(this is a repost of a series I wrote last year for another website)
Some months ago I wrote a series of posts critiquing the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. As a result, I was promptly accused, by some readers, of being a Pelagian. It was then that I realized that I had made a rather notable mistake: I had failed to expound upon what I believed with regards to sin, the human condition, and man’s salvation. Having failed to explain what I believe, some readers misunderstood my critiques of total depravity and jumped to some rather extreme conclusions about my theology.
In consequence, I have decided to write this post in an effort to further clarify my position. This essay reflects, however poorly, what I believe about the depravity of man, the nature of sin and evil, and, in an extremely limited way, salvation. I will not discuss, in any detail, my theory of the atonement, justification, or sanctification; rather, I will simply emphasize man’s utter dependence upon God for life and his unavoidable dependency upon God’s grace and mercy to be saved.
I will begin by making several metaphysical observations. First of all, it’s important to understand that everything that God has made is good and no matter how twisted or broken it becomes, it will never cease to maintain some vestige of its original goodness (Gen. 1:31). St. Augustine understood this fundamental point of ontology and communicated it very clearly:
“All things that exist, therefore, seeing that the Creator of them all is supremely good, are themselves good. But because they are not, like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, their good may be diminished and increased. But for good to be diminished is an evil, although, however much it may be diminished, it is necessary if the being is to continue, that some good should remain to constitute the being. For however small or of whatever kind of being it may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself.”
Please note that St. Augustine is speaking of the good in an ontological sense and not in an ethical sense. Also note that, for him, evil does not have a substantial existence, in and of itself, but only exists in the form of a degradation of or corruption of something which is substantial good. Thus, when I say that human beings are by nature good I’m not claiming that they are without sin (i.e. ethically good) but that they are made in the image and likeness of God and, hence, in the image of Goodness and Perfection Himself. Therefore, no matter how much sin twists and degrades us, we never stop being human–for if the image of God was completely eradicated the good which sustains our being would have been destroyed and we would cease to exist.
St. John of Damascus is also extremely helpful in clarifying this point:
“. . . evil is no more than a negation of good and a lapse from what is natural to what is unnatural, for there is nothing that is naturally evil. Now, as they are made, all things that God made were very good. So, if they remain as they were created, then they are very good. But, if they freely withdraw from the natural and pass to the unnatural, then they become evil. All things, then, by nature serve and obey the Creator. So, whenever any creature freely rebels and becomes disobedient to Him who made him, he has brought the evil upon himself. For evil is not some sort of substance, nor yet a property of a substance, but an accident, that is to say, a deviation from the natural into the unnatural, which is just what sin is.”
It’s clear, therefore, that sin is a corruption of what is substantially good and is fundamentally an ethical problem rooted in the will of man. With his capacity of self-determination, man choses to act in a way which is contrary to his nature, to turn himself away from the Good, and thus, to subject himself to futility. Hence, to speak of man being depraved, is to speak in terms of ethics and not in terms of ontology. Nevertheless, it is also clear that our sin, our depravity has profound ontological consequences. These truths are evident in Psalm 53:
“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity, there is none that does good. God looks down from heaven, upon the sons of man, to see if there are any that are wise, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; they are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not even one.” (Psalm 53:1-3)
Further down the Psalmist continues:
“There they [those who have rejected God] are, in great terror, in terror such as has not been! For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them” (Psalm 53: 5).
Having rejected God in their hearts (which is clearly an act of the will) mans behavior becomes corrupt and he chooses to live an unethical life. His sinful choices, as the Psalmist makes clear, lead to his dissolution and destruction. This point is also made by St. Paul in no uncertain terms, who proclaimed that: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Therefore, from a Biblical perspective, the depravity of man is an ethical problem with profound ontological consequences (1).
Furthermore, according to Psalm 53, this ethical problem is pervasive and universal; that is to say, every human being chooses, of his own free will, to turn away from God in order to serve his own self-interest; to worship the Creation rather than the Creator (this idea is more fully developed by St. Paul in Romans 1).
So, although man is by nature good, being made in the image of God, he suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin: namely, he is born outside the garden and, hence, estranged from God, he is subject to physical corruption and bodily death, he is tempted and manipulated by evil spirits, and constantly suffering from and profoundly affected by the sinful choices of others. Consequentially, this Fallen environment, this twisted and broken world system, drives man to make unethical choices and so, he also suffers from the consequences of his own personal sin.
The Bible teaches that there is only One who can save us from this horrible mess–Jesus Christ. For man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma. Let me repeat this lest I be accused, once more, of being a Pelagian: man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma. Salvation is an act of God who lavishes us with his love and grace. (2) St. Paul, speaking to the Christians in Ephesus, states:
“and you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirt that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:1-8).
In summary, man is by nature good, being made in the image of God; thus, he is not totally depraved. However, man is born into a broken and corrupted world, subject to the consequences of Adam’s sin, influenced by the sins of his forefathers and by the, “prince of the power of the air,” and, hence, he inevitably chooses to sin (i.e. to act in a manner which is contrary to his own nature). In this way, in an ethical sense, man is radically depraved. Trapped in a dying world and being guilty of personal sin, man is unable to do anything, on his own, to save himself. He needs Jesus to pull him out of the mire, to give him life, and to fully restore the image and likeness of God which has been soiled by his sin and the sin of others.
(1) On this point, it should be noted, Reformed theology teaches the exact opposite of what we have just outlined; namely, it teaches that man has a serious ontological problem (being totally depraved or having a sin nature) with profound ethical consequences. This notion, aside from being unbiblical, is also incoherent (see my previous writings on total depravity).
(2) This statement does not negate man’s responsibility or choice in the matter; nor does it deny he has free will. Man must chose to participate in God’s work to save and restore Creation, he must chose to believe in Jesus; nevertheless, salvation is the work of God in man.