You are nothing. You deserve nothing. Apart from Christ you can do nothing. You can’t receive any good without spoiling it. You can’t make use of anything if God withdraws himself. You are worse than nothing. And you will cause no loss when you perish.
That, writes Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment) is what we must learn about ourselves if we are to deny ourselves, as Jesus taught on his way to the cross. (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself . . . ” (Mark 10:34b). And we must deny ourselves, if we are to learn contentment whatever our situation (” I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”—Paul, Philippians 4:11).
Whoa! Wait just a minute now! I can’t argue with a “dead saint” (17th century Burroughs) over his interpretation of self-denial. But I can say if we push the doctrine of total depravity to its extreme, outsiders may dismiss our gospel out of hand and we may be guilty of de-glorifying (is that a word?) God. Let me digress from our “contentment” theme to discuss depravity.
In his book, Five Points, John Piper discusses the five points of Calvinism/Reformed Theology. The first is total depravity. Piper writes: “Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness. This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see, and effectively draw us to the Savior.” Again, “In summary, total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sinful, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.”
I believe it, because I believe Scriptures such as these . . .
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jesus, John 8:34).
- “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10).
- ” . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
- “For the mind that is set on the flesh (that is, the mind without the indwelling Spirit of Christ) is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot” (Romans 8:7)
- “And you were (before you believed in Christ by his grace) dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
But what is meant by total depravity? Piper’s explanation may suggest that, apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ, we can do nothing good. Our depravity (corruption,evil,perversion)is total. If Piper (and Calvin, etc.) mean “total” in the sense that no part of our being (physical, psychological, moral, spiritual) remains untouched by depravity, I agree. If he means that apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ we can’t trust Christ, I agree. If he means that apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ we can’t do anything purely good in God’s sight, I agree. But if he means apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace we can’t do any good, I disagree.
A Muslim surgeon removes a cancerous tumor from a young mother’s body and saves her life. An atheist fireman risks his own life and saves a baby from a burning home. Neither act makes either person righteous before God. But who can say that these unregenerate, unsaved unbelievers didn’t do good?
Further, if we push total depravity beyond its limits we “de-glorify” God. In the beginning, God created humans in his image. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26a,27). However we understand “image of God”, we would probably say we are somewhat “like” God in that we have moral standards, we appreciate beauty, we possess knowledge and wisdom, we can do good acts, we love and so on. Human life is sacred precisely because we have been created by God in God’s image.
From Adam and Eve onward sin has marred that image. But sin hasn’t eradicated it. Any morality, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, good and love we see in people is evidence of God’s image in us. (Those virtues should be heightened for believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit.) Apart from God’s regenerating, saving grace in Christ humans are depraved and doomed. But, because we are made in God’s image (and because God reins us in!), we aren’t as evil as we might be.
So, are we nothing? Do we deserve nothing? Can we do nothing apart from Christ? (Note: answer depends on how we interpret Jesus’ words in John 15:5). Can’t we receive any good without spoiling it? Can we not make use of anything if God withdraws himself? Are we worse than nothing? When we perish will we cause no loss? (I hope a few tears will fall when I’m gone.)
I think I prefer Paul’s words more than Burroughs”—“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3a). “Sober judgment” should cause us to admit sinful depravity has affected and infected every part of our being (and we are totally dependent on God’s grace to regenerate and save us through faith).
But we’re not junk. There’s a sanctity to our life, because, to whatever extent sin has marred it, we’re still made in the image of the holy God.