The Problem of Feel Good Spirituality: A Robust Anthropology


IMG_0254It’s popular in some spiritual circles to act as though humans are just slightly flawed (if that) and that our little missteps are just that; little. One little writing from yesterday by Mark Sandlin of “The God Article” perfectly sums up this “feel good spirituality.” To make matters worse, Sandlin is a pastor and was his blog was named one of the top 10 Christian blogs out there. Yet, his advice is that we’re not broken, not fallen, not sinful, just a work in progress. But his argument not only misses what Christianity actually teaches, it misses the human experience.

A theology of, “You’re not broken or fallen” might work for the average middle-class person of Western Society who’s never faced the evils of this life, who has the luxury of believing that this world is soft, but for the rest of the world such a theology is astonishingly ignorant. A woman drugged and then raped can’t look at the rapist and say that he’s, …”so deeply invested in life that [he] can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.” Such a theological viewpoint doesn’t really address the carnage of this world and truly makes Christianity a “pie in the sky” religion. It ignores the realities on the ground, that people are murdered, that people are cheated, that evil occurs at the hands of these so-called “investors in life.” A man who murders women and children hasn’t missed the point, a CEO who cuts his employee’s salaries so he can increase in wealth isn’t invested in life, and a mother who looks to her own interests before the interests of her children isn’t misguided by love; such things are sinful and are evil. Superfluous evil does occur and that it occurs is central to the Christian message.

The flaw in such humanism is that it ignores reality. Just as a belief that humans are totally depraved and nothing good can come from us looks too much at our sin, Sandlin’s view doesn’t look at our sin enough. The flaw between both views is they can’t accept the paradox of humanity, that we are capable of both great good and great evil, often from the same person. Stalin wasn’t invested in life when he ordered the deaths of millions, he didn’t just temporarily ignore the greater good.

A great quote from the movie Spanglish is when the grandmother addresses her daughter, who’s been cheating on her husband and acting selfishly. The grandmother says, “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.” It’s not that we ought to think of ourselves as dirt, but that sometimes we shouldn’t esteem ourselves. Sometimes our problems are our own doing. Sometimes we have to admit that we are actually broken, that we are fallen, and that we are sinful. After all, that is central to any Christian message lest Christ’s Incarnation be pointless.

Christianity does teach that as humans we are fallen. While some take it too far to say we are guilty or sinful by nature of being human, even within the Orthodox tradition the belief is that our wills are fallen. From birth our wills are turned from God. We freely choose to run away from him, to act on our own, and as such beget more evil into this world. This doesn’t make us evil by nature, but it does make us evil by choice. If Christianity left the story there, it still wouldn’t be wrong; how absurd to deny the one absolute, empirical, unquestionable fact of Christianity, that we are fallen and sinful. Thankfully, the Christian story doesn’t end with us being fallen.

A robust view of humans is that though fallen, by nature we are good. What that means is that we are made in God’s image, that is what separates us from the animals. God, of course, is good; therefore his image is also good. Sin is any act that goes against our nature and intended purpose, that is, sin is anything contrary to God and goodness. We choose to engage in sin and become sinners (we are not sinners by nature, as this creates quite a few problems with the Incarnation). As such, we are fallen, we are broken, and we do need to be saved. God the Word took on human flesh and took on our nature while retaining his own and redeemed our nature. To quote St. Athanasius, “God became man so that men might become gods.” The point being that Christ paved the way for us to not only reunify with our Creator (through Theosis), against whom we rebelled, but that we might actualize our nature of good and live holy lives.

Salvation and the necessity to live holy lives makes absolutely no sense without sin. While I believe the fall of man was not necessary – Christ could have shown his love to us even in a perfect world, albeit in a different way – it did happen and therefore this is the world we’ve inherited and in which we abide. We are broken and we do need help. Such an admission is a sign of tenacious humility, the kind needed for salvation. To say that we’re not flawed or broken is not just ignorance of the world around us, but a form of arrogance to say that we just need God’s help a little, that we’ve got it from here. But the greatest of saints had one thing in common, that they constantly sought after God’s help and realized they were nothing without him.

