How Calvinism Shapes Christian Ministry: Total Depravity and Tending the Sheep

Jacob Tanner

herd of sheep on green grass field during daytime

The caricature of Calvinists portrayed by many is that they are unloving, uncaring, and brooding elitists who have superiority complexes, seeing no need for evangelism. While terms like the “Frozen Chosen” may indeed describe those occasional Calvinists who fit the bill, the reality is often much different. Calvinists are typically some of the most joyful, loving, humble, and holy saints precisely because they recognize that, apart from our sovereign Lord imparting his grace to them, they would still be dead in their trespasses and sins. In fact, it is this knowledge of sin and the total depravity of humanity that informs much of the Christian ministry.

The Depths of Our Depravity

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin opens his first chapter by explaining that, to know ourselves, we must first know God. Calvin understood the all-important truth that doctrine shapes practice and behavior is influenced by belief. Therefore, if we would live joyfully and truthfully, our doctrinal beliefs must be shaped by the Word of God, which alone is our infallible rule for faith and practice. And one thing that Scripture sets in stone from Genesis chapter one onward is that God is God, and we are not.

Scripture, however, is not satisfied with simply reminding us that God is the Creator, and we are his creation. As important as the Creator/creature distinction is, equally as important is the status of God’s nature compared to our own. He is perfect, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. We are none of those things. Still more important to understand is that God is perfectly holy, and we are not.

Total depravity states that man’s will has been enslaved by sin and, thus, he will always choose to sin if left to his own devices. This is because when Adam sinned in Genesis 3, he was serving as our federal head. When Adam sinned, all sinned. All have inherited a sin nature (Rom 3:23, 5:12). This sinful reality is the basis for the other four letters of the TULIP acronym. If it is true that man is inherently sinful and has been radically corrupted in his mind, will, and emotions so that his whole desire is to sin and to sin continually, then the very possibility of salvation hinges on unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.

The reality of total depravity is that the only hope for salvation is to be found in Jesus alone. It reminds us of our own need for Jesus and the gospel. It also reminds those who minister the Word that the people God puts in our path, whether sheep from our flock or sinners from the world, need Jesus and not us. Total depravity means we can save no one. Jesus alone saves sinners because only he can. So, when we preach, we must preach Christ and him crucified. When we counsel, we must counsel with Christ and him crucified. When we fellowship, we must fellowship around Christ and him crucified. When we encourage, we must never elevate ourselves, but must set our eyes and others upon Christ and him crucified.

Likewise, total depravity means that no amount of good works can be performed to earn salvation. Salvation is not earnable. Salvation is received by faith. Like the old hymn writer wrote in Rock of Ages:

Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

Sinners and Sheep Stink, but We Love Them Anyway

Sheep stink. It isn’t necessarily a bad odor that will make one pinch their nostrils shut, but it’s definitely there. They have an odor about them. If you’re around sheep for any amount of time, then you know they have a very particular smell. The same is true of saints and sinners.

The doctrine of total depravity leads to an important realization for ministers: Everyone is born in sin and, apart from Jesus, everyone will die in sin. Or, to put it differently, everyone that we meet is under either one of two federal heads and, thus, under either one of two covenants. Either they are under the federal headship of the first Adam, still under the covenant of works, and thus transgressors against God, or they are under the federal headship of the new and second Adam, Jesus Christ, and thus under the covenant of grace.

If they’re of the first lot, then we know they stink. The putrid stench of spiritual death and decay covers them and the best we can expect is for their speech and deeds to reflect that of an open grave. After all, what can the dead do, except stink? Yet, despite this stench of death, oh, how we pity them! How we long to see their dead, dry bones rise to new life! How we long to see life flow where before there was only decay and death! We do not distance ourselves from such sinners but, like Jesus before us, go forth to touch the untouchable and love the unlovable, in the hope and assurance that Jesus saves sinners.

If, on the other hand, they are part of the second lot, then we know they’re alive in Christ. The aroma of death surrounds them no longer, but the beautiful and wafting scent of life, like a beautiful perfume, clings to them. Yet, on occasion, that old man seems to rise to the surface and that old stench comes back.

Many sections of the pastoral epistles are concerned with the reoccurring stench of death that can sometimes creep back up in the lives of the saints. Paul wrote about this in great detail in Romans 7—it is often the case that, even as Christians, we war and fight and struggle against sin. So, it should be little surprise when the sheep of our flock have an odor about them that reminds us of what they used to be. Their physical bodies have not yet been resurrected and glorified. Sin no longer reigns but it does rear its head from time to time.

So, when the sheep sin and that old stench comes back, what are ministers of the gospel and under shepherds of the flock to do? Well, they must gather alongside the sheep, tend to them, love them, and pray with them. Through the Word of God, we point them to Christ, who alone is the true Shepherd who can wash them clean and cause that sin to be put to death in their lives.

Rolling with the Bites

Give the bright-eyed seminary graduate about two weeks into his first pastorate and he will affirm what other pastors have known for years: Sheep bite.

The doctrine of total depravity is helpful in remembering that the sheep of our flock were once enslaved to sin and the flesh is still at war with the things of God. When they sin, we should not be surprised, but must call them to repentance and holiness—not in order to be saved, but because they have been saved.

When they bite back at us, we don’t quit. We love them, pray for them, and call them to repentance and holiness. When they complain that the length of the sermon was too long, or that our music selection was not up to their standards, or that we don’t measure up to their former leaders, we remember that we have been impacted by total depravity as much as they have been. To quote Charles Spurgeon: “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him. For you are worse than he thinks you to be.”

So, when sheep bite, we love them all the same. A shepherd doesn’t stop caring for sheep because they’re unruly or irritable. We love them all the more because we know that, by the grace of God, the good work begun in them will one day be completed. It is our honor to have some small role to play in this conforming work.

Killing Sin

John Owen’s Mortification of Sin has been influential for many Christians over the centuries since its original release. In light of the doctrine of total depravity, it is also a wonderful reminder of the great truth that we need to constantly be killing our sin, lest it slay us instead. The shepherd of the sheep needs to put forth just as much work—if not more—to be sure he is killing sin. The temptations of pride, haughtiness, and narcissism are ever present, not to mention the countless other temptations that are common to men.

The sheep will follow the example we set. It is for our spiritual health and theirs that we be about the business of sin-killing. It may be that the slaying of sin in our lives is like the mythical tale of Hydra, whose every head cut would spring forth another. That is no matter. We must do the hard work of slaying our sin all the same. Total depravity necessitates it.

The good news is that one day sin will be no more. Our great enemy will be felled by the victory of Jesus Christ. There will come a day when, upon the new earth, our bodies will be resurrected and glorified. At that time, the desire to sin will be no more. We will, as far as righteousness is concerned, be perfect as our God is perfect. We will finally be holy. Total depravity leads us to strive to shepherd the sheep with the glorious hope that the work God begun in them and us will be completed. Calvinism insists that the doctrine of total depravity will not mark us as Christians forever.

Author herd of sheep on green grass field during daytime

Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.

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