Awakening to the Lost Masterpiece of Total Depravity/Total Inability

by Dr. James Willingham

Total depravity/total inability is a lost masterpiece of theology.  It has been lost to the knowledge even of those who believe in it, because they have forgotten that it is a doctrine of invitation to receive God on His terms.  It has been lost to the knowledge of even those who believe in it, because they have forgotten that it is a doctrine designed to stimulate the sinner to the point of response.  It has been lost to the knowledge of even those who believe, because they simply do not recognize the links between this truth and that of reprobation, another masterpiece of biblical theology designed to produce a violent resolve, a dynamic decision, a desperate determination.  It is along with Total Depravity/Inability one of the most intensely compelling truths.  It has been lost to the knowledge of even those who believe, because they know little, if anything, about therapeutic paradoxes.  There is more that could be said, but let us take one example from the ministry of our Lord.

In the case of the woman of Canaan, recorded in Mt. 15:21-28, we find that our Lord said something that was seemingly repulsive to her, when she was seeking His help fervently.  He said, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.”  If anything can be said about the image used, the symbolic term, it is this: It is a picture of total depravity.  A dog was an unclean animal to a Jew.  Worse yet, it appears to have been an image of reprobation, because Peter spoke of the dog as returning to its own vomit, a matter of common knowledge.  Talk about an unfriendly reception, the woman of Canaan seem to have had it.  But what was her response.  She said, “Truth, Lord.”  She agreed with Him:  Her sinfulness could be put in the most repulsive terms, even one that could lead to the suggestion of reprobation as Peter would indicate.  I can not forget having seen dogs eat their own vomit in my childhood and even since.   The idea of this truth is to awaken the sinner to his or her desperate need, and the woman’s need was so great that she not only agreed with the Lord but she even argued with Him, arguing from His own words.  Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.  No one would say that the crumbs that fall to the floor should be swept up and given to the child; they could easily be spared for the dog.  Desperation will move a person , a needy sinner, to consider and accept what he or she would not otherwise receive.  When a dog is hungry enough, it will go for the crumbs, eagerly.  When a sinner feels the need so desperately, then he or she will take even a word of condemnation as an invitation and encouragement.



  1. Christiane

    There are many theological interpretations of the story of Our Lord’s meeting with the Canaanite Woman in sacred Scripture.
    I have found a way of looking at this passage that, for me, seems consistent with ‘Who Christ Is’, having assumed our humanity fully and yet remaining sinless:

    How is it that Christ holds up a mirror for us to see our own self-righteousness and prejudices so clearly?
    Can the reader not see that Christ lays out the problem confronting all of us: who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’: the others, the ‘dogs’, the rejected, the lepers ? What is the difference, if any? And what is it that may we have in common that He values far above our differences? And what is our obligation to help the ‘others’ ? Must they always be ‘sent away’ unaided?

    Nothing in this incident was ‘incidental’. All was planned by God and set in motion to teach us something, if we will quietly look at it without our ‘prejudices’ and without our ‘self-righteous reactions’ . . . The Canaanite woman did not come to Christ by chance:
    she was directed to that place by a faith that she would receive healing for her child. In some part of all of us, we know that every mother would go to hell and beyond to get help for their suffering child. This woman came to the Lord Christ. And she came to Him in complete humility and in complete trust.
    Do His Words to her not reflect what many thought? And therein lies the irony.
    He is wisely, once again, holding up a mirror, using His Words to reflect the Pharisees’ rejection of this Canaanite woman.
    And in doing so, He teaches, in a way that is unmistakably His: DID he send her away unaided, as they might have done?
    No. He did not. And therein lies the resolution of the irony. She, one of the ‘others’, had great faith,and so her daughter was given healing by the Lord Christ ‘from that very hour’.
    Nothing in this story is without meaning.
    The story is a lesson that ALL the despised and rejected of this world, who are of strong faith, may confidently come to the Lord Christ for healing, not to be turned away by Him. WE are the ones doing the rejection of the ‘others’.
    Not Him.

  2. dr. james willingham

    Dear Christiane: I am saddened that you missed the point. Your response reminds me of the Sound of Music where one sings, I must have done some good, etc. Neat denial of man’s desperate condition. Here is a Puritan comment on Ephs.5:14 (Thomas Manton). One might suppose that because the text says man is asleep that all one needs to do is to awaken him. Therefore on must taken into account the statement that man must arise from the dead. Again, one might suppose that because the text says man is dead that God deals with him as with sticks and stones. Therefore one must take into account the statement that he sleeps. The idea, dear Christiane, is to get the sinner to accept the reality of his or her terrible condition and use this as a basis for an appeal to God for help. One in the OT said, forgive my iniquity because it is great. Several others said, Turn us and we shall be turned. Here that ask God to do what He command them to do. In other words, He commands the impossible in order that the sinner might realize that it is impossible and be cast upon the mercy and grace of God for his or her help. Remember it says in Eccles. 9:3 that madness is in the heart of men until they die. Yes, below the façade and veneer of social acceptability lies the corruption of a septic tank, and it is this reality that the Gospel addresses. As our Lord spoke of the grave being full of corruption, so He spoke of the heart as being in a like manner filled with all manner of evil.(Mt.5:19). Only God’s grace is powerful enough, wise enough, good enough, just enough, holy enough, and sovereign enough to deal with such a miserable condition, and one must apply directly to Him for such help.

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