We do the world no favors if we try to remove the idea of sin and brokenness from our language and theology, for to do so makes Christians look even more out of touch with reality. Evil occurs and in order to understand the greatness of what Christ did, we must understand the breadth of the darkness into which Light came. Only by acknowledging the dark can we then begin to seek and appreciate the Light.

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A Caution for Every Christian Who Eats Fast Food


I was inspired to write this post after reading Pastor Nathan Rouse’ article, A Caution for Every Christian that Drinks Alcohol.  I don’t think he took his argument far enough  . . .

caught in the act . . .

caught in the act . . .

Something unhealthy has crept into the American church and it’s quite distressing.  Many Christians have allowed themselves to take eating fast food lightly.  Now, before you start throwing your empty hamburger wrappers at me, let me be clear:  I don’t believe eating fast food is a sin (in spite of the fact that doing it might very well send thousands of people into Hell).  Of course, gluttony is a sin; and let’s be clear, obesity is one of the biggest killers in our society and continues to take a destructive toll on marriages and families.

But, there’s an even bigger problem!

The often overlooked sin rearing its ugly head are Christians openly displaying their love and consumption of fast food to those around them in public and on social media, when there are many around them who struggle with this temptation and addiction.

the face of evil . . .

the face of evil . . .

The Apostle Paul addressed this same issue in his day when the Christians in Corinth argued over whether or not they could eat meat sacrificed to idols.  Paul clearly stated that, even though they had the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, they should be sensible enough not to eat it in front of those who struggled with this practice.  Check it out for yourself (there is absolutely no possible way to misinterpret or misapply this passage of scripture):

“Only take care lest this liberty of yours [in our case, eating fast food] somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple [a.k.a McDonalds], might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols [i.e. a Big Mac]?”  (1 Corinthians 8:9-10)

What this means is this: shame on you when you share pictures on Facebook of you enjoying a juicy hamburger!  

Now, before you say you only eat fast food with others that are like minded or with your spouse, let me ask you the following questions:

  1. Do you highlight or joke about your french fries in person or on social media (posting pictures like this one on the world wide web for all to see)?
does this tempt you?

does this tempt you?

2. Do you eat your fast food in public when there’s a good chance you might bump into someone who struggles with gluttony (oh, and believe me, you will)?

Whether you like it or not, people are watching you . . . oh yes, they are always watching you . . . and holding you to the highest possible standard.  Therefore, you should never ever, upon any circumstances, do anything.  The goal of the Christian is to be a people pleaser–we never want anyone to get the wrong idea.  One false step could be fatal!  Eating a french fry could be the straw that breaks the camels back!  Consider this scenario:

Billy (a Christian) orders a value meal from McDonalds and decides to eat it in the restaurant.  Michael (who struggled with gluttony for years, had a gastric bypass, and lost 400 pounds) walks by and sees Billy taking a bite of his hamburger.  This tempts Michael who enters McDonalds, orders a meal, and falls, head long, into the never ending pit of overconsumption.  In three months, Michael finds himself, once again, struggling with obesity . . . and it’s all your fault!  How could you be so heartless?

Do you love fast food so much that you are willing to undermine your Christian witness?  Do you love your “freedom” so much that you could care less how it affects another brother or sister?  Do  you realize that anything you do in public could send someone spiraling out of control?

Be afraid . . . be very afraid . . . and, in the future, order Chinese and have it delivered directly to your home (then, secretly, and privately, consume the food).

A Story of Christmas or, Sin and the Nativity


IMG_1029A friend sent this to me explaining a dream he had. I shall keep him anonymous and simply post what he wrote

Enter into the temple of creation, see its glorious ruins. We humans are a paradoxical people, enjoying the beauty around us while destroying it. This war against nature extends beyond the realm of ecology, beyond what toxins may contaminate; it extends beyond our bullets and our bombs launched at one another in misguided hatred; it extends beyond the self-mutilation of our psyche, beyond the civil war that rages inside everyone. Our war goes out beyond the realm of our universe, beyond our ontological barriers. Our struggle is one against Reality Himself.

