In this study we consider the biblical truth of total depravity. We will do so from our Lord’s words found in John 15:5, “For without me ye can do nothing.”
We see from the last verse of John 14 that our Lord Jesus and His disciples have now left the upper room where they had gathered to eat the last Passover and they had begun a midnight walk across the city of Jerusalem, up to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will be betrayed to the Jews. We read in John 14:31 Jesus saying to them, “Arise, let us go hence.”
That is, Jesus was interrupting the discourse or sermon that He had begun in chapter 13, a sermon spoken to His disciples. He interrupts this sermon and leads them out of the upper room towards Gethsemane.
No doubt, as they walked, they passed by many orchards and vineyards along the way. And, as was the Lord’s custom, He uses what He sees in the creation as an object lesson to teach His disciples and us a vital truth that we must know as He is about to leave His disciples.
He says in John 15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.”
He goes on to say, “Ye are the branches. Abide in Me. As the branch canno bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, no more can you, except you abide in Me.”
The Lord begins to speak to His disciples of the indispensible and urgent need of true faith, of a living, vital connection to Him. He, in the way of the cross, in the way of His resurrection and ascension, is about to return in glory to His heavenly Father. We will on the earth be subject to sin, temptation, death, sorrow, real grief and turmoil. The Lord says, “You must abide in Me and I in you. As the branch abides in the vine and draws its sap and life from the vine and thus is able to bear fruit, so also must you abide in Me.”
He speaks, in this figure, of the gift of true and living faith, of the true, heavenly-wrought, spiritual union between you and Christ—the gift of faith, faith that is not a formal, purely intellectual attachment to Jesus Christ. It is not like two boards nailed together. But faith is a living union to Jesus Christ, worked by God in our hearts so that we say with the apostle Paul, “For to me to live is Christ.” And, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”
And then the Lord, in the words of our text, emphasizes the need that we have to abide by faith in Him. For He says that “without me ye can do nothing.” As a branch, severed from the vine, dries and is gathered up to be burned, so we, without Jesus Christ, can do nothing. In words that are clear, simple, and pointed, Jesus teaches us the truth of our total depravity.
Without Jesus, we can do nothing.
You could not save yourself, you could not will to accept Him, any sooner than a dead branch can will to pick itself up and insert itself into the vine. “You cannot receive Me unless I work My grace first in you. You cannot be saved, nor can you persevere (keep yourself within the state of salvation) without Me. Without Me ye can do nothing.”
These words, then, underscore the words of the Lord Jesus: “Abide in me, stay close to Me, seek all of your strength in Me.” As sinners, we are depraved, and we are saved by grace. And, as children of God in the midst of this world of temptation and woe, we have one great desperate need every day: Abide in Christ, a living, true faith in Jesus Christ.
For without Jesus, we can do nothing.
These words, first of all, then, are very humbling: “Without Me ye can do nothing.”
They are words that point first to our total depravity as a sinner, and our need of a completely gracious salvation. Jesus here speaks of all men as they are without Him. He speaks of every man, woman, and child as they are without Him. “Without Me, you can do nothing.” He is not talking just about drug-addicts or those who are on death-row. He is not talking only about predators or abusers of mankind. But He is talking of all mankind—of professors, scientists, teachers—men as they stand apart from Christ—you, considered of yourself. You, apart from Jesus, can do nothing. He means nothing good. That is His point. Nothing pleasing to God, nothing good in the sight of God. You can do many things, but you cannot do anything pleasing to God.
Note that Jesus (in the first four verses of John 15) has been talking about bringing forth much fruit to God. He has been talking about a life of good works pleasing to God. He has been talking about love for God, sorrow for sin, humility, meekness—those things that please God. He has been talking about the fact that the failure to bring forth such fruit means that a branch is dead, withered up, and is to be gathered up to be burned in the lake of fire. Jesus, therefore, was talking about every man, every woman, every child—whether they are in poverty or whether they are in wealth, whether they live in a third-world country or in a country of great prosperity, it makes no difference. They cannot do anygood in the sight of God. Apart from Jesus Christ we are dead in sin, fallen in Adam, incapable of any saving good.
