In the opening chapter of James Buchanan’s excellent book, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit, he deals with what he calls the “great spiritual change” that is necessary in order for a sinner to be saved and see the kingdom of God. He points us to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in John 3:3, where He tells Nicodemas, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (ESV)
Buchanan tells us that Christ’s statement to Nicodemas rests on “the supposition of the universally fallen and corrupted state of human nature” (p.7). In other words, the Lord Jesus clearly held to and taught the doctrine of total depravity. What is total depravity? It is the truth of Scripture that in Adam’s fall into sin in the garden of Eden, we too all fell into sin and so lost “original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.2), so that “we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (6.4)
He goes on to say that if we really understood and believed this truth of Scripture as we should, and how it applies to us individually, we would never have trouble understanding why the Lord Jesus should say that we must indeed be born again if we are to see the kingdom of heaven. And yet most seem to persist in rejecting both this doctrine and its implications, despite the fact that there is no small amount of testimony to the truth of this doctrine – far from it! Buchanan writes:
“But this doctrine of natural depravity, although uniformly assumed in the Bible, and frequently asserted in express terms, and abundantly verified by the experience of our own hearts, as well as by the universal history of the world, is so offensive and alarming to every unconverted man, that he is prone, if not to deny its general truth, at least to mitigate and soften its meaning, in so far as it applies to his own case; and hence many a one who admits in general terms, because he cannot decently deny, that he is a sinner, shows by his whole spirit and conversation that he has no idea of what is implied in this confession, and no heartfelt conviction that he needs to be born again.”Ibid
Despite the abundant testimony to the truth of this doctrine in Scripture, history, and personal experience, the unconverted person finds it so utterly offensive that he or she seemingly always tends (as Buchanan puts it) to “at least mitigate and soften its meaning,” at least when it comes to them personally. And so while many will admit in general terms that they are sinners, they show by their attitude and speech that they are in some ways ignorant of and unwilling to accept or admit that they too must be born again by the Spirit of God in order to be saved.
Read the Bible from cover to cover, and you will find throughout its pages an unwavering, uniform testimony to the total depravity of mankind outside of Christ. Read the pages of human history, and there too you will find overwhelming proof of it as well. And if you would take a good, long look in the mirror, so to speak, there too you will find verification that, outside of Christ, you too are “dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.2), so that you are “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (6.4).
As the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1–3,
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (ESV)
Who, then, can be saved? And how? It is only by the sovereign grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ! As Paul goes on to tell us:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”Ephesians 2:4–10, ESV
God in His great mercy toward spiritually dead sinners, makes us alive together with Christ in such a way that we are a new creation in Him! That is grace! Being born again so that we believe on Christ for salvation is ultimately not our own doing; “it is the gift of God” (v.8). That is what Paul means when he says that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (v.10)! And so there is no room for boasting – all of the glory goes to the Lord alone for our salvation from sin!