We who wallow in darkness fear the light, for it brings pain to our shadowed eyes. We react to the light by running into the dark. We ask, “Whence is this light in our darkness?” but shut out the light when it encroaches upon our realm. We were drunk on our own glory, but are hung-over in our regret. Now any illumination is ruled too bright. We complain of the night, but dare not venture out into the day.

Once when contemplating evil, I saw the Son of Man wrapped and bound in thorny vines. The thorns dug in, drawing blood from the innocent one. “Why not command the vines loose?” I cried out. But he did not answer me. He instead walked toward me, each step tangling him more, thrusting the thorns deeper. “Please,” I begged. “Stop this sight, speak them out of existence!” And yet the Lamb said nothing to me as the blood began to flow. In anger towards his weakness, I threw sackcloth on him, I spat upon him, and I cursed his name. Still, he said nothing, only lamenting the pain.

The light invaded my dark room, as it seemed to shine from every drop of blood. I wrapped more sackcloth around him to snuff out the light, but as the thorns dug deeper, he grew brighter. My struggle against Reality stood as my greatest failure, the greatest in a long list of failures.

Angered, I relented to my lesson, but continued to mock him. “And I suppose,” I said. “That these are my sins that you took for me?” As the thorns disappeared beneath his dark skin, he still remained silent. Smugly, I stated, “I know the theologies of your substitution. Yes, I see, my sin you’ve taken upon yourself and now I am saved.” At that, my mouth went dry and tongue swelled, I struggled to swallow and feared for death.

“All this,” he finally said. “Is your sin. But I do not suffer for you, but for your victims. The thorns that dug into my flesh, these are the sharp stings delivered to others by your tongue. The sackcloth is your loveless apologies that hold no meaning to reconciliation. You offer peace, but still war in your heart. The light, however, is my glory. No matter the depth and resolve of your darkness, I will always shine through.”

He then touched my lips and I felt my thirst quenched. “You act like an enemy, but I treat you as a friend. You came against my beloved, but I call you a lover. You act in hate, but I am Love. You are finite in your fallacy, but I AM.

After this, he took me to an orphanage, one in a country long forgotten by civilization. I watched as a little girl played in isolation, as she cried out in hunger, and how the workers looked on. No one showed concern for her neglect. I was then taken to an old factory, where distraught women with blank expressions herded into a cramped van. They were off to sell their bodies under duress and without hope.

I saw more images of neglect and suffering, more than I thought possible. I watched the world writhe under the weight of evil while succumbing to its darkest passions. In all its victims, I saw individuals unified in familiarity. All different, yet all held the appearance of Divinity, the Eternal Light bursting forth from their pain in subtle beauty. Their oppressors also struck me with ugly similarity, with faces I knew. In their own way, each one looked like me.

I looked at my Divine Guide, confused and shocked. “The least of these hold my light.” he said. He did not look at me, but continued to stare at the suffering. “And you, the oppressor, bring darkness.” I objected quickly, stating that I am not to blame, that I did nothing to the least of these. “Yes, but you did nothing for them. Do you not realize,” he continued. “I made none of you to be separate. Every action committed in time ripples across time and space, into eternity. Your sin brings darkness to the world, you contribute to the sin of others.”

All light vanished, along with the Word, and I stood in complete darkness. In the distance a dull light brightened, and it shone upon a manger. Inside, a young baby cried and moved about. The star grew brighter, showing the ones I saw suffering bowing before the babe. Behind them were their oppressors, also kneeling in reverence.

I watched as the Spirit hovered over the formless void, shining light and bringing order to chaos. He spoke to me, showing that Hope had come into the world. The dark clouds began to lift, allowing the radiance of the moon to expose the majestic tranquility of the new creation. The angels sang and proclaimed the beauty of the event.

