When I was growing up in church, the analogy that the fiery evangelist loved to use to compel the lost to come to Christ was that of a person drowning out at sea. All they needed to do, he said, was take hold of the life preserver called the gospel of Christ, and they would be pulled to safety. At the time the appeal was very stirring for me. Who would want to drown when salvation was within your grasp? However, as I grew older and my understanding of passages like Ephesians 2:1 became grounded in the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, my image of those lost at sea went from being a search and rescue mission to becoming a search and recovery one.
God’s Word says in Ephesians 2:1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” The apostle Paul was describing the Ephesians’ spiritual state before they came to faith in Christ. They were spiritually dead, unable to take a breath spiritually, much less reach out for a life preserver in order to save themselves. That’s the key to understanding the doctrine of total depravity.
Often the doctrine of total depravity is interpreted to mean that we are horribly evil or as depraved as we can be (often described as “worm theology”). However, Jesus teaches us that even sinful people are capable of demonstrating compassion and generosity. In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus says, "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” The reason a father can give his hungry son bread and fish to eat is that the father on earth, though evil, is still made in the image of the Father in heaven. We are still image bearers!
The focus of the doctrine of total depravity is our inability to respond to the gospel proclamation with faith and repentance apart from the grace of God. Why? R.C. Sproul once said, “God just doesn’t throw a life preserver to a drowning person. He goes to the bottom of the sea, and pulls a corpse from the bottom of the sea, takes him up on the bank, breathes into him the breath of life and makes him alive.”
Another way to look at the doctrine of total depravity is to compare it to a coin. One side reveals that because we are spiritually dead, we are unable to respond to the gift of salvation God offers to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. But the other side of the coin declares that through the grace of God, the Holy Spirit is more than capable of pulling corpses from the bottom of the ocean and performing spiritual CPR on them. And after the Spirit has breathed spiritual life into us, we are transformed. “As a result,” the Canons of Dort say, “a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant” (Art. 16, The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine). And it is only after the Holy Spirit has completed his search and recovery mission by breathing spiritual life into us that we are enabled not only to respond to the gospel with faith and repentance, but also to love one another as Christ has loved us.