The Depths of Depravity


Much of our dissatisfaction with and complacency about the gospel may well stem from our casual acceptance of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. So, we need to meditate deeply on these subjects, however uncomfortable that may be. In the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation paradigm, we need a more robust understanding of the second element if we hope to awaken our fascination and delight in the work of redemption and the eventual consummation of our salvation. Until we can see what it is we are saved from, we should not be surprised how disinterested we can be with the doctrine of salvation itself.

Sin’s Stain Is Deep

Yet the ability and even the willingness to meditate deeply on the effects of the Fall are hindered partly by the Fall itself. Most of us seem to know there is something wrong with us, but sin itself discourages us from looking too closely. Often, we counter any sense of imperfection with the much stronger declaration that there’s a lot of good still in us, and it is this natural goodness which we convince ourselves should be the focus of our attention.

The hymn writer, Isaac Watts, brings the spotlight back on our fallen state in his song O Help My Unbelief.

How sad our state by nature is,
Our sin, how deep it stains;
And Satan binds our captive minds
Fast in his slavish chains.

The early seventeenth-century Scottish preacher, Thomas Boston, dared to go deep into the misery of the human condition. In his book, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, he reflects on the four different states in which human nature has existed: innocence, nature, grace, and the eternal state. He spends around 150 pages on “The State of Nature,” the second largest section in his book, second only to the eternal state, and taking up more room than “the state of grace.”

Sinning While Dreaming

Boston explores the “noetic effects of the fall,” how sin has corrupted our understanding and our minds. He offers six evidences of this corruption. His third is this: “There is in the mind of man a natural bias to evil,” such that while one struggles with things that are truly good, “it acts with a great deal of ease in evil.” He then gives six proofs of this point, and his last, he admits, is questioned by some. This proof is how we can sin even in our sleep, evidenced by “sinful dreams” where the sins our “hearts pant after when” awake are acted out with such ease while we sleep. If it seems unlikely that dreams can be sinful, Boston asks us to consider whether the same dark dreams plagued the incarnate Christ or Adam before the fall. And then he reminds us of Solomon’s sleepy encounter with God in 1 Kings 3, when God rewards Solomon for asking for wisdom rather than for long life or riches or the life of his enemies (1 Kings 3:10-11). Boston observes, “if a man may, in his sleep, do what is good and acceptable to God, why may he not also, when asleep do that which is evil and displeasing to God?”

If it be objected that this is just a natural working of the brain in our subconscious, Boston says this only proves the point: sin has negatively affected us this deeply, this fundamentally. How far we have fallen into sin is even more evident when we see how much we sin without seeming to have any ability to help ourselves.

Sinful Complacency

Here’s another one of Boston’s six evidences for the noetic effects of sin: “There is in the carnal mind an opposition to spiritual truths, and an aversion to receive them.” We who profess to know God are utterly inconsistent with our profession. We believe fire will burn us, so we avoid touching it. But we live so much of our lives as if we think the gospel to be a tale. Boston challenges us, “If you believe the doctrines of the word, how is it that you are so unconcerned about the state of your souls before the Lord?”

While we may rightly criticize our hypocrisy, our failure to live in such a way that shows that the spiritual truths we profess are even more real than the burning property of fire is not just an evidence of unbelief. It is an evidence of a fallen mind, incapable of living consistently with what we say we do believe.

Guilty, Weak, and Helpless

When we begin to see just how far we’ve fallen, the depths of our depravity, we ought to become overwhelmed by our condition. We are, Isaac Watts wrote, “a guilty, weak, and helpless worm.”

But the reality of sin, while creating a holy despair, can also make us more desperate to hope in Christ alone for relief from sin’s deep stain. Jesus is sufficient not only when we understand and believe, but also when we don’t understand and when we see how entrenched unbelief remains in our fallen state.

A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,
On Thy kind arms I fall;
Be thou my strength and righteousness,
My Jesus and my all.

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