Sin damaged us to the degree Jesus had to defeat it. Don’t think you can defeat it without him.
- Deprave /di'preɪv/ v. To make immoral, wicked, or twisted.
- [Depraved /di'preɪvəd/ adj.]
- Total depravity /'toʊ.dəl di'prøv.ə.di/ n. The Christian belief that unregenerate human nature is thoroughly corrupt, sinful, and self-centered.
- 2. The Calvinist belief that all human nature, regenerate or not, is this way.
- [Totally depraved /'toʊ.də.li di'preɪvəd/ adj.]
Present-day Christianity has been heavily influenced by popular culture and popular philosophy. And vice-versa. Sometimes for good; sometimes really not.
Problem is, one of humanism’s core beliefs is that humans are inherently good. We were born good, humanists insist. Not evil. We become evil because we have evil influences, like evil parents, evil neighbors, evil authorities, evil media. Those folks may have taught us to be evil, but we can unlearn it, and choose to be good.
And many of us Christians have embraced the idea. Why yes, they argue, we are good. For when God created the world and humans, didn’t he declare his entire creation “very good”?
Well. Those who think nothing’s more sinless than a baby clearly haven’t raised one. Why do babies cry? ’Cause they want stuff. And as soon as they’re old enough to swipe it, or shove other kids out of the way in order to get it, they will. As soon as they figure out the word “no!” they use it. A lot.
Humans don’t have to learn to be selfish. We are selfish. Inherently: It’s part of our self-preservation instinct. We have this whole system of pain sensors in our body which warn us if we’re gonna seriously damage ourselves. (Or inform us we’re seriously damaged.) So if animals don’t look out for number one, they won’t survive.
Humans have simply taken that natural instinct, and dialed it way up. Everything we do is about defending ourselves, getting our way, making ourselves comfortable—physically and emotionally. We don’t always go about it the right way, but that’s our motive. And if you get in the way of our wants, we’ll shove you aside. What’s good isn’t the goal; what’s good for us, or what we consider good, is.
We aren’t naturally good. We have to be taught what that is. Problem is, who’s doing the teaching? Other selfish humans.
Yep, it’s corruption all the way down. All the way back. Started with the very first humans. When God first created ’em, they were good. They changed. Lots changed.
I assume you know the Adam and Eve story. If you don’t, this sums it up: God made an adám (Hebrew for “humanity,” so he’s sorta our representative human) and made part of him into a woman. He put the two of them in paradise, where there’s a tree of life which enables people to live forever. He gave ’em one rule: Don’t eat off this one tree. They broke the one rule, so God booted ’em from paradise. Can’t live forever anymore. Plus there’s working for a living, pain in childbirth, clothing… but the promise of a savior.
Before they sinned, they didn’t know good and evil. Now they did. Guess which of them they gravitated towards.
Genesis 6.5-6 KWL
- 5 The L
ORDsaw how Adam did great evil on the earth.
- Every inclination, every thought in his heart: Only evil, every day.
- 6 The L
ORDwas sorry he put Adam on the earth.
- It grieved his heart.
Give humans the wherewithal to do evil, and that’s the direction we go. Not reluctantly, not grudgingly; we head that way in a mad dash. We aren’t naturally good. If we were, evil would be easy to defeat. It’s not.
Evil comes from the inside, Jesus taught, not the outside.
Mark 7.20-23 KWL
- 20 Jesus said this: “What makes the person vulgar, comes out of a person.
- 21 For within, out of the human heart, comes these works:
- Twisted reasoning. Promiscuity. Fraud. Murder.
- 22 Adultery. Self-entitlement. Evil habits. Booby traps.
- Lack of ethics. Stinginess. Slander. Conceit. Thoughtlessness.
- 23 All these evil things are within, come out, and make a person vulgar.”
The human heart is desperately wicked.
Paul wanted to be good, but found his fight with sin to be a losing battle.
Romans 7.14-24 KWL
- 14 We’ve known the Law is spiritual—and I am fleshly, sold into sin’s slavery.
- 15 I do things I don’t understand. I don’t want to do them. I hate what I do.
- 16 Since I don’t want to do them, I agree: The Law is good.
- 17 Now, it’s no longer I who do these things, but the sin which inhabits me.
- 18 I know nothing living in me, namely in my flesh, is good.
- The will, but not the ability, exists in me to do good.
- 19 I don’t do the good I want. I do the evil I don’t want.
- 20 If I don’t want to do them, it’s not so much me doing them, as the sin which inhabits me.
- 21 That’s why I sought the Law, which wants me to do good: Evil is always around.
- 22 I rejoice in God’s Law, despite my inner humanity—
- 23 I see another law in my body parts, fighting the Law in my mind,
- taking me captive to the law of sin, which exists in my body parts.
- 24 I am such a miserable human.
- What will rescue me from this death-plagued body?
Theologians call this
Our escape: God.
As I hope you know, Paul’s discussion doesn’t stop in the middle of verse 24.
Romans 7.24 - 8.3 KWL
- 24 I am such a miserable human.
- What will rescue me from this death-plagued body?
- 25 God’s grace, through Christ Jesus our Lord!
- That’s why my mind’s now enslaved to God’s Law… while my body, to sin’s law.
- 1 That’s why there’s no judgment anymore for those in Christ Jesus:
- 2 The law of the Spirit of Life, in Christ Jesus, released you from the law of sin and death.
- 3 God, sending his own Son in the form of sinful humanity, judged that sin in the flesh,
- doing what the Law, hindered by the flesh, couldn’t.
Christians (assuming we’re truly following God) don’t want to sin anymore.
So if we can’t be good about God, what about all the “good people” in the world? What about philanthropists, charities, peacekeepers, do-gooders, and all those who try to make the world a better place?
Well, lots of them are Christians. I’ve worked for a few charities. They’re loaded with Christians and God-seekers. That’s why they started those groups, or joined up. God’s working on them, they’re working with God, and they’re doing good on his behalf.
Then there are those so-called “good people” who are no good at all. I’ve worked with them too. They work for charities because they have to: They get a paycheck. They’re trying to pad a résumé. They were convicted of a crime, and volunteer work is part of their sentence. Their family or job expects it of them. They earn tax credits. They get good public relations. They’re trying to earn karma. And so on. All these motives are self-serving, and good is a byproduct.
So no, I’m not saying (as Calvinists will) that non-Christians are incapable of good deeds. Of course they’re capable. I’m just saying total depravity taints it. There’s just enough self-interest, just enough wrong motive, just enough unwholesomeness, to turn it into crap. It’ll be mostly good; it’ll be 99⁴⁴⁄₁₀₀ percent good. But it never wholly good, ’cause we can’t be wholly good. It won’t meet God’s absolute standards for goodness.
God can use (and even inspire) the good deeds of such people. Often he’s the reason their good deeds get anywhere. It’s surely not because of them.
Christians who grew up believing the humanist view of goodness, tend to think total depravity is a Calvinist thing. John Calvin taught it, and Calvinists are a little too fond of preaching on the subject. But it’s hardly just a Calvinist thing. St. Augustine taught it, Martin Luther taught it, John Wesley taught it… all orthodox Christians teach it. Because we are totally depraved, and need God to save us. We don’t save ourselves.
The reason Augustine taught it was ’cause one of his contemporaries, Pelagius of Britain, believed as the humanists do: People are inherently good. He taught that if Christian kids were simply raised right, we won’t sin. And if we adults just exercised our free will and self-control, if we just embraced positive thinking and a wholesome lifestyle, we could banish sin from our lives and live entirely sin-free. If you wanna stop sinning, just stop.
Except, as you’ve just read, Paul tried that and failed. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and loads of Christians have tried to achieve sinlessless on our own steam, and failed. Betcha Pelagius failed too; he just did a better job of fooling himself. Sinlessness can’t be achieved without the Holy Spirit—and even if we think we have achieved it with his help, we’re likely still fooling ourselves.
If sinlessness were possible, Jesus wouldn’t’ve had to die for sin, y’know. He could’ve just told his students, “Hey, guys: The Law? Read the Law. Follow it real good. See you in heaven.” And back he went. No; the Pharisees tried their darnedest to follow the Law, and of course had no real success, because the Law was never meant to save us anyway. We can’t be good without God.
This is why we call Pelagius’s view heresy. There’s only one savior, only one mediator between God and humanity, and that’s Christ Jesus. If we’re not totally depraved—if we’re just a little depraved, and can overcome the rest of our sins with a bit more effort—it means each of us can be our own saviors. Jesus saves the rest, namely those who lack the willpower, but the rest of us can do just fine without his salvation or the Holy Spirit’s sanctification.
What happens when we believe this crap? Bad stuff.
See, we fail. And we know it. And if we think perfection is possible, yet somehow we can’t achieve that perfection, we’re gonna think we’re utter scum. If every other Christian can achieve goodness, yet we can’t, we must be some sort of sick, freakish, nasty aberration. Maybe we’re not really saved. Maybe we’re predestined for hell. We’re just too twisted for God to want.
Such people don’t realize—and can’t believe—everybody is twisted, everybody needs God. They think, wrongly, God only takes the good ones, and they’ll never qualify. Like Paul said, “What will rescue me from this death-plagued body?”
Everybody’s totally depraved. But God can save every last one of us. And wants to.
Besides, God does the impossible all the time. Sometimes for fun. And always because he loves us.