14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
A sweet, little old lady got pulled over for speeding one day. When the police officer approached her vehicle, she said, “Is there a problem, Officer?” He replied, “Ma’am, you were speeding. Can I see your license please?”
The woman replied, “Well, Officer, I’d give it to you but I don’t have one. You see, I lost it, four years ago…for drunk driving.”
The officer was somewhat surprised, but asked, “Well, then could I see your vehicle registration, please?”
To which the sweet, little old lady replied, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have that, Officer. You see, I stole this car.”
The officer’s eyes grew wide as the lady continued, “Yes, and I killed the owner. I chopped him up in little pieces, and his body parts are in plastic bags in the trunk, if you’d like to see.”
At this point, the officer slowly backed away to his car and called for backup. Within minutes 5 police cars arrived and circled the woman’s car. A senior officer slowly approached the car, clasping a half drawn gun.
And he said, “Ma’am, please step out of the vehicle.” So, the woman stepped out of her vehicle, and asked once again, “Is there a problem, Sir?”
“Ma’am, one of my officers told me that you have stolen this car, and murdered the owner. Could you please open the trunk of your car?” The woman opened the trunk, revealing…nothing but an empty trunk. At which point the senior officer, somewhat confused, asked, “Is this your car, ma’am?”
The woman replied, “Yes, of course. Here are the registration papers.” The senior officer, stunned, said, “One of my officers claims that you do not have a driver’s license. Is this true?” The woman dug into her handbag and pulled out her license, handing it to the officer, who examined it. After a few moments, he said, “Thank you ma’am. I was told that you didn’t have a license, that you stole this car, and that you murdered and hacked up the owner.
And the sweet, little old lady, aghast, looked the senior officer right in the eye and said, “My Goodness! What kind of totally depraved person does he think I am? I bet that liar told you I was speeding, too.”
Today’s sermon is on the doctrine of total depravity. But in case you are wondering why, first a little background.
500 years ago this month, on October 31st, 1517, an Augustinian monk from