Well, I’m new here at That Reformed Blog. I’m excited to join the collective here at TRB and I look forward to wrestling through some of these questions with this community.
I’ve enjoyed the conversation between Wayne and Susan on TULIP and wanted to throw in my own two cents. Calling this post “Charmin Theology,” by the way, is a lame pun on the Greek charis meaning “grace.” Sorry – I’ll try to avoid things like that in the future.
In my evening services (yep, we do night church!) we have been preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism. I recently finished the “misery” section and I think that it doesn’t necessarily say what we often think it says. The Heidelberg does not say that we are all terrible human beings and absolutely, 100% wicked.
Here’s the closest it comes:
Q4. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this summary in Matthew 22:37-40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Q5. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know how easy it is to read this as “everyone is as terrible as they can be.” Growing up in a church and school that placed a heavy emphasis on total depravity I was more surprised than I like to admit to find that my non-Christian friends were not only rather nice people, many were actually far nicer and more loving than the folks I knew at church. In my opinion, though, this is an abuse of a doctrine and not what the doctrine is actually about.
The Canons of Dort has this to say about Total Depravity (there called Total Inability):
Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.
The point is not that we choose evil every time, all the time. The point is not that we are as bad as we possibly can be.
The point is, left to our own devices, we will choose to put ourselves first. Left to ourselves, we will do anything and everything to protect ourselves or, perhaps, our family and friends.
More importantly, total depravity means that even our purest motives are touched by the taint of this self-centeredness. Think of it as “Pervasive Depravity.” Even my best, most altruistic motives can never be completely free from this desire to put love of self ahead of love of God and neighbor.
At least on my own.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
“Beyond cure” implies disease.
“Deceitful” implies self-serving (the word is the same root as the name “Jacob” – grasper).
“Deceitful… beyond cure” means that, on our own, we will not seek out the help that we need.
Again, the Canons of Dort sums up the result of this:
Rather, in their place they [humanity] brought upon themselves blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in their minds; perversity, defiance, and hardness in their hearts and wills; and finally impurity in all their emotions.
The result of total depravity is not absolute wickedness.
The result of total depravity is pervasive, inescapable darkness and futility, from which we cannot ourselves escape
We need a light to shine in that darkness. We need the sunrise of Easter morning to break through the darkness that we are otherwise unable to break.
Understanding total depravity should always turn us away from ourselves to our God who shared in our flesh and blood and brought light to the darkness, healing to the brokenness, comfort to our misery. We need the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit to empower us to enter into the life that puts love of God and neighbor ahead of love of self.
We need God to come in and clean up our mess.
In the end, TULIP always points away from us to God. To me, TULIP is ultimately about resting in God as the one who brings healing and comfort in our misery and who holds us relentlessly in that grace. There are, of course, many finer points to be debated and discussed – and I look forward to joining in on some of those conversations here at TRB – but I think we start with the big picture of TULIP. If our big picture is out of focus, we’ll miss out on the details.