Total Depravity?

The word “TULIP“ has been used as an acronym for explaining a reformed doctrine of salvation for more than a century. Each of the five letters represents what many consider the five points of Calvinism.

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

(The original acrostic was Total Depravity, Universal sovereignty, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints, by Cleland Boyd McAfee)

“T” is for Total depravity.

The starting point is focused on the extent of the sinful condition of mankind. Not surprisingly, therefore, the reformed tradition has been distinguished by a vigorous doctrine of sin.

Caution is warranted, however, on articulating a doctrine of human depravity from the wrong starting point. When we construct our understanding of sin by starting with sin, we risk a truncated understanding of human depravity that easily leads to misguided approaches to other important areas.  

To adequately understand and articulate what it means to be a fallen sinner and, for that matter, a human being, one must start with the Imago Dei (image of God). We must start where our story began – with glory. I think more weight must be given to the implications of the Imago Dei as a continual primary ontological reality for human beings — even after sin entered the world (see: Genesis 9:6; James 3:9).

Most agree that human depravity does not mean that we are always acting as badly as possible. Instead, it means that we are always as bad off as we can be apart from God’s grace in Christ. Most also agree that the reach of human depravity extends to every person and every part of every person. Sin is a pervasive reality — without borders among us and within us. You don’t need a telescope to see it — a mirror will suffice. As pervasive as sin is, however, it doesn’t eradicate God’s image in humanity, and this carries significant implications.

When we speak (as we should) of the dignity and the depravity of humanity, it seems to expose a potential problem with using the word “total” with regard to human depravity. The reason acts of benevolence and heroism are found outside the boundaries of redemption is because of the Imago Dei in humanity. The same can be said of human skills and creativity one would never find in any other being on earth.

The Imago Dei is how we address the problem of goodness in the world. By explaining depravity and sin from the right starting point, we can understand the problem of goodness and evil. Some wish to talk about the problem of evil: Why do people do such wicked things? Yet the problem of goodness also must be answered. Why do people do good things and seek (for example) measures of justice?

I realize that Jesus said, “No one is good — except God alone” (Luke 18:19) and that the apostle Paul wrote, “no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). But these statements should not be used in violation of their contexts and the overall context of Scripture.

Certainly, we cannot speak of any acts of human beings as purely good or as good in a way that contributes to the righteousness provided in Christ alone (II Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). But we can place human deeds in a category of good because they conform to what we know to be God’s will. “It’s good that you told the truth.” “It’s good that you helped someone in need.” “It’s good ….” But we cannot attribute a heart-level of goodness regarding motivations to give glory to God alone.

A truncated vision of humanity can result from a wrong starting point for a doctrine of total depravity. This then easily leads to over-renunciation.

Can we, for example, celebrate skillful art and musical abilities outside of a context of redemption, but under the Imago Dei? Obviously, celebrating evidence of the divine image is tempered by sadness when the performer does not give glory to the One who gave the skill. And we are right to feel more troubled when they seek glory for themselves. But this does not mean that some measure of glory is present and learning how to positively affirm it could serve as a bridge-builder to the gospel. 

Perhaps we can best protect ourselves from misdirected perspective by thinking about the fall of humanity and the doctrine of sin as a falling short of glory — an unblemished glory, the glory of God that distinguished us in the original creation. We were made in the Imago Dei and have fallen from it. Human depravity is not adequately understood if the image of God is not the starting point for how we think about humanity.

The Imago Dei continues as a shared reality of all people without exception or distinction. God singled out humans when He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27; James 3:9).

In the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Humans (by God’s intention) had a very good and noble beginning and we intuitively know it. But those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is a tragic and culpable falling short of glory – “for all have sinned and fall short (ὑστερέω) (present/passive) of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is the universal and continuous condition of humanity.

“Near the beginning of our history, we human beings broke the harmony of paradise and began to live against our ultimate good… As Genesis 3 and Genesis 4 reveal, we rebelled against God and then we fled from God. We once had a choice. We now have a near-compulsion—at least, that’s what we have without the grace of God to set us free (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.).

When sin became part of our experience, it required the addition of prefixes and suffixes to for explaining by negation otherwise good qualities. Dis-obedience, dis-abled, dis-agree, dis-advantage, faith-less, hope-less, etc… Could we use terms like Dys-functional or broken with this backdrop?

When we build our doctrine of humanity where Scripture begins, we realize how we were meant for so much more. It should not be surprising then that most people feel like something significant is missing from their lives. Perhaps we experience moments when life feels whole and satisfying but, at a deeper level, we know that we’re not the way we’re supposed to be.

  • Something great has fallen from its greatness. 
  • Something amazing has lost its amazement.
  • Something beautiful has lost its beauty. 
  • Something whole is broken.
  • Something healthy is sick and in need of healing.
  • Something peaceful has been vandalized.

Working from this full theological perspective, a sad (yet realistic) set of terms is fitting to us. Humans can reasonably be described as: 

  • lost 
  • wayward 
  • drifting 
  • restless 
  • fallen 
  • broken 
  • fractured 
  • alienated 
  • separated 
  • partial 
  • dysfunctional 
  • incomplete 
  •  sinful 
  •  dead

A vocabulary of salvation is necessary. We need nothing less than intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. This is exactly what our Maker provided for us in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. 

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Christian life, Christianity, Depravity, Dysfunctional, Gospel, Gospel-centered, Hamartiology, Human depravity, Human dignity, Humanism, Image of God, Imago Dei, Problem of evil, Reformed Theology, Sin, Wisdom and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Total Depravity?

  1. Pingback: Do you have a truncated view of sin? « WisdomForLife

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