Depravity: Humanity is messed up, yo.

DEPRAVE di'preɪv verb. To make immoral, wicked, or twisted.
[Depraved di'preɪvəd adjective.]
TOTAL DEPRAVITY 'toʊ.dəl di'prøv.ə.di noun. 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 adjective.]

Present-day Christianity has been heavily influenced by popular culture and popular philosophy. And vice-versa. Sometimes for good; sometimes really not.

Humanism, fr’instance. It’s the belief we humans have great potential to do great things. It emphasizes rejecting our instinctive, conditioned behavior, and solving our problems through rational, selfless ways. It emphasizes human rights and human worth. After all, God figures we have infinite worth: He loved us so much, he sent us his Son. Jn 3.16

Problem is, one of humanism’s core beliefs is Pelagianism, the belief humans are inherently good. Humanists insist we were born good, not evil; and become evil because we have evil influences. Like evil parents, evil neighbors, evil authorities, evil media. Those folks taught us to be evil, but we can unlearn it, and choose to be good.

Hence you’ll find more Christians are Pelagian than not. Because being inherently good sounds way better than the alternatives, so we embrace the idea: “We are good. For when God created the world and humanity, didn’t he declare his entire creation ‘very good’? Ge 1.31 And what could be more innocent and sinless than a newborn baby? Certainly we’re born good. But we got corrupted. Stupid parents. Stupid mass media. Stupid government. It’s all their fault. If they’d just leave us alone to do as we naturally will, we could be free and libertarian and sinless.”

Well. Those who think nothing’s more sinless than a baby have clearly never 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. Not because they’re inherently good and rejecting their parents’ evil; because they selfishly want their own way, even when it’s wrong.

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 didn’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 we don’t care about the right way, or others’ feelings; we want what we want. If you get in the way of our wants, we’ll shove you aside. Goodness isn’t the goal; it’s about what’s good for us, or what we consider good, or what feels good—no matter how many brain cells it kills.

Humans aren’t naturally good. We have to be taught what goodness 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.

Sin happened.

I assume you know the Adam and Eve story. If you don’t, this sums it up: God made an אָדָ֜ם/adám (Hebrew for “humanity,” and humanity is descended from him) and made part of him into a woman. He put the two of them in paradise, and gave ’em a simple command: There’s a tree, and eating of this tree gives you knowledge of good and evil. Don’t eat from it. Otherwise do as you please.

The humans broke the one rule, so God booted them from paradise. Can’t live forever anymore. Now they gotta work for a living, wear clothes, childbirth is painful… but God promised ’em a savior. Oh, and now they know what good and evil are. Guess which of the two they gravitated towards.

Genesis 6.5-6 KWL
5 The LORD saw how Adam did great evil on the earth.
Every inclination, every thought in his heart: Only evil, every day.
6 The LORD was 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, we wouldn’t need governments, wouldn’t need judges, wouldn’t need money, wouldn’t need laws. Evil would be easy to defeat. And it’s not.

Evil comes from the inside, Jesus taught, not the outside.

Mark 7.20-23 KWL
20 Jesus said this: “What comes out of the person? That makes the person ‘common’.
21 For evil reasoning comes out from within the person’s heart:
Porn. Theft. Murder. 22 Adultery. Covetousness. Depravity.
Deception. Immorality. Stinginess. Slander. Conceit. Stupidity.
23 All these inner evils come out and make the person ‘common’.”

The human heart is desperately wicked. Jr 17.9 It’s self-seeking, self-deceptive—we think we figured out how to be good, but at their core all our “good deeds” are ways to look good, and fool ourselves into thinking we are good. ’Cause we’re better than other people. Or we’re good enough. Or we’re more good than evil on our karmic balance sheet. Look at all the charity we’ve done!—surely that makes up for the hit-and-run we committed years ago.

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 total depravity: Sin has so messed us up, so warped our thinking and behavior, there’s simply no way for us humans to defeat it without divine intervention. It ruins everything. That’s why we call this depravity total.

Our salvation: 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 wanna sin anymore. 1Jn 3.9 God doesn’t want that for us either, and hasn’t abandoned us to the ravages of sin. He’s entered the fight on our side. He’s come to cure us of total depravity, and help us so we don’t sin. 1Jn 2.1-6

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 good karma. And so on. All these motives are self-serving, and goodness is a byproduct.

So no, I’m not saying (as many Calvinists will) that non-Christians are incapable of good deeds. Of course they’re capable. I’m just saying total depravity taints their deeds. 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.

Partial depravity?

Christians who grew up believing the humanist view of goodness, tend to think total depravity is only 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… and all orthodox Christians teach it. Because we are totally depraved, and need God to save us. We can’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; legalists throughout history have 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 only 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 we fail. And if we imagine 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?” Ro 7.24 People who assume we can be good on our own, tend to feel this very same kind of despair and frustration. And we needn’t! God can save us. You’re not a special case. You’re normal.

Everybody’s totally depraved. But God can save every last one of us. And wants to. 2Pe 3.9 It’s not a losing battle, an impossible dream.

Besides, God does the impossible all the time. Sometimes for fun. And always because he loves us.