Far gone; but how far gone?

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Religion were formulated in 1563 as a via media between Calvinism and Roman Catholicism. Article 9 states:

Of Original or Birth Sin

“Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil…” (My italics).

In sum, Adam’s descendants do not merely sin like Adam, but are born with corrupt natures.

In my previous post I said that we are depraved “in the sense that sin pervades our whole being, root and branch – the body, the mind the will… We are born in sin, with a sin nature.” That is how the European reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli) defined “total depravity.” I would have taken the Anglican Article 9’s “corruption of the nature of every man” to also connote  “total depravity” if it had not defined this corruption as man “very far gone from original righteousness.” The European reformers countered that man is not merely “very far gone from the original righteousness, but stone dead to it (See Ephesians 2 below).

And what of Yancey’s “erring child of God” who “was going wrong”, whom God saw as He “originally designed and meant him to be”, and therefore saw him  “through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath.” What does the Bible say about the “real man underneath”?

“And you were dead in 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 spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-4).

Dollops of grace

The term “total depravity” (“utter depravity”)  may be misleading because it implies that a person is as base as he can possibly be. Well, we only need look at Hitler or in the mirror to realise that there is hardly a human who is utterly wicked. Hitler may indeed have loved his mother and been a good provider for her old age. Two virtues held in great esteem  are 1. being a “good provider” (one of my saving “graces” I hear) and 2. washing up the dishes at one another’s homes (mea culpa).

So then, are we totally depraved or not? Yes in the sense that sin pervades our whole being, root and branch – the body, the mind and the will. A better term than “total depravity” is “radical corruption” (radical = root). Sin lies at the core (Latin “heart”) of our being. We are born in sin, with a sin nature. Thus, it is totally unbibilical to say that the “real man underneath” (Yancey) is another Adam before the fall and that he is therefore basically good. Most of the professing Christians I know are with Yancey on that one.

The heart of sin is hating the idea of obeying and worshiping God. For that reason we are basically base. But a god who can supply most if not all of my basic (there is that word again) needs: who’s not all ears?

A recent Gallup Poll in the US showed that the the majority of modern Christians believe that people are basically good and that we can become much better with a few (or many, in rare cases) dollops of grace.

The real man underneath

To repeat my quote from “What is so amazing about grace”:

“WHEN JESUS LOVED a guilt-laden person and helped him, he saw in him an erring child of God. He saw in him a human being whom his Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong. He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath.”

Yancey’s Jesus and Yancey’s human being are not the Jesus  and human being described in the Bible. The Bible says the opposite: Jesus did not see “through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath,” because the real man underneath was not only superficially grimy, he was filthy. The “real man” of the Bible is totally depraved in his very nature. Everything in the Bible glorifies God and abases man. God saves men and women not because deep down they are good, but in spite of the fact that deep down they are evil He chooses to save them – for one reason only: because He wants to. The natural man despises such a God. Many professing Christians also hate what I have just said, but that is the biblical truth. It’s all over the Bible for those whose eyes God opens. In his Religious Affections Edwards said, “There are very many of the most important things declared in the gospel that are hid from the eyes of natural men.” …but…”as soon as ever the eyes are opened to behold the holy beauty and amiableness that is in divine things, a multitude of most important doctrines of the gospel, that depend on it (which all appear strange and dark to natural men), are at once seen to be true.” Edwards “Religious affections.”

In my next post, I look closer at what “total depravity” means. I will say this here: it does not mean that human beings are as bad as they can be.

The maze of grace

Many have been inspired by Philip Yancey’s book “What is so amazing about Grace?” Yancey’s topic is Christian grace. He explains what he means by “grace” using stories and a little bit of scriptural exegesis. “Grace, for Yancey, [is] ‘the last best word,’ the only unsullied theological word remaining in our language” (p.232). One of my friends said the book is “clear, accessible, humble, insightful and utterly refreshing.”

I’m suspicious of the “refreshing” sea breezes of new books. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need a pep up. When I read Christian books,  I take C.S. Lewis’ advice:“If [the reader) must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. . . . [we need] to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”[1]

Most people don’t have time to read any books at all, and if they do pick up a book, they only manage a few pages a week. I do think, though, that we should read more than we do – no matter how busy we are. Someone might say “It’s all very well for you to talk; you have all he time in the world to read.” I don’t think this attitude is right, because if Christians are serious about their faith, they need to make more time to read; and more of the “old paths”. This doesn’t mean that they have to plod though all the Christian thought down the ages. One good OLD book on “grace”, Augustine of Hippo, for instance, would serve as a sturdy counterweight to Yancey’s book on grace. Here is a passage in Yancey (chapter 1), which I see as the motif of his whole book:

“When Jesus loved a guilt-laden person and helped him, he saw in him an erring child of God. He saw in him a human being whom his Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong. He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath.”

In my next post, I venture into Yancey’s  maze of grace.

[1]Introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation