For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. (NKJV)
After Paul reminds us to do good works, he throws this reminder out so that we will be able to see the contrast between what we were and what we have become. I don’t think he is reminding us about our past to cause us to feel guilty and mourn over what we used to be like. Rather, this is to set the stage for our gratitude for our salvation. It is also a great statement of theology that many hate to talk about, the depravity of man.
The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. (Gen 6:5 NLT)
I could go back to Adam and Eve or Cain and Able to point out the same thing, but God succinctly describes our problem in Genesis 6:5. At the core, people are evil. Did anything change substantially after the Flood? Well it may seem to be better but we still have a heart problem. In explaining our universal problem of sin, Paul quoted from several Old Testament sources to demonstrate that we are still basically evil (Rom 3:9-18). His comments are bracketed by, “No one seeks God” and “there is no fear of God” (Rom 3:9, 18). Without God, without Jesus, without the Holy Spirit, people do not seek God or fear Him. Should anyone object to this conclusion, Paul says that all have sinned (Rom 3:23).
Many do not understand what a theologian means when he says that man is totally depraved. They think that this a very demeaning description of mankind because they can point to millions of kind act done by people who have no religious affiliation or spiritual association. C. C. Ryrie defines total depravity by saying that no one can do even good things to gain merit for salvation in God’s eyes. He concisely defines total depravity, “The unmeritoriousness of man before God because of the corruption of original sin.” This doesn’t mean God doesn’t recognize good done by depraved people or that depraved people don’t have consciences. It does mean that our consciences are not always reliable. And it doesn’t mean that we engage in sin to the greatest degree possible.
A Calvinistic leaning of theology will completely agree with the concept of total depravity because it means that there is nothing a person can do to get out of the pit of sin until God pulls him out, i.e. regenerates him. The Arminian bent denies total depravity and believes that when a person begins to seek God, God will regenerate him.  I understand the Arminian view and realize that great Jesus-loving Christians have argued these differences for centuries. The following is a brief look at Scripture that explains why I lean toward the Calvinistic teaching.
We Were Dead
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. (Eph 2:1-2 NASB )
The key word in these verses is dead. It establishes the parameters of the ability of a person or persons described; in this case it was me. Sure, he originally sent the letter to the Ephesians but I must apply this personally. It is talking about my condition at some time in the past. I can’t take this as being physically dead because my condition is also described as walking or following a course of action. It also applies to people who are still in the same condition, the sons of disobedience. Therefore, being dead is descriptive of a spiritual condition.
If it were literal, then the meaning of the Greek word, nekros, describes a lifeless person, someone who has breathed his last and died. A person in this state cannot respond to any outward stimuli. He can’t think, reason, or do anything that can make himself alive. He is dead.
Spiritually, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon describes it this way:
a. (spiritually dead, i. e.) destitute of a life that recognizes and is devoted to God, because given up to trespasses and sins; inactive as respects doing right: John 5:25
b. universally, destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative: Rom 6:11
Notice, both of these descriptions contains the word, inactive. Dead is a very good description of a person’s spiritual abilities before coming to Christ for salvation. An inactive (dead) person doesn’t come to Christ on his own, because he is not doing anything. The literal description of a physically dead person makes it clear that he has no ability to do anything. The spiritual description agrees because the person has no power to do so. He is inoperative, like a robot without a source of power. The Holy Spirit is the source of power for Christians and He is not in spiritually dead people.
A primary reason to consider total depravity is that the Bible describes us as dead. It isn’t until we read further in Ephesians that we discover that while we were in this dead condition, God made us alive (Eph 2:5). We will see this repeated when we move on in Titus.
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works … (Col 1:21 NKJV)
When we are alienated from God, we don’t want to have anything to do with Him. Paul says that in our fallen state we believe God is our enemy. Seldom in human experience does anyone want to become like his enemy. Rather there are reasons for the alienation. Teens don’t like the restriction, rules, habits, tastes, fashion, or many other characteristics of their parents when they are alienated. In the same way, a person who has not been regenerated doesn’t like God’s restrictions and rules because they don’t understand the freedom they would have if they were saved. They don’t like God’s concepts of holiness or His desire for a person to be modest; there is the fashion problem. Most of all, they don’t like the idea that they can’t save themselves. They want to be independent just like a teenager. Pride hinders them because they can’t get over the idea that they can’t do something to be considered worthy in God’s eyes. Paul calls all of these attitude problems wicked works. Later, Paul also lists some of the outward wicked deeds that correspond to what goes on in the heart (Col 3:5).
Alienated people don’t want to be around their perceived enemies. Because they are separated, there isn’t any possibility of being influenced by them. When it comes to spiritual alienation, it seems impossible for anyone to bridge the gap. That is the point of the depravity of man. Man can’t do it, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:25-26), so He has already made reconciliation possible through Jesus’ death on the cross (Rom 5:10, 2 Cor 5:18).
Foolish – Unable to Understand
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (1 Cor 2:14 NASB)
Foolishness is a good description of someone who is unable to understand. When we see someone do or say something foolish, we often wonder about his inability to understand the hurt it causes, the consequences to himself and other, the lack of social skill or grace, and other things. When it comes to spiritual foolishness, the Bible doesn’t let us wonder if he doesn’t understand. It states plainly that he cannot understand because he does not accept what the Spirit would impart to him if he were willing. The depravity of man comes from the fact that a person doesn’t have the Spirit of God in him and therefore can’t understand, accept, or change. They can only accept and change with the Spirit of God. It is a vicious circle for nonchristians. There is no understanding because they do not have the Spirit and without the Spirit, there is no way to understand.
Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” (John 8:34 NLT)
In Titus 3:3, Paul provides a short list of the result of being depraved. The first is serving lusts and pleasures. If we are not serving the Lord, then we are ultimately serving what makes us feel good. Seldom does a person do things for any other reason. Even a person who cuts himself finds some temporary relieve from some other pain that he believes is worse than the cutting. People who are philanthropic do so because it makes them feel better about themselves. They find pleasure in helping others. This is not bad, but if this is the motivation, it is not serving the Lord. In this sense, the person may be doing good, but is still a slave to sin.
The longer list in Titus 3:3 is when the sin has developed into what anyone would call evil. Malice, envy, and hate are universally classified in the negative categories of behavior. Paul and Peter both say the same thing about malice. Put it away; get rid of it (Col 3:8, Eph 4:1, 1 Peter 2:1).
This is the way we were before we became Christians. No matter how good we thought we were all this was either blatantly obvious or lying just beneath the surface. Without salvation, there is no way we would be able to just put away our sins and make ourselves righteous in God’s sight. We may be very good at appearing righteous to others, but that is only because we are comparing ourselves to each other. We can always find someone worse than ourselves. We seldom look around to compare ourselves with someone better than we are. If we did, then we would ultimately have to compare ourselves with God and that would bring us to the realization that we are indeed sinners and totally depraved.
That’s the bad news. The good news comes in the next few verses of Titus 3.