There’s nothing we can do to change our sinful nature.
From time to time, we may have calmed our consciences by pulling the plug on a sinful habit or two. Perhaps we flushed a few pills down the toilet, vowed not to gossip so much about our coworkers, or made a New Year’s resolution to stop straying from our spouse or losing our temper with our children. But, when it came to quitting sin once and for all, we simply couldn’t do it. Sin was as much a part of us as a heart that pumps blood, lungs that breathe air, and skin that produces hair. Even if we succeeded in cutting off one evil habit, a forest of other iniquities soon sprouted in its place. “Inherited sin in a man is like his beard,” Martin Luther once commented. “Though shaved off today so the man is very smooth … it grows back by tomorrow morning.”
The theological term for this pervasive presence of sin in every human life is “total depravity”—a unfortunate phrase that sounds at first as if people are completely evil, which isn’t true at all. “Depravity”—from the Latin word for “crooked”—simply means that God’s design for humanity has been twisted in the wrong direction; “total” reminds us that this twistedness touches everything we are and everything we choose. Every human deed done outside of Christ carries within it a seed of death. Michael Horton puts it this way:
The stain of sin [has corrupted] us physically, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. That doesn’t mean … we are all brute savages who always carry out every possible evil; it does mean that there is no island of purity from which we might mount a campaign to save ourselves.
“As the salt flavors every drop in the Atlantic, so does sin affect every atom of our nature,” Baptist pastor C.H. Spurgeon once pointed out. “It is … so abundantly there, that if you cannot detect it, you are deceived.” Left to ourselves, the death that we inherited from Adam mortifies all that we are, and sin infects all that we do. We cannot cleanse ourselves from this stain, and—as long as we remain dead in our sins—we will never desire the remedy that God has provided.
Paul hammered the final nail into humanity’s coffin with these words: “We were by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3)—or, more literally, we “were by nature children of wrath” (ESV). Sin wasn’t merely something we did; sin was by nature who we were. Thus, damnation became our deserved destination before we had even disembarked from our mother’s womb.
So what can we do to escape this deathly circumstance?
We are by nature damned and dead, and there is nothing that any of us can do to improve this dismal starting-point. Until we receive new life, we will never glimpse the glory of God’s kingdom (John 3:3). And yet, as long as we remain spiritually dead, we are “sin-oholics” without the slightest desire to be set free from our addiction to iniquity. That’s the dark dilemma of every human life apart from Jesus Christ (Romans 3:9-18; Ephesians 2:12)—and that’s why the next sentence in Paul’s letter is so amazing!
“But God,” Paul declared, “made us alive with Christ.”
The Christians in Ephesus had been damned and dead—but God made them alive. He put their death to death in the death of Jesus and raised them to life through the power of his resurrection! What none of them could do or would do, God did, for the purpose of revealing “the incomparable riches of his grace” (Ephesians 2:7).