9).  He separates the nations into factions of foreign speakers who cannot understand each other and thus cannot unite to create sinful chaos.

Apparently, without restraints on our behavior human beings will become as evil as possible without exception (except for the grace of God).  As in Joseph Conrad‘s Lord Jim and  Heart of Darkness (or the movie based on this same concept, Apocalypse Now), the further we get away from civilizing forces the more corrupt we become.  God’s testimony to this reality is stated in Jeremiah:

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
(Jeremiah 17:9)

Apparently God uses the pressure of punishment, conscience and other human beings acting in righteousness to keep our wicked hearts from being evil continually.  What we think is our superior wisdom and righteousness is really God’s constraint of the image of God in us being put to evil use.  If we put the gifts God gave us  (our reason, emotions and will) to good use with His power, we can do amazing good ( like Joseph did).  But without God’s influence in our lives we will always put His gifts to selfish and abominable use.

David says,

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
(Psalm 51:5)

His individually destructive sins of adultery and murder had their origin at conception.  He was born a sinner and remained a sinner throughout his life, but especially yielded to sin when he felt he was in a place of no restraints.  He was the king of the land.  Who would hold him to account?  Of course, God did through Nathan the prophet.  God brought restraint to David’s life in the form of a righteous man, Nathan, and the workings of David’s own conscience:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
(Psalm 32:3,4)

We are totally depraved people, according to the Old Testament.  That doesn’t mean that we are all completely sold out to sin and incapable of doing anything good.  What it means is that apart from God’s restraining influence in our lives we are all completely sold out to sin and incapable of doing anything good.  Any good we do is a testimony to God’s restraining work in our lives.


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