The fault is not simply in the totality of our makeup, so that there are spots of sin in every part of our makeup, of our will, words, and emotions, but we are totally depraved, shot through completely with sin, sold in sin, leprous in sin.
Ephesians 2:1-3, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins….”
Romans 3:12, “…there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”
Romans 8:7, “…the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”
You can do nothing apart from Me.
The Lord is speaking there of ability. Apart from Jesus Christ no one has the ability to do good in the sight of God. We cannot of ourselves will to accept Jesus Christ. It is not we who can do a little. It is not we who decide for Christ and then, depending upon our decision, Christ will respond and come into us. No. Ye can do nothing. As a branch severed from the vine, withered, we are dead in our sins. Salvation is not the acceptance of Jesus by the human will. Salvation is the resurrection of a dead sinner. When we have the testimony within us of the burden of sin, when we feel sorrow for sin, when we covet God’s grace to lead a new, Christian life, all of this is His work in us. It did not proceed from us. It was not me, O Savior true, but it was Thou who didst love me and raise me from the dead.
But Jesus’ words are humbling also in this sense, that they mean that as a renewed, saved-by-grace child of God, without Him, I can do nothing. As renewed by the Holy Spirit, by grace, we are called to live a life of sanctification, that is, to delight in serving God. We are called to live to the service of God in everything that we do. We are to bear our cross, we are to fight a good fight of faith. But we can do nothing apart from Jesus Christ. He must daily by grace infuse His strength into us. Your strength, says Jesus, your fortitude, your personal determination, your guts, your stubbornness, your stick-to-itiveness—all of this is nothing. Ye can do nothing in the Christian life without Me, without Jesus. That is, apart from a conscious, heartfelt faith-dependence upon Christ, we can do nothing.
You cannot white-knuckle and overcome that addiction that has cast you down time after time and of which you have said, “I’ll beat it, I can stop, I’m man enough, I’ll preserve my reputation. It’s not going to go any further.” Jesus says, “Without me, ye can do nothing.”
You cannot escape that temptation, the net and the pit laid for you by Satan, the lust, the desire to live for the approval of friends. Believe in this word. “Without Me,” says Jesus, “ye can do nothing.”
You cannot endure that trial, that loneliness, that sorrow that is swallowing you up, pushing you down of yourself. Getting away, a change of scenery is not going to do it. Without Me, ye can do nothing.
A great evil, but performed against you, an abuse, a horrible abuse that haunts you and pursues you and fills you with fear—without Me, ye can do nothing, says Jesus.
A great sin is in your past. You confess this sin, but yet its memory gives you no rest. You try to keep yourself busy. You try to keep in front of it. Without Me, says Jesus, you can do nothing.
Always our sinful nature, that is, our pride, looks to our self. We try to build our own citadel. We try to use our treasured resources and strength. And God, in His wisdom and justice, so often says, “Go ahead. Exhaust your treasured strength—until grace brings you to know that you can’t.”
It is by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. The way of God’s grace leads us to this point that we give up on our own strength, our own way, our own will. And we cry, “Oh, I to the fountain fly, cleanse me, Jesus, or I die.” For without Jesus I can do nothing.
But as humbling as that is, it is also exalting. It is exalting to Jesus Christ.
Jesus is making the most amazing and astounding claim. Think about it. “Without Me, ye can do nothing.” That means that Jesus is saying, “I am the source of all good, all spiritual strength. I am the source of good and spiritual strength. You have no good, no strength, no merit; I and I alone am the source of all good and strength. As you are devoid, utterly devoid in yourself, and cannot find any strength of yourself, you will have all strength and all merit in Me.” So it always is. If you lift up man in your faith or religion, you debase Jesus Christ. If you give credit to yourself or to man, you discredit Jesus Christ. If you walk in pride, any pride, you will think little of Jesus Christ.
But when our emptiness is shown, when our weakness is made plain, when our depravity is exposed to us, it is then that Christ is exalted for who He is. Christ is the source, the only source, of good in all the world. Christ is the source, the only source, of strength in all the world.
Christ, therefore, is exalted in salvation. Total depravity is the gate or the door to the gospel. You must go in through that door. The teaching of free will, that notion that salvation is owed to a decision of the dead sinner, who must first accept Christ before Christ can save him—this heresy of free will debases Jesus Christ. Free will glories in itself. I accepted Christ. He could not enter in unless I allowed Him into my heart, unless I first invited Him. He stood there knocking, unable to do anything until I gave Him the permission. The glory is free will.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I say, away with that false doctrine.
in I Corinthians 1 we read: “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
For of God are ye in Christ Jesus, says the Scripture. Of God, not of free will. Of God, God’s work, are you in Christ Jesus. We cry out with the hymn: “Nothing in my hands I bring.”
It is Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, who opens our heart that is closed, shut up, and sealed, as in a coffin of sin. We read in Acts 16:14 of Lydia, whose heart the Lord opened. It is Jesus Christ who regenerates, that is, by Him we are born again. He implants His life in us. “If ye then be risen with Christ,” says the apostle in Colossians 3:1. It is Christ who converts. It is Christ who regenerates. It is Christ who saves. It is Christ who illumines our minds. It is Christ who softens our will and enters into the inmost recesses of our soul. It is Thy grace, O Lord, that saved me, not myself. All hail the power of Jesus’ name. Not free will. Not your name. Not man’s name. Not this man saved me, or this person. But Jesus Christ saved me.
So also it is that Jesus Christ is exalted in our life of sanctification, that is, in our Christian living. It is Christ who infuses His strength into us through faith. It is Christ in me. It is Christ in me in every trial and every way of darkness, in every burden and in every temptation. Christ Jesus is our strength.
But you might say, “I know that and I believe that. I believe that without Christ I can do nothing. But why are there yet times in my life that it seems that I cannot find Him or when He is absent from me, when the peace of His grace eludes me?”
The disciples of Jesus Christ at this point were about to go through that in that very night. At the moment of trial, they will all run away from Jesus. Apparently the strength of Jesus Christ was gone and their hearts were filled only with fear.
Why, then, are we led down ways of darkness?
“Lord,” we say, “I believe this. Why must I be led in such dark and difficult ways?” And the answer is: Because our need of Jesus Christ must be burned, must be branded, into our heart, because His grace and His strength are not cheap, because it pleases the Father to work this truth into our deepest heart. Through every way of trial and through every way of woe, Jesus Christ wills that we confess: without Jesus, I can do nothing.
But, you see, this is assuring, it is humbling, it is exalting of Christ and it is assuring to us. This is not a false assurance. This is not a sales pitch. This is not a soap bubble to pop on the first sharp point of life. Jesus Christ is our good and our strength. His perfect work on the cross is our righteousness. His grace is our strength. He is the solid rock. Everything else is sinking sand. Believe in Him, rely solely upon Him.
The assurance is, first of all, that when we feel the burden of sin, when we feel within us the desire to obey and serve Him, then this is due to His work in me. It did not arise out of me. I did not create that. But it came from Him.
Do you know yourself as the sinner in God’s sight?
Do you know your sorrow and the depth of your sin?
All of this is worked in your heart by Jesus Christ and by His wonderful grace.
And, still more. There is the assurance that Jesus Christ will also strengthen us unto every good work. He will give us His grace. He will dwell within us. It is Christ who will strengthen us.
So, hear the call of the gospel. He speaks. He calls in the gospel: “Abide in me.” That is your need. Always stay closer to Jesus Christ. That is your one, and your great, and your desperate need. Stay close to Him in the word. Stay close to Him in the church. Stay close to Him in prayer. Stay close to Him in your daily walk of life. Abide in Jesus. For without Jesus, you can do nothing. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
By Carl Haak