The Total Depravity and Goodness of Man

The few times I’ve taught Calvinism to students, usually under the guise of the acronym T.U.L.I.P., most have been repelled. They understand some vague kind of spiritualism or mysticism. Some even get the appeal of the feel-good megachurch. But the orthodox Christianity that has so affected the history of the world is foreign to them, much less the seeming hardcore variants like Calvinism. (Erin Bartram made this point well in a post here.) While students balk at the doctrine of “Limited Atonement,” the doctrine that many find simply unbelievable is the doctrine of “Total Depravity.”

Total depravity is the idea that, as the Canons of Dort say, “Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.”

Total depravity? you can hear them thinking. But I know so many people who do so many good things. What about Mother Theresa? What about my mother? What about me?

This way of thinking is not confined to young students. Back when Rob Bell was still an evangelical Christian — I thought about writing “when Rob Bell was still considered an evangelical Christian,” but if the words “evangelical Christian” are to mean anything, they must mean belief in a God who became man who died on a cross in order to save us from eternal wrath — I remember watching a video (it must have been his trailer for Love Wins), where he related seeing a message written by a parishioner that said, “News flash: Ghandi is in Hell.” Bell’s response: Is he? Are you sure? Even among those who consider themselves Christians, the doctrine of total depravity is one that, even if they believe it, they tend to shy away from.

Which is a shame, because, if anything, the Bible is harsher on the question than TULIP.

“What then?” the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3.

Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

No one is good. No one is righteous. The way of peace they have not known. Together they have become worthless. This is how we stand before God. The only response to such a scenario, when left to itself, is an intense spiritual crisis, on par with the one Martin Luther experienced before he discovered for himself the grace of God — or perhaps, as he might say, when God revealed his grace to him. These Anfechtungen, spiritual crises or tribulations, are, in my opinion, an appropriate response to the reality that we earn nothing with they way we act; that even the good we do falls far short; and that with every solitary step we move further  and further from Eden.

It is, of course, this depravity, our Original Sin, that makes the Good News so good. The gospel — which was probably derived from the phrase “God’s spell,” which is a pretty good rendition of the Good News if you think about it — is good because, though we were so utterly helpless, though we were dead in our trespasses and sins, we were made alive together with Christ.

But in so focusing on doctrine, TULIP, and the intellectual edifices we rightly construct for ourselves, it is easy to forget what else the Bible says. For that is not the only thing the Bible says about the nature of man. Of course, man is created in the image of God, and was pronounced “very good.” And in Ephesians 2:10, Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Humans were created in the image of God, and their creation was a very good thing. In fact, they were created for good works that God prepared for them ahead of time. Does this truth contradict the doctrine of the total depravity of man? Which one is true? Are humans created for good or is no one righteous, not one?

The only Biblical answer is that both are true.

God, in his grace, has blessed us with extraordinary access to his truth, both through his special revelation through his Word and through his general revelation through the world he has created. But, of course, we don’t know everything. Much of God’s nature, and the nature of his creation, is still a mystery to us. And that is OK. How can man be totally deprave yet created for good works? Of course, there are ways to explain it and fit it into our theological systems, but at some level, it is a mystery. And that is OK.

For how else can we understand the world? When we see the utter evil that human beings can unleash upon one another, as we saw in the shooting in Orlando, we see the total depravity of humankind: None of us is righteous, not one, and if you think you aren’t just as capable of committing any number of atrocities, you just don’t know your history. And yet, a Biblical worldview will also remind us, when we see lines forming to give blood the morning after awful terrorist attacks, that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.






7 thoughts on “The Total Depravity and Goodness of Man

  1. Tony, I really enjoyed reading this. And in fact reminded me of something a brother in Christ shared with me the other night. Which was actually something one of his Theology professors told him.
    What he said was “I don’t have to try and explain the trinity, the Bible itself doesn’t try, so why should I?” Or it was something along those lines.
    I totally agree with you that there are something that it’s OK to not understand. After all, we are finite beings and God is infinite.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments Mark! Don’t get me wrong: I love doctrine, systematic theology is necessary, and so on. I actually think it is a good exercise to think through the Trinity (in fact, there was a big debate online about it this week!), and we can know much about it through special and general revelation. But you are right — a great deal of it will simply be a mystery to us, something which we can’t easily explain. And, as I say above, that is OK! As you say well, we are finite and God is infinite.

      I’m looking forward to seeing you and the rest of the gang soon in Germany!

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