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Total Depravity and Knowing God

Richard Phillips asks, “What’s so great about [the doctrine of] Total Depravity?” The answer is in the fact that knowing ourselves is necessary to understanding God.


Malcolm Muggeridge, the famous British journalist, had a life-changing experience that was very different from that of the prophet Isaiah. Yet in one important respect it was quite similar: they both came to a piercing awareness of their depraved spiritual condition. But whereas Isaiah learned to say “Woe is me!” in the face of God, Muggeridge learned it in the face of a leper woman.

On assignment in India, Muggeridge went to a river for a swim. As he entered the water, his eyes fell on a woman bathing. He felt an impulse to go to her and seduce her, just as King David felt when he saw Bathsheba. Temptation storming his mind, he began swimming toward her. The words of his wedding vows came to his mind, but he responded by just going faster. The voice of allurement called out, “Stolen water is sweet” (Prov. 9:17), and he swam more furiously still. But when he pulled up near the woman and she turned, Muggeridge saw, “She was a leper. . . . This creature grinned at me, showing a toothless mask.” His first reaction was to despise her: “What a dirty lecherous woman!” he thought. But then it crashed in on him that it was not the woman who was lecherous; it was his own heart.’ This is precisely the teaching of the Bible about the moral and spiritual condition of men and women: our hearts are corrupt, our minds are depraved, and our desires are enslaved to the passions of sin.

It was not by chance that Isaiah felt his depravity when confronted with God’s holy presence, any more than it was by chance that Muggeridge’s glimpse of his true condition led to his conversion to Christianity. imageOne way to put this is that theology and anthropology are always linked. In order to understand the truth about yourself and other people, you have to see the truth about God—and vice versa. John Calvin made this point in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, commenting that one may begin a study of theology either with God or with man, since to know either correctly you must correctly know the other.

—Richard D. Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Reformation Trust, 2008), 17–18.

Posted 2013·11·18 by David Kjos
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