Totally Depraved and Without Excuse: How Both Are True in the Unbeliever

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul lays out the argument for why the unbeliever is “without excuse” in his rejection of God. Paul writes: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20 NASB) An equal truth taught in Scripture is that man, by nature, is “totally depraved.” In other words, sinners do not have the moral ability to submit to Christ as Lord as they are required to do. Some see these truths as being incompatible and would in fact use Romans 1 as an argument against the doctrine of total depravity; but this argument falls flat upon closer examination. The key to understanding these complementary doctrines is to remember this basic axiom: Total Depravity is not an “excuse” for man’s rejection of God, rather it is an “explanation” of it. The unbeliever is both totally depraved and without excuse and here are three reasons why this is true.

First of all, it’s true because the Bible says it’s true. While I know the unbeliever would scoff at this reason, it’s sad to see many Christians who would claim to believe the Bible “from cover to cover” who would also disregard this reason as being overly simplistic. Nevertheless, Christians live by the standard of God’s Word and not the standards of this world. If the Bible declares something to be true, then the believer should accept it as such. Even if they don’t clearly understand all the implications of the doctrine being taught. Too many Christians fall into the trap of setting themselves up as the judge of God’s Word, rather than submitting themselves to it. If the Bible teaches that man is “dead in his trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) and cannot come to Christ “unless my Father draws” (John 6:44) and that the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14) and that “you must be born again” (John 3:3) then who is sinful man to question it?

Likewise, if the Bible teaches that man is responsible for his sin and is “storing up wrath for himself” (Rom. 2:5) and that he is “without excuse” in his rejection of God and that he does not come to Christ because he rebelliously refuses to believe (Acts 7:51), who are we to question this truth? The fact that God’s Word declares it — should be all the “proof” we need that something is true. But I’ll offer two more reasons as well.

Unbelievers are both totally depraved and without excuse because even in their depravity, the sinner still has the ability to see that God is there. This is a major part of Paul’s argument in Romans 1. God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen (which is itself an amazing statement) through “what has been made.” In other words, even the unbeliever can look at creation and clearly see the hand of God at work. Unmistakably they can see things that are “created” and they can discern that there is a “Creator” behind it. And this is one of Paul’s major indictments against sinful man, that he can see God in the created order yet he does not acknowledge God. He does not “honor (or glorify) God, nor does he give thanks” (Romans 1:21). To see the hand of God at work in creation and to be the beneficiary of His blessings (as we all are) and then to turn around and not only refuse to glorify, nor give thanks; but even deny His very existence is utterly unconscionable. Indeed it is inexcusable, which is why Paul says the unbeliever is “without excuse.” Total depravity does not excuse such behavior. It explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Finally, sinful man is both totally depraved and without excuse because it is man’s fault that he is totally depraved in the first place. Man is in the condition he is in because of his own moral failure, going back all the way to the first man Adam, in the Garden of Eden. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) In Adam’s fall mankind was infected with the sin curse. So mankind’s problem is the fault of mankind himself. You might argue that Adam’s sin should not effect you, and that if you’d have had a shot in the Garden you would have done better. But this argument falls flat because, you and I have evidenced repeatedly that we too sin and sin often. If you’re so good at “not sinning” then go ahead and dazzle us all now with your holiness. You can’t dazzle us because you can’t keep from sinning in your natural condition; as is the case with all of us.

In conclusion, the Bible teaches both that man is totally depraved and he is without excuse. Sinners are indeed “dead in their sins” and morally unable to do what God requires, yet they are equally responsible for their sin and bear the blame for the condition they are in. Regeneration is not required in order to see the hand of God at work in creation, yet still man in his sin “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness” by both denying God and refusing to honor and thank Him for His provision. Man is in a bad way, exacerbated by the fact that he argues against it. When God confronted Adam over his sin, Adam immediately begins to blame others for it. He blames Eve, and ultimately he blames God for giving him Eve. Then Eve blames the serpent. (see Genesis 3:12) What Adam did was inexcusable but explainable. Adam was without excuse, but his behavior is explained by the doctrine of total depravity. The same can be said of all sinners, including you and me.

“But God demonstrates His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The only hope the unbeliever has it to be found in the grace of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The sinner is called to repent and believe in Jesus, yet this he will not do naturally. But it can happen supernaturally. Through the new birth Jesus described in John 3, sinners are granted spiritual life, they repent of their sin, and they submit to Christ as Lord. And when they do, they can see clearly, for the first time, that they were once both totally depraved and without excuse. Both realities are Scriptural and both realities are clearly seen in our experience. Total depravity doesn’t excuse man’s rebellion but it does explain it. And the blood of Christ solves both problems for all those who “believe” by grace.