I never understood this before. I had been taught “Total Depravity” as one of the two points of Calvinism we non-Calvinists would concede (the other being the Perseverance of the Saints.). But even still it wasn’t until just recently that I understood the idea in its context. I’d love to know where we messed it up.
Calvin and the -ists that follow him do not mean that human beings are absolutely evil. Never have. They mean, instead, that we are absolutely incapable. It’s a negative statement about our goodness, not a positive statement about our evil. Robert Petersen explains it as “sin pervad[ing] the human being and human life so that there is no part of man that is not affected by sin. . . . It is a forthright denial of the notion that sinners have the ability to believe. They do not have that ability. They have lost it in the fall and they need God’s grace in order to be saved.” Michael Williams describes it as “spiritual inability. We are unable to reach God because all of our capacities and faculties have been overturned in the corruption of sin.” Berkhof pictures it as “the contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul. This utter corruption of man is clearly taught in Scripture, Gen. 6:5; Ps. 14:3; Rom. 7:18. Total depravity here does not mean that human nature was at once as thoroughly depraved as it could possibly become. In the will this depravity manifested itself as spiritual inability.”
That contagion metaphor makes sense. We are diseased, dead in our trespasses and sins. Wesley talked about it as a systemic blood infection that totally incapacitates us. We’re sin-sick sinners bound to our hospital beds, unable to even ask for help. The Great Physician pursues us since we can’t even find or push that call button (Luther would add that we probably don’t even want to push it. The will binds us in our sin, he contends. Erasmus disagreed.).
The idea isn’t original to Calvin. Of course, it originates in Scripture. But Augustine really develops the notion of Total Depravity against his foil Pelagius. Pelagius argued that human beings could save themselves (so grace was unnecessary), and semi-Pelagians like Erasmus and Charles Finney noodled a sort of participation in our own salvation (so grace could be earned).
Augustine defied both positions. Because of our total inability, Grace was all we had. The two doctrines require each other. To have Total Depravity without Grace is nihilism. To have Grace without Total Depravity is aristocracy. Together, however — that’s the Gospel.