Romans 3:9-20 and Ephesians 2:1-3 may be the most often used when the subject is Total Depravity. First, let us view the entire passages and then view a few select verses which will demonstrate what happens when they are taken from their context.
“What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Romans 3:9-20 HCSB.
Paul makes it obvious in the very last phrase of this text that our knowledge of sin comes through the laws of God, but that we are not made righteous before Him because we are able to achieve good works found in the law. This thought must not be forgotten as we move along. But, now let us examine these statements which are so fundamental to the argument for Total Depravity……
“What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” Romans 3:9-12.
It is not difficult to see why these vv are popular among those who support the philosophy of Total Depravity. Paul teaches us that everyone is under sin, no one is righteous, cannot understand nor seeks after God. Simply stated and seen alone, this statement does seem to indicate the total inability to achieve any kind of good. Before we become alarmed and race to find verses to support Total Depravity, let us move forward.
Observe a few things taken from their context in Romans 3:9-20: The Apostle tells us no one is righteous and no one who does any good. We are not considered unrighteous because the weight of sin is mixed with our goodness, but our unrighteousness is present until we are made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul clearly states that in our corrupt state we are incapable of achieving a single good thing.
In Ephesians 2:1-6 Paul writes, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” From these 6 verses we find it difficult not to find an avenue of Total Depravity. However, we must continue reading this letter and we find something else, not different, but instructional, “You took off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires; you are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; you put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth. Since you put away lying, Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t give the Devil an opportunity.” Ephesians 4:25-27. We cannot miss the active participation of ‘the way we were.” That is, the sinner making a choice to remove “your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted…” The corrupted sinner has discovered the Christ by grace through faith and has now made a choice to remove himself from the old way of sin. It is quite remarkable that those immersed in Calvinism refuse to see this truth.
From Romans 3 we are able to discern that without help from God no one has any righteousness with which to call upon Him and there is no simple understanding of or a desire to look for Him. However, Paul does make a statement in Romans 1 about His presence in our world, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.” Romans 1:18-20.
From chapter 1 we know that God makes himself known to everyone “So people are without excuse” and what we find no mention of an argument for Total Depravity in Romans 3:9-10. However, what we do discover is that the Apostle gives us insight concerning choices man has made from the beginning. Obviously, in order to have no excuse for sin before God, choices must have been given and made. Without choices there would be no excuses. But we do know that Eve made a choice when tempted by the serpent to disobey God. And soon thereafter Adam and Eve attempted to hide their nakedness from God. Choices of disobedience and deception are painfully obvious from the beginning of human existence. They could have chosen differently, but did not and NOT because of so-called Total Depravity, but because of the freedom of the will to choose given by God. God makes himself known to us, choices are made by many to ignore Him and there is no excuse to say, “I do not know of God” or “There is no God.”
In spite of statements taken from their contexts, Romans 3:9-20 does not mention Total Depravity nor total inability. While Paul does tell us that we are sinners as seen in 3:23, verses found within vv 9-20 must be left within the context of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
Yes, removed from the context this passage does seem to suggest Total Depravity and is extra-biblical in nature. However, when studied within the bounds of context we must be carefully honest with ourselves others about personal motives. We must seek first the direction that God takes the reader before we apply our life experiences.
Paul’s letter to the Romans really is not about “How to Go to Heaven” even though most of us evangelicals will know what the “Roman Road” is and we must be candidly careful just how this is utilized for to remove any verse of Scripture for whatever reason is not justifiable without careful exegesis.
Here it is important to understand that the message of Romans is not simply about justification or how to be saved. Paul’s message to the Romans is the instruction to a local church. His thought is how to live and function as Followers of the Christ according to the gospel of Christ, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.“ Romans 1:16-17. The Apostle’s thoughts in cc 1-8 are concerning a sinner’s situation in the face of the consequences of sin.
But this does not continue the contextual evidence found in the first 8 chapters, but crossing to Romans 9–11 Paul suddenly changes subjects and turns to God’s covenant with Israel. We who follow the Christ must know that Paul is writing to Believers concerning God’s provision now.
Returning to Romans 3:9-20 we find a warning to Believers in Rome not to become proud of their place before God. Paul instructs us that we stand with the same measure before the Almighty. There is no privileged position found in His Presence. Even Jesus said the mother requesting a place of importance for her two sons in Matthew 20:26-28, “It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.”
Paul’s instruction to the Jewish believers is because they have the Law and the Prophets does not make them guiltless before God. However, they are just as guilty as the Gentiles is found in his question in vv 1-2, “So what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Considerable in every way. First, they were entrusted with the spoken words of God.” But, did they have a privileged position as a result? Yes, However, “What then? If some did not believe, will their unbelief cancel God’s faithfulness? Absolutely not! God must be true, even if everyone is a liar, as it is written: That You may be justified in Your words and triumph when You judge.”
Those that hold to the idea that God has previously elected some to be in Heaven with Him and previously damned others to Hell apart from Him holds to a perspective of privilege which Jesus and Paul clearly object to. Just a thought for Jesus is Lord.