O sinners and enemies of God

To those who war against man

See where thy evil did trod

Observe the failure of thy plan

O abused, diseased, hungry, and tired

To those overcome by the world’s harms

Leave at once where you mired

And find rest within his arms

Into the darkness came the Word

Not to condemn but to save the lost

Peace he brought, not a sword

All saved, paid at such a cost

Today Immanuel, God is with us

As we await the full redemption

Incarnation, Divinity you now posses

Embrace this with full reception

I awoke from my slumber, feeling the cold night air through my open window. An immediate sadness came over me, knowing I was unworthy to see such a sight. A gentleness, however, subdued my sadness and I stood from my bed. I walked outside, staring at the bright Christmas Eve moon. I lit my pipe and sat in my chair, and calmly waited in anticipation.

A Southern Baptist and a Lesbian Couple Walk into a Bar…(Part II)


After my friend told me his story, I started thinking about how we approach the world. The one passage I keep coming back to is John 12:47, the famous, “I did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save the world.” The context around this passage is what’s most fascinating because it deals with salvation; in other words, John 12:47 and its surrounding context seemingly tell us that Christ doesn’t judge sinners, He merely lets them engage in the natural consequences of sin.

But the deeper view is that everyone knows we’re sinners, everyone knows they sin. Only the most ardent of narcissists would deny they are sinners. To function in society we have to acknowledge that we’re sinners; anytime we apologize, admit a mistake, try to change our lives for the better, or feel bad about something we did (have a conscience), we’re acknowledging that we sin. What good would it have done if Christ simply came into the world to harp on and on about how we were lost? He didn’t need to do so because deep down we know we’re lost.

The world already knows it’s in darkness. Every religion and philosophy that has existed has acknowledged that we’re in darkness. Even the ones that deny sin or deny darkness always say that the only problem we have is that we think we have a problem; thus, in denying that we have an overall problem, they still acknowledge we have a problem. Prior to verse 47 Jesus says He came into the world to be light, so that whoever believes in Him will not remain in darkness. Think about that for a second; Christ is the light to our dark world. Why do we need to convince people they are in darkness? Just show them the light and they’ll realize it all on their own.

Imagine people born in a cave. Their entire lives they roam in darkness, so they don’t understand what true light is. While walking along they come along pockets of light from holes in the roof of the cave, holes that allow a little light to come in, but they still never experience true light. They only experience enough light to know they’re in some form of darkness. What is needed, then, is not to convince them that they’re in the dark or explain that there is a light, but to show them that there is a light. Once they see the light and experience the light, they are then left with the choice to accept the light or to remain in darkness.

I say all of this to point out that many Christians, conservative evangelicals in particular, would feel uneasy with my friend’s approach to the lesbian couple. After all, he didn’t tell them they were going to Hell, he didn’t tell them they were sinners lost without hope, he didn’t emphasize their sin. He didn’t treat them as any well-trained Christian would treat them. Yet, if we look to the example of Christ and how He dealt with sinners, I have to wonder where modern evangelicals get this idea we must emphasize that we are sinners.

My friend pointed out the woman at the well and the adulterous woman. In both instances, Jesus confronts two people stuck in sin. While he recognizes that they are in darkness, He doesn’t perform some Socratic dialogue with them until they come to the conclusion that they are lost without God and need to repent. Rather, He reveals who He is to them, He reveals Himself as the true light. By doing so, by seeing the true light, they automatically recognize they are in darkness.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that we’re too focused on saying the right things. We’re attempting to get people to intellectually accept Christ when they haven’t seen Christ put into action. But if Christ came to show us the light, then shouldn’t we do the same? Certainly words are involved, but there has to be content behind those words. And what speaks louder – going on and on about how someone is engaged in a sin, or loving the person and demonstrating Christ to them, to the point that your light reveals their darkness?

We should also remember that if Christ didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, then we are in no position to do so either. We are in no position to look someone square in the eyes and say, “Yeah, you’re going to Hell” because we just don’t know. If Christ does not condemn the world, then how can we?

This is not to say that we can’t speak out against sin, especially when that sin is extremely destructive to both individuals and society as a whole. It doesn’t mean that we can’t talk to people about their sin – but it does mean we need to put sin in its proper context when dealing with those outside the body of Christ. Rather than going on and on about how fallen we are – something Christ never does in the Gospels (not on an individual level) – we should bring to light a person’s sin by being the true light they are seeking after. We don’t use the light to point out how dark it is in a room, we use the light to eradicate the darkness entirely.

Are You a Free Spirit?


A question for you to dwell upon tonight: are you a free spirit? Nietzsche argued that the greatest human beings were free spirits—those rare individuals who transcend mankind, who break free from the shackles of value systems, who no longer follow the herd, who fully embrace what it is to be human (all too human), creating their own values and making their own meaning; rising above what their culture or religion has determined to be right and wrong or beautiful. Does this sound like the type of person you strive to be?

People often tell me that they desire freedom from the constraints of organized religion or from puritanical moral systems, which they believe bring about oppression and unnecessary limitations upon mankind. Some perceive that religion imposes overwhelming intellectual limitations—that is, they believe that religion stunts their intellectual growth or somehow disengages their rational faculties. They want the freedom to believe whatever they deem to be true. Others perceive that religion brings about suffocating ethical limitations—they want sexual liberation, they want to lie and cheat and steal from time to time without feeling guilty about it.

Perhaps the most common form of freedom that people speak about is the freedom to make meaning. Have you ever heard someone say, “life is what you make of it” or “my life has meaning because I make it meaningful”? Statements like these illustrate the type of freedom that I’m referring to. It’s the idea that we have the freedom to make meaning for our lives apart from any standard or universal meaning which applies to everyone. We see this in art as well. There’s no longer a standard for what qualifies as art—art is simply an expression of someone’s inner feelings or emotions. Thus, anything can be art. A jar of urine is art if you feel that it is and attribute to it some form of meaning. There is a real resistance among modern artists to placing any definition, label, or limitations on art. There is a desire for freedom—an unlimited freedom to express whatever one wants however one wants to express it (whether that be through urine in a jar or oil on canvas). There is also a tremendous resistance to the idea that beauty is objective—that something can truly be said to be beautiful. We want the freedom to make that determination for ourselves.

I wonder, however, if Nietzsche’s free spirit is truly free? I wonder if those of us who strive for this type of freedom are actually placing ourselves into bondage? What if, in our desire to be free spirits, we have actually enslaved ourselves to one of the most tyrannical and destructive dictators of all? The dictator to which I refer is of course self love. By self love I do not mean having a healthy self image (something we all should have); rather, I mean the placing of our pleasures and our needs as the very end of (i.e. the purpose of) our existence. When we direct our lives in accordance with our unbridled passions; when we make decisions solely based upon what is beneficial to our own wellbeing or to what brings us the most pleasure or satisfaction–this is self love. Self love is all about fulfilling any sexual urge or fantasy we might have, expressing ourselves in any way we want (without recourse to the good, the noble, or the beautiful), and about living life to feed the ego. The free spirit, in her desire to break free from values, from universals, from absolutes, ends up in bondage to her own arbitrary emotions; to her own ego. Rather than being a rational human being, the free spirit is more akin to a horse following a carrot on a stick—wherever the carrot goes the horse goes.

A free spirit, enslaved to self love, ultimately brings bondage and enslavement to others as well. In the eyes of the free spirit, people become simply a means to an end—objects to be used for personal gain. This happens whether the free spirit is aware of it or not. For example, you begin to think–perhaps only in your subconscious–of your girlfriend as a sex object; of course she is a person, but in practice she is nothing but a means to satiating whatever sexual desires you might have. She, in turn, is obligated to fulfill your sexual desires no matter how uncomfortable or dirty it might make her feel if she wants to keep you. You degrade her (maybe you don’t even think of it this way); you reduce her to a mere tool for masturbation and whether you realize it or not, she has become your slave. But, perhaps, she has enslaved you too. Perhaps she knows–even subconsciously–she can get something she wants out of you (money, power, respect, companionship . . .) if she gives you the sex that you want? In this case, you are ultimately her slave–not unlike the lab rat that won’t stop pressing the button which gives it sexual stimulation (to the exclusion of the button which dispenses food) and, in the end, dies of starvation.

St. Paul spoke of this type of self love in his second letter to Timothy:

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self,       lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Timothy 3:1-4)

This type of self love, which is the root of all sin, leaves us in bondage. We become slaves to sin–slaves to our unbridled passions, slaves to our ego, and slaves to each other. The freedom that we so long for turns out to be nothing but an illusion.

Freedom, true freedom, can only come through Christ. Jesus not only brings us forgiveness for the pain and suffering and oppression we bring into the world, but offers us an escape from the tyranny of self love. Jesus gives us the freedom to love what is truly beautiful and truly good–the Creator and sustainer of life Himself; and to love others who have been made in His image. This, in fact, is the essence of Christianity: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

The follower of Christ, imaging God Himself, makes love the end or, the purpose, of his existence. By love I do not mean some fluffy sentimentality or warm sensation that one experiences in his stomach. I mean the act of sacrifice–of self giving. St. John said: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Later he states: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). God is love, not in some abstract way, but his very nature is love. Within the blessed Trinity we see the existence of three persons, joined together by nature and eternally pouring out themselves, sharing themselves, submitting themselves to each other. We see true love. In the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ we see this love, this self-giving, spilling out into creation–we see the Divine Logos humbling Himself, giving of Himself, even unto death. We see true love.

The true free spirit is the one who embraces this love, who breaks free from the chains of self love and into the liberating arms of self-giving. So, the question remains: are you a free spirit?

The Nature of Evil and the Human Condition


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.

Further Reflections on Total Depravity


In my previous post, Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity, I addressed some of the primary reasons I refuse to accept the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  This article generated a lot of interesting discussion, both on The Christian Watershed and on Facebook.  Sadly, due to time constraints, I was unable to interact, deeply, with many of the insightful comments that were made.  Hopefully, this article will make up for my lack of response.

Interestingly, virtually everyone who commented on my previous article focused, almost exclusively, on my first objection, which argued that if man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.  Hardly anyone addressed my second two objections: that Total Depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, and that, for a totally depraved creature, sin would be a virtue.  Accordingly, I would like to focus on the first objection (for the sake of clarification) and from there build several more arguments against Total Depravity.

Most of the questions or objections to my first argument seemed to flow from a basic misunderstanding of the term “nature.”  In light of this, let me take a moment to define this technical philosophical term.

When we speak of a things nature we are commenting about that which makes it what it is.  In other words, the nature of a thing is the essential quality which makes it what it is.      So, for example, if we said that man (in the universal sense: all “men”, both male and female) is made in the image of God we are making a statement about man’s  nature.  We are saying that being made in the image of God is an essential/universal quality of what it is to be a man.  If being made in the image of God is a part of the nature of man then any creature which is not made in the image of God is not a man.  Hence, we see that by changing the nature of thing we are changing what that thing is.

With this fresh in our minds, allow me to restate one of the basic conclusions of Total Depravity; namely, that due to the fall there was an ontological shift (i.e. a change in man’s nature) in man.  According to this view, sin is now a part of man’s nature; in other words, sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be a man (hence, the term totally depraved).  If this is true, then any creature who is without sin is not a man because sin is a necessary part of what it means to be man.

With these definitions in place, let’s revisit my first contention:

(1) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man is absolutely unlovable.

Put simply, a totally depraved creature would be unlovable because its very nature would be counter to God, who is the only being truly and perfectly lovable in and of Himself.

Several commentators actually accepted this point and argued that God loves what is unlovable; maintaining that this was simply a mystery.  However, to claim that God loves what is by nature unlovable is not “mysterious” . . . it is simply illogical.  Does it really make sense to claim that God loves a creature that we have established to be fundamentally unlovable?  Just think about this for a moment.  Saying that a creature is unlovable is claiming that there is nothing intrinsically lovable about said creature; can we then claim, with any consistency, that God loves something unlovable?

Furthermore, too say that a creature is unlovable is to say that that creature’s very nature is counter to THE GOOD (i.e. God).  But, how could God love what is necessarily counter to Himself?  Sin is not a substance it is a degradation of something good.  If, then, we accept that God is the Good, and that God has nothing to do with darkness, and that only good things come from God, and that God will never do anything which goes against Himself (i.e. the Good), then we cannot believe, coherently, that God could love a creature which is totally depraved.

Now that I’ve clarified this argument (I hope) allow me to address several other problems with total depravity which stem from this one.  In so doing, I also hope to address several other objections brought up by commentators.

(2) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then the image of God in man has been totally erased.  

Some commentators insisted, as most Reformed thinkers do, that man still maintains the image of God in spite of the fact that he is totally depraved.  However, like those who argue that God can love something which is by nature unlovable, this assertion is illogical.  It is simply incoherent to maintain that a creature is by nature a sinner and, hence, not good, while also maintaining that he is made in the image and likeness of Goodness Himself.  This is tantamount to claiming that you are by nature good and by nature not good which, of course, violates the law of noncontradiction.

To claim that a creature is made in the image of God is to claim that he is made in the image of Goodness.  There is no getting around the fact that such a creature, itself, would be good.  So understood, it is a matter of  necessity that any creature made in the image of God must lose this aspect of his nature in order to become totally depraved.  In other words, in order to accept the premise that man is by nature a sinner and unlovable  we must also accept that he is no longer made in the image and likeness of God.

However, as I clarified earlier, to alter the nature of a thing is to change the thing itself.  Thus, a man who was no longer made in the image of God would be no man at all.  If the image of God has been erased in a creature then so has that creatures humanity.

So, in order to be logically consistent with their beliefs, those who embrace total depravity must also admit that man no longer bears the image and likeness of God.  If this is true, however, we are no longer men but some freakish, unlovable, being which does not deserve its existence and, in fact, is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

(3) If sin was an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man could not exist.  

This assertion ties in directly to the previous one.  It stands to reason that our existence, as creatures, stems directly from God who has revealed Himself to us as The Existent One (Exodus 3:14).  It is God alone whose existence is necessary and who exists in and of Himself; everything else, all of creation, is contingent; that is to say, its existence is dependent upon God.  To say that a creature is totally depraved is to say that it is, by nature, counter to the Good (i.e. God); which is also to say that it is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

For it is God who gives all things existence.  How, therefore, can we consistently maintain that a creature whose nature is totally corrupted, evil, and counter to God, maintain its existence without also accepting that God creates and sustains pure substantiated evil.  Christians, however, have never accepted the premise that God creates and sustains evil; for this would put God in league with evil and make him the source and direct cause of all evil.  Most Christians have also, in line with the early church Fathers and especially St. Augustine, rejected the notion that sin is a substance at all.

The problem is, if we believe that God is the source of all existence and accept total depravity then we are accepting that sin is substantiated, that sin is a substance–being a part of the fundamental nature of man–and that God creates and sustains the existence of pure evil.  Clearly, this is at odds with everything we know about God from the scriptures!  A good and loving God who is light and who has no darkness in Him at all could not give existence to pure substantiated evil.  Hence, if sin was an essential/universal quality of what it is to be man then man could not exist; for God would not bring such a being into existence.

Actually, it stands to reason that God could not bring into existence something which is counter to Himself–sense He is the source of all existence.  Therefore, something which is by nature counter to Him could not exist.

Click here for the next article of this series.