The truth concerning total depravity – Romans 3:9-20

The doctrine of total depravity teaches that man is affected by the fall in a most negative sense. In other words, every part of man has been affected by sin. The truth concerning total depravity is seen here in Romans chapter three. Paul mentions that there is ‘none who are righteous.’ The idea that every person is essentially good is a false and corrupt doctrine. Mankind is not good. Mankind is corrupted with a sin nature. There is no good in us whatsoever. This is what it means to be totally depraved. However, contrary to what the Calvinist will say, man is not totally depraved in the sense that he is incapable of choosing to accept the Gospel by faith. The Calvinist will say that man has absolutely no ability to accept Christ as Savior. The choice to receive salvation is not up to man. God has chosen or ‘elected’ certain individuals for heaven and certain individuals for hell and there is nothing you can do about it. In other words, those who are going to be saved will be saved anyway and those who are lost will be lost anyway. Therefore, the Calvinist view of total depravity is that there is nothing that man can do, he is either chosen by God or not. Man is so totally depraved that he is incapable of coming and making the choice to receive Christ as Savior. This, I believe, is a distortion of the truth. Is man totally depraved? Yes. Is man completely affected by the fall? Yes. However, mankind does have a choice. The gift of Salvation is given to everyone. In order for that gift to become a reality for you; you must make the choice to accept and receive that gift through faith. As we examine the scripture here in Romans chapter three, we learn the truth concerning the doctrine of total depravity.

All people are guilty before God. Notice what Paul says in verse 9, What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.”[1] Paul here is bringing to conclusion his argument that all people are guilty before God. In the latter part of chapter two and in the first eight verses of chapter three, Paul addresses the fact that even God’s chosen people, the Jews, are guilty before God. Jews are not better than Gentiles even though they received a greater privilege from God. Paul mentions that all are ‘under sin’. This refers to the dominion of sin. All people are dominated by sin and thus condemned by sin. The problem with people is not just that they commit sin; their problem is that they are enslaved to sin. You have heard it said before that we are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners. We are all born in sin. We have inherited a sin nature.

         Every part of man is affected by sin. This is where the true doctrine of total depravity comes in. Everything about us is affected by sin, thus, we are totally depraved. Look at what the scripture says in verses 10-18, “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” [2] Paul is quoting a collection of Old Testament texts in order to show the fact that all stand condemned before God. He is speaking as an evangelist, urging people to recognize their need for a Savior. By quoting these Old Testaments verses, he makes it very clear to the Jewish mind that if they stay true to their scriptures, they will find that they are totally affected by sin and that their only hope is in Jesus. We see here how every part of man is affected by sin.

1. The whole inner being of man is affected by sin.  The first Old Testament passage that Paul quotes is Psalm 14:1-3, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good.”[3] Notice that the phrase ‘there is’ is placed in italics. Words in italics in our Bible translations were put there by the translators in order to help us be able to read the text more clearly. In this case, if you take out those words and just read what it originally said, the passage would read, “The fool has said in his heart, no God.” In other words, the fool has said, ‘No God!’ This fits with what we see in Romans, particularly in Romans chapter one. Man has said no to God. Total depravity began with mankind refusing God. Mankind made the choice to reject God; therefore, we are totally depraved. Notice the inner part of man that is affected by sin. A. The mind. In Romans 3:11 it says that ‘none understands.’ Sin affects the mind or the intellect of man. Anything that we do understand is tainted with sin. We have sinful minds; therefore, we cannot trust ourselves. We cannot trust what we think. “No one has genuine understanding (v. 11). If they fully understood the consequences of sin, they would not live as they do.”[4] Think about it. If we fully understood the exceeding sinfulness of sin, why would we continue to sin? Because of sin, our understanding is darkened. The human mind is incapable of fully understanding the truth, because of our sin. We may study the scriptures and the Gospel, but we will never fully understand it in this life. We can never fully comprehend the love of God. We can never fully comprehend the sacrifice He made for us. We can never fully understand the meaning of all the scriptures. Why? Because we are tainted with sin. This is why Biblical interpretation must not be taken lightly. This is why we must rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we study His Word. No matter how you look at the scriptures, your understanding is fogged because of your sin. Our sin affects our minds. Sin affects the way we think. B. The Heart. It is stated that ‘none seek after God.’ The New American Commentary says, “By nature people simply do not seek out or search for God. This insight will come as a surprise for many moderns. People throughout the world are often pictured as seeking God through the various paths offered by different religions. Paul would not agree. It is true that they may be seeking some sort of religious experience, but that is not at all the same as seeking God. Scriptures teach that it is God who takes the initiative. He is the one who seeks us; not the other way around.”[5] It is unnatural for the heart of man to desire God, because the heart of man is corrupted by sin. This is why so few people even in the church have a real passion for the things of God. We are selfish. We desire for what pleases ourselves rather than what pleases God. C. The will. It is mentioned that ‘no one does good.’ Mankind has a difficult time choosing to do that which is good. We have a natural tendency toward evil because of our sin nature. As mentioned earlier, the idea that man is ultimately good is a false and corrupt doctrine. We have all inherited a sin nature. Therefore, none of us can say that we are good. The only goodness found in us is that which is given to us by God. The only good that comes from us is that which has been produced in us by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, we are all evil. None of us are good. “Measured by God’s perfect righteousness, no human being is sinless. No sinner seeks after God. Therefore, God must seek the sinner (Gen. 3:8–10; Luke 19:10). Man has gone astray, and has become unprofitable both to himself and to God.”[6]

         2. The whole body of man is affected by sin.  “Paul gave us an X-ray study of the lost sinner, from head to foot. His quotations are as follows: verse 13a—Psalm 5:9; verse 13b—Psalm 140:3; verse 14—Psalm 10:7; verses 15–17—Isaiah 59:7–8; verse 18—Psalm 36:1.” [7] In verses 13-14, Paul emphasizes human speech. The very use of our tongues is inherently evil. Notice what Matthew 12:34 says, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” [8] Our character is reflected in the way that we talk. We have already dealt with man’s heart. The heart of man is evil. The desire of man is to please self rather than please God. This evil that is  in the heart of man is shown by the words that man speaks. The wicked tongue of man can only be changed when there is a heart change. The heart cannot be changed without regeneration. Faith in Christ is the only way to change the heart, and thus, change the tongue. In verses 15-16 we see the picture of the human feet. Just as man’s words are deceitful, so are his actions. Mankind is swift to do that which evil. The heart of man has a natural tendency to be drawn toward evil. This is why, I believe, that we see even Christians flocking to be entertained by evil. We are drawn to it. We are intrigued by acts of violence, immorality, and satanic ideas. This is seen greatly in the entertainment world. Look at the movies that they come out with. Look at what you see on your television. Mankind has a fascination with that which is evil. We are drawn to it. In verse seventeen Paul once again addresses the human mind. Man does not know and understand the way of God’s peace. The sinner does not want to know that way to peace with God. The sinner prefers the lies of Satan. The way to peace with God is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead of following after Christ, man has a natural tendency to follow after the things that pleases his self. The final part of the human body that Paul mentions is affected by sin is found in verse 18. Here we find human pride. Mankind has no fear of God. Look at Psalm 36:

“Transgression speaks to the wicked

deep in his heart;

there is no fear of God

before his eyes.

For he flatters himself in his own eyes

that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit;

he has ceased to act wisely and do good.

He plots trouble while on his bed;

he sets himself in a way that is not good;

he does not reject evil.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;

your judgments are like the great deep;

man and beast you save, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house,

and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;

in your light do we see light.

10      Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you,

and your righteousness to the upright of heart!

11      Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me,

nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.

12      There the evildoers lie fallen;

they are thrust down, unable to rise.” [9]

The Psalmist prays that arrogance would not overtake him. He realizes that the heart of man is selfish. He seeks after what pleases his flesh rather than what pleases God. We see this evident in our world today. There is no respect for God. There is no fear of God. Yet, in all of our wickedness, God is still faithful and He still loves us.

              The purpose of the law. “These quotations from God’s Law, the Old Testament Scriptures, lead to one conclusion: the whole world is guilty before God! There may be those who want to argue, but every mouth is stopped. There is no debate or defense. The whole world is guilty, Jews and Gentiles. The Jews stand condemned by the Law of which they boast, and the Gentiles stand condemned on the basis of creation and conscience.”[10] Notice what the scripture says in verses 19-20, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. [11]The purpose of the law is to reveal our sin and our need of a Savior. “No flesh can obey God’s Law and be justified (declared righteous) in His sight. It is true that “the doers of the Law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13), but nobody can do what the Law demands! This inability is one way that men know they are sinners. When they try to obey the Law, they fail miserably and need to cry out for God’s mercy. Neither Jew nor Gentile can obey God’s Law; therefore God must save sinners by some other means.” [12] This is also the purpose for preaching on sin. We must be made aware of our sin in order to understand more fully what the Gospel is all about.

So, here we find the truth of the doctrine of total depravity. Every inner and outward part of man is sinful. We are completely tainted by sin. The good news is that though we are utterly consumed by sin, there is hope. Our hope is found in Jesus Christ. As we become more aware of our sinfulness, we come to realize our need for total faith and reliance upon Jesus Christ. He is the only way. Warren Wiersbe gives a wonderful conclusion to this message, “The best way to close this section would be to ask a simple question: Has your mouth ever been stopped? Are you boasting of your own self-righteousness and defending yourself before God? If so, then perhaps you have never been saved by God’s grace. It is only when we stand silent before Him as sinners that He can save us. As long as we defend ourselves and commend ourselves, we cannot be saved by God’s grace. The whole world is guilty before God—and that includes you and me![13]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ro 3:9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ro 3:10–18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ps 14:1–3). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[4] Mounce, R. H. (1995). Romans (Vol. 27, p. 108). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[5] Mounce, R. H. (1995). Romans (Vol. 27, pp. 108–109). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 521). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[7] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 521). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 12:34). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ps 36:1–12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[10] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 522). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ro 3:14–20). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[12] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 522). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[13] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 522). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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