Alex Duke: How Total Depravity Upends Attractionalism

The last time I wept during a church service I wasn’t even there. I was watching online.

One Sunday night while scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled across an invitation to a church’s live-stream. I’d often wondered, Hm, what do they do on Sundays? And so, sufficiently curious, I clicked and tuned in.

Thirty minutes later, I sat on my couch, weeping.

If this were a movie, the director would insert a *record-scratch* at this moment, and the protagonist would look into the camera and say something like, I bet you’re wondering how I got here.

Well, let me explain.

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This particular Sunday was Father’s Day, and a father-and-son duo preached a big-hearted sermon that exhorted dads to a higher standard.

As the service concluded, the church sought to honor several dads in the congregation who had witnessed the Lord redeem irredeemable situations. To do this, they ushered a train of families across the stage. Once they arrived center-stage, each member stopped and stared into the camera as one person—sometimes a child, sometimes a father—held up a poster-board that briefly described the background of brokennessI was asleep at the wheel as a dad; our dad grew up in a home of abuse and divorce; I never had a spiritual conversation with my dad.

For a few lingering seconds, everyone’s eyes were riveted to the camera. Then, at precisely the right moment, the poster-board would flip around and the brokenness would yield to wholeness: I finally woke up and was baptized a few years ago; by adopting us through foster care, God has shown our dad how to be a father to the fatherless; I finally called to talk to my dad about Jesus…when he died a few months later, I know he went to heaven.

Story after story after story, this string of saints retold triumphs of God’s grace. I thought of David’s words in Psalm 30:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

And so I sat there—on my couch, watching the service on Facebook—and I was weeping.

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We’ll return to this in a bit, but I mention it now as an example of what I want this piece to address: how total depravity ought to focus our philosophy of ministry; how it ought to upend the guiding tenets of attractionalism; and how it ought to confound the well-meaning practices of attractional churches.

That’s the roadmap. Let’s get going.

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1. A belief in total depravity ought to focus our philosophy of ministry.

I suppose I should be clear about what I mean by “total depravity.” Simply put, total depravity refers to the natural, post-Fall state of all humanity, in particular our innate inability to save ourselves. Apart from God’s supernatural and regenerating work of grace, we’re all spiritually dead God-haters—curved in on ourselves and insatiably satisfied with sin (Eph. 2:3–5).

This depravity is “total” not insofar as we are as bad as we can be, but insofar as our badness is all-encompassing. Adolf Hitler sinned both more often and more egregiously than Mother Teresa, but he was not more spiritually dead—and she was not in any less need of God’s resurrecting grace.

Put still more simply, total depravity means:

  1. We cannot save ourselves because we’re dead in sin.
  2. We don’t want to save ourselves because we love our sin.
  3. We will be held responsible for this.

Unbelievers’ most essential problem is not that they’re ignorant, apathetic or rudderless, but that they’ve personally, willfully and happily rebelled against the God who made them. Their most inexorable enemy is not intellectual finitude or the ennui of life in the modern world, but what stares back at them in the mirror as they wordlessly brush their teeth. If this is true—and the Scriptures say that it is—then what unbelievers must concern themselves with is nothing less than escaping the just judgment of God.

These truths ought to focus every church’s philosophy of ministry. How so? Well, most prominently, such a church would talk clearly and regularly about man’s sin and God’s wrath.

I’ve heard some pastors talk about sin as if it’s little more than the emotionally unhealthy labels we give ourselves: broken, unlovable, hopeless, etc. While these labels articulate some of the alienating effects of sin, they obscure its essence and undermine a person’s agency and culpability before the Lord. It’s the language of pop psychology more than biblical anthropology.

Of course, sin is something done to us—sadly, some have much more experience with this than others. But if we stop there, we’ve evacuated the Bible’s teaching on the topic. Why? Because no one disagrees with this. Blame-shifting and finger-pointing come so easily to us. It’s our natural, post-Fall state: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

It doesn’t require a work of God to convince someone they’re a victim of others’ sin. It also doesn’t require a work of God to convince someone they’ve been materially affected by others’ sin. But it’s quite difficult, certainly so apart from God’s grace, to convince someone that they themselves are a high-handed perpetrator of sin against both God and others.

So, churches should speak about sin primarily (though not exclusively) as our personal and willful rebellion against God, and not as a social and indirect label given to us by others or ourselves. They should be clear that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, not as a rudder for the rudderless (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10).