What is Total Inability?

by Mike Ratliff

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written,
“ There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
13 “ Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“ The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “ Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
15 “ Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
18 “ There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9-18 NASB)

The “T” in the Doctrines of Grace “TULIP” acronym stands for “Total Depravity.” The name for this point is unfortunate. While what it implies is true, it also lends a definition to this point that gives many people the wrong idea about what we are saying when unregenerate Man is totally depraved. That makes it sound like all outside of Christ are monsters. In a spiritual sense that is true, but in our experience in this world, some people are better than others. There are horrible criminals, such as terrorists, to be sure, but there are also very charitable people who do good works who would be insulted if you called them Christian.

Another way to define this point would be to use the name, “Total Inability.” This implies that unregenerate Man is completely unable to seek God or salvation. However, it seems to be saying that the lost are simply flawed while it says nothing about sin. We must remember that the unregenerate heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. (Jeremiah 17:9) It is in Romans 3:10-12 that we learn the evil truth about all men outside of the grace of God.

10 as it is written,
“ There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12 NASB)

This tells us that all born of women (everyone) is unrighteous, no one understands God and His ways nor do they seek Him. Everyone has turned aside to sin. This corruption means that all people are guilty of not doing good while compiling horrendous records of sin after sin. I like the following explanation of our sad state very much.

“This doctrine of Total Inability, which declares that men are dead in sin, does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil in itself, nor that man’s spirit is inactive, and much less doe it mean that the body is dead. What it does mean is that since the fall of man rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation” – Loraine Boettner

What happened? How did Man get to this state? We find the answer in Genesis 3. A close study of those verses reveals that our state as sinners came about by our original parents succumbing to several steps in the first temptation. Step one was their doubting the benevolence of God. Step 2 was their doubting the Word of God. The third and last step was their aspiring to be as God. The result of their Fall affected not only them, but our entire race. The consequence of their Fall is described in the Genesis account as death. Some teach that the Fall only weakened Man or made us all merely imperfect. However, God made it clear that that is not the case.

16 The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 NASB)

Man disobeyed God and died. We all now experience physical death, but this also is speaking of our spiritual death. What did Adam and Eve do after their eyes were opened? They hid from God. He had to seek them out and clothe them. They went from a noble, personal, intimate relationship with God prior to the Fall to a moribund condition of finger pointing and blaming even God for their problems. They had lost the ability to love and rightly respond to God. My son sometimes describes his and his collogues fruitless attempts at resuscitation of some those he treats in the ER. When people die they no longer respond. Their eyes become fixed and all of their natural bodily functions stop. While this topic is unpleasant, it does describe our spiritual condition before God. Man has no natural ability to seek God just as a corpse is unable to respond to the hard work of those trying to resuscitate it.

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Ephesians 2:1-3 NASB)

From this passage, the Apostle Paul teaches us four things. First, The sinner is “dead in trespasses and sins.” All who are not yet in Christ are dead in their sins. If we study philosophy we will find that there are three views of Man outside of God’s grace. The first is that man is well. The second is that man is sick. The third is that man is dead. The first view is that of the optimist. Scripture makes it clear that those who believe this are in unbelief about what the Bible teaches about Man and God. Those who believe the second view are realists. They understand that something isn’t right, but if Man could come up with the right combination of factors then all of our problems could be fixed. We don’t find that in the Bible either. However, this is probably the most common view we find. I used to believe this one myself. The third view is the Biblical view of Man.

The second thing we learn from this passage is that the sinner actively practices evil. All people outside of the grace of God are spiritually dead. They may be alive physically, but they are dead spiritually. In the 1960’s there was a popular horror movie called, “The Night of the Living Dead.” Corpses came back alive. Even though they were dead they walked and killed people. This is a fair description of what we are like when we are in our sins before God makes us alive.

The third thing we learn is that the sinner is enslaved. Natural Man is enslaved to the world, the flesh, and the devil.  It is all about the flesh, the stuff and the sin. Until salvation, our flesh, bent on self-gratification, uses this horrid condition to feed itself. Why? That is the only way to find fulfillment. Of course, it doesn’t work for long so people must stay on the treadmill.

The fourth thing we learn is that the sinner is by nature an object of God’s wrath. This is the part of the Gospel message that is most neglected in today’s Church climate. Why? Since people don’t take sin seriously, they don’t take God’s wrath seriously either. The Bible is full of warnings of God’s wrath against those outside of His grace.

44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44 NASB)

This verse is just one of many from our Lord’s own lips that make it clear that no can come to Jesus unless the Father Himself draws them. Therefore, we must conclude that our salvation involves a miracle of regeneration that reverses or replaces the deadness of our hearts. Unless God does this for you or me, we would never be saved.

I am not going to address the arguments or debates on Free Will vs. Total Inability. The Bible is very clear about this and besides, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Jonathan Edwards, the Belgic Confession of 1561, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England from 1562, The Westminster Larger Catechism from 1647, The Westminster Confession of Faith from 1647, and the Baptist Confession from 1689 (to name just a few) have all addressed this Biblically, succinctly and correctly. To reject Jesus’ own words from John 6 and Paul’s words from Ephesians 1 is to exhibit unbelief and reveal a heart that has become hardened to the truth.

Man is totally helpless to save himself, yet God is very clear that unless he or she repents and believes they will experience the wrath of God. That sounds quite unfair doesn’t it? However, the key to unlocking our salvation is humility. Unless we humble ourselves, fully admitting to God that we are unable and helpless and that we don’t deserve His salvation, we will never have it. However, we are so helpless and unable that we cannot even do this unless, as Jesus said in John 6:44, the Father draws them. The following is an excerpt from The Doctrines of Grace pages 88-89.

“Perhaps one final illustration will serve to confirm this point. During the 1840’s, when revival was sweeping through Savannah, a young man came to the Rev. Benjamin Morgan Palmer to complain about his Calvinism. “You preachers are the most contradictory men in the world,” he said. “Why, you said in your sermon that sinners were perfectly helpless in themselves—utterly unable to repent or believe—and then turned round and said they would all be damned if they did not.”

“Palmer sensed that his visitor was wrestling with the great issues of life and death. To make sure that the man really dealt with the gospel, he gave him an indifferent response: “Well my dear sir, there is no use in our quarreling…; either you can or you cannot. If you can [repent and believe], all I have to say is that I hope you will just go and do it.” Palmer describes what happened next:

“As I did not raise my eyes from my writing…I had no means of marking the effect of thee words, until, after a moment’s silence, with a choking utterance, the reply came back: “I have been trying my best for three whole days and cannot.” “Ah,” [I] responded, raising [my] eyes and putting down [my] pen, “that puts a different face upon it; we will go…and tell the difficulty straight to God.”

“We knelt down and I prayed as though this was the first time in human history that this trouble had ever arisen; that here was a soul in the most desperate extremity, which must believe or perish, and hopelessly unable of itself, to do it; that, consequently it was just the case for divine interposition….Upon rising I offered not one single word of comfort or advice….So I left my friend in his powerlessness in the hands of God, as the only helper. In a short time he came through the struggle, rejoicing in the hope of eternal life.”

A firm and clear understanding of the doctrine of Total Inability does not keep us away from Christ. Instead, a true knowledge of it actually helps us abandon ourselves, jettisoning our pride and grasping humility, unto His Grace.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Addendum: Follow this link to a chapter and verse list detailing Total Inability.

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