Dear Church Family,
In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:
Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message, No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3
Oftentimes, what informs (or misinform) our understanding of the purposes of preaching is our understanding of other doctrines of the Christian faith (e.g., how people come to faith, how believers are sanctified, and the nature of the human condition). One of those doctrines that is often misunderstood and thus leads to a misunderstanding of preaching, and Christian ministry in general, is the doctrine of depravity.
So, in this essay, we take up the question: Is depravity a virtue to be embraced? At first glance, you might consider that to be a silly question. Maybe we ought to embrace the doctrine of depravity, but depravity itself as a virtue? And one that we ought to embrace, no less? That’s just strange! Well, yes, it is strange, but the notion that depravity is a virtue to be embraced is becoming more common.
Let’s first define our terms. The doctrine of depravity is the teaching that men and women are born with original sin, the sin of Adam. This original sin, along with the actual sins that we commit, is what comprises our depravity. Depravity is simply the sinful condition of every human being who is descended from Adam by ordinary generation (that means Jesus is exempt). The fact that we are depraved means that this sin permeates and touches all parts of our being and all parts of our actions. Nothing that we are, and nothing that we do, is free from the effects of our sin and depravity. Of course, God created man and woman in His image, in knowledge and righteousness – that was the original plan (Genesis 1:26-28, 31). But, all of us – in Adam and then personally – sinned and rebelled and turned against our Creator (Isaiah 53:6).
It is this depravity (or pervasive sin) that cuts us off from God our Creator who is holy and just. We are natural-born children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It is the doctrine of depravity (the “T” in TULIP – Total Depravity) which makes the love and grace of God all the more glorious and amazing: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And, so it follows that understanding our own sin and depravity – our utter hopelessness and helplessness – is essential to understanding the abounding grace of God in rescuing sinners by sending His Son, Jesus Christ.
Most non-Christians, and unfortunately even many professing Christians, no longer understand or believe in depravity. Human beings are generally thought of as good, sweet, and innocent; sin and evil are typically blamed on external forces or uncontrollable circumstances and experiences, rather than flowing from the human heart (Genesis 6:5; Matthew 15:19). In the realm of apologetics and evangelism, one must first establish an understanding of a Holy God who demands perfection from His sinful, depraved creatures. Otherwise, when we say, “Jesus saves!” most people will not understand or care, but simply ask, “Jesus saves from what?” And so, we must make a Biblical case for the doctrine of depravity in our efforts to communicate the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
And now, here’s where things get interesting, and problems ensue. Those who have formerly not believed in the depravity of man but now do (or those who have come to see that it is a much-denied doctrine in our culture), will often argue and continue arguing for the depravity of man such that it carries over into one’s Christian life and becomes an essential ingredient for pursuing sanctification. In the words of Benjamin Brook, writing in The Lives of the Puritans, “Persons who have embraced sentiments which afterwards appear to them erroneous, often think that they can never remove too far from them and the more remote they go from their former opinions the nearer they come to the truth.”
And so, little by little, in ever so subtle ways, Christians actually come to believe (implicitly, if not explicitly) that depravity is not only a doctrine that must be understood, but that it is actually a virtue that must be embraced! Perhaps you’ve never heard this, or perhaps you’ve heard it so much that you don’t even notice how this strange way of thinking is so pervasive.
Some of this inappropriate emphasis on depravity in the post-conversion life of believers comes from a misunderstanding of certain Scriptures, and the avoidance of others. For instance, I have had people assume that even believers cannot do any good works that are acceptable to God based on Isaiah 64:6 – “all of our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” Yet, Jesus assumes that God’s people will do good works in order to glorify their heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16). When we are reborn, we are recreated in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
Are these good works acceptable to God? Well, we know that without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6), but what about the good works of believers? Are our good works and sacrifices ever made acceptable and pleasing to God? Of course they are! It is precisely because we are part of the spiritual household of faith and holy priesthood of God, that our spiritual sacrifices are acceptable to Him through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5). Depending upon the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we seek to imitate God by walking in love, always trying to mimic the love of our Savior; when we do this our offerings and sacrifices to God are a fragrant aroma to Him – well-pleasing to our God (Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 4:18).
The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:
…the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (WCF 16.6)
Notice how the Confession emphasizes that it is because believers are accepted through Christ, that their good works are also accepted in Him. For example, commenting on Genesis 4:4 – where God accepts Abel and his sacrifice, but does not accept Cain or his sacrifice – John Calvin writes:
God is said to have respect unto the man to whom he vouchsafes his favor. We must, however, notice the order here observed by Moses; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him.
You see, believers are not only different from unbelievers in their justification; those who arejustified are made new creatures, as well (2 Corinthians 5:17). By faith, not only has our legal status before God been changed, but we have been changed. In our justification, we have been made fit for heaven; in our regeneration, we have been made fit to serve heaven.
Therefore, if you are a Christian – united to Christ, justified, and born again – then you are no longer depraved. Still fighting against the indwelling sin? Yes. Still seeking to live for Christ with many weaknesses and imperfections? Yes. However, you are no longer depraved. You are being sanctified; you are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
For further reading, and a helpful explanation of this particular misunderstanding of the doctrine of depravity, see this excellent article by Rick Phillips entitled, “Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved.”
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch