Most readers are familiar with the idea of “total depravity” as taught by many Christian theologians over the centuries — the idea that (in overly broad strokes) humans are unable to turn themselves to God and are inherently sinful. Those who have read with some depth in theology know that theologians disagree as to how to articulate total depravity, at least in part because it touches on many things.

One of the issues raised in a discussion of total depravity is whether unbelievers, those who have not been regenerated and “saved” through personal faith in Christ, can ever actually please God in any way. Put another way, the idea is that an unbeliever can never truly do something that God would look at and say something like, “good job”; “I liked that”; “glad to see you did that”; etc., but would always have some point of dissatisfaction or spiritual criticism — the act would further sour God’s disposition toward the unbeliever who is “under wrath.” The counter assumption is, then, that believers can indeed satisfy God in this way — meet this standard — whereas the unbeliever cannot (ever).

I think this way of looking at things is theologically amiss, but I won’t say why until Part 2. Suffice it to say now that I reject any notion that an unbeliever can turn themselves toward God in any salvation sense, or merit God’s grace in any way. That is, an unbeliever cannot do anything “spiritually good” with respect to meriting or moving toward salvation in any causative way. But that’s different than the question I’m raising: can an unbeliever ever please God? I say they can. God can indeed look at something an unbeliever does and approve of it and take pleasure in it (or be indifferent to it) and that such occasions have nothing to do with the “salvation distance” between God and that person becoming more narrow. They are two separate issues.

For now, I’d like to hear what readers think — both about the doctrinal idea and how they might suppose I’d argue against it. Lest some think I’m caricaturing a position, here are some excerpts from well-known Christian theologians:

Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 497.

a. In Our Natures We Totally Lack Spiritual Good Before God: It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Rather, every part of our being is affected by sin—our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies. Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), and, “to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15). Moreover, Jeremiah tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). In these passages Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God. Apart from the work of Christ in our lives, we are like all other unbelievers who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18)

Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, 637-638.

1. Depravity partial or total?

The Scriptures represent human nature as totally depraved. The phrase “total depravity,” however, is liable to misinterpretation, and should not be used without explanation. By the total depravity of universal humanity we mean:

A. Negatively,—not that every sinner is: (a) Destitute of conscience, for—the existence of strong impulses to right, and of remorse for wrongdoing, show that conscience is often keen; (b) devoid of all qualities pleasing to men, and useful when judged by a human standard,—for the existence of such qualities is recognized by Christ; (c) prone to every form of sin,—for certain forms of sin exclude certain others; (d) intense as he can be in his selfishness and opposition to God,—for he becomes worse every day.

B. Positively,—that every sinner is: (a) totally destitute of that love to God which constitutes the fundamental and all-inclusive demand of the law; (b) chargeable with elevating some lower affection or desire above regard for God and this law; (c) supremely determined, in his whole inward and outward life, by a preference of self to God; (d) possessed of an aversion to God which, though sometimes latent, becomes active enmity, so soon as God’s will comes into manifest conflict with his own; (e) disordered and corrupted in every faculty, through this substitution of selfishness for supreme affection toward God; (f) credited with no thought, emotion, or act of which divine holiness can fully approve; (g) subject to a law of constant progress in depravity, which he has no recuperative energy to enable him successfully to resist.

2. Ability or inability?

In opposition to the plenary ability taught by the Pelagians, the gracious ability of the Arminians, and the natural ability of the New School theologians, the Scriptures declare the total inability of the sinner to turn himself to God or to do that which is truly good in God’s sight (see Scripture proof below). A proper conception also of the law, as reflecting the holiness of God and as expressing the ideal of human nature, leads us to the conclusion that no man whose powers are weakened by either original or actual sin can of himself come up to that perfect standard. Yet there is a certain remnant of freedom left to man. The sinner can (a) avoid the sin against the Holy Ghost; (b) choose the less sin rather than the greater; (c) refuse altogether to yield to certain temptations; (d) do outwardly good acts, though with imperfect motives; (e) seek God from motives of self-interest.

But on the other hand the sinner cannot (a) by a single volition bring his character and life into complete conformity to God’s law; (b) change his fundamental preference for self and sin to supreme love for God; nor (c) do any act, however insignificant, which shall meet with God’s approval or answer fully to the demands of law.

So, let’s hear your thoughts. Would you agree with these quotations? Say things differently? Disagree? (and why – scriptural arguments / illustrations, please). Should be fun.