Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
— John Newton
Amazing Grace is one of the most well-known, most loved songs ever written. And this first line happens to be one of the most theologically sound statements outside of the Bible itself. It states in plain language what we are – wretches. The word wretch isn’t a term used a lot nowadays. Dictionary.com defines it as “a deplorably unfortunate or unhappy person; a person of despicable or base character.” I would argue that the second part of that definition is true, and that it causes the first part to be true – our character causes our unhappiness. We are in a wretched state before God, as ungodly as we can be.
The theological term used to describe this wretched condition of mankind is called depravity. I’m not a theologian, nor am I trained or extremely knowledgeable in any way regarding theological concepts, but I have taken an interest in reading about the Biblical basis behind Calvinism in the last couple of days. One of the 5 points of Calvinist beliefs is that man is totally depraved, or that “man in his natural state is incapable of doing anything or desiring anything pleasing to God.”¹ Some of the Biblical basis for this belief is:
- All mankind is depraved. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” – Romans 3:10-11
- We are born depraved. “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” – Psalm 58:3
- The depraved are captive to the will of Satan. “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.’ ” – John 8:42-44
- The depraved are drawn to the ways of Satan. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” – Ephesians 2:1-3
- The depraved are spiritually unteachable. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” – 1 Corinthians 2:14
I won’t go so far as to say I am completely convinced of every facet of Calvinism, but I see a strong Biblical basis for a belief of the concept of Total Depravity. There is no good in us whatsoever – even if we try to do good things before God, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
Then, in steps grace.
When we were completely helpless in our sin, totally depraved by nature and in character, Christ stepped in and saved us. “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Take this illustration:
I am working on a bridge over a deep canyon, when I step into a pile of rope and trip, falling over the edge of the bridge. The rope catches my ankle and stops me from falling all the way to the bottom of the canyon to my death, but I am helplessly dangling there on the side of the bridge. I have no way of pulling myself up (since I’m weak and overweight…). All of a sudden, another worker (we’ll call him Bob) comes along and pulls up the rope, saving me from my helplessness.
Would anyone, after witnessing this scenario, come and pat me on the back and call me a hero? Of course not! Bob is the hero! In this same way, we know that we are helpless in our sin, completely ungodly, and in desperate need of saving. Paul told the Galatians “…if righteousness could be gained through the law [righteous acts], Christ died for nothing!” (2:21). But Christ death wasn’t in vain, because righteousness cannot be gained through how good we are or whatever good things we do. It is His grace – His unmerited favor – that grants us forgiveness, makes us righteous in His sight, and thus saves us from our helpless, depraved state.
Left to our own devices, we are wretches. But because of God’s amazing grace, we are no longer lost, no longer blind, no longer helpless. We are saved!
Editor’s Note: The term Total Depravity, as a Calvinist doctrine, is often associated with Absolute Depravity, or the idea that men cannot do any good. My personal belief is that this is not true – men do good deeds all the time with no thought towards pleasing God. To me, the idea of Total Depravity is that there is nothing good in our natures beyond the tainted image of God that still lingers in our being to some degree. In our human natures, we have no desire to seek God, nor do we have any interest in the things of God. We are depraved in totality, but not absolutely so.
¹Spencer, Duane Edward. TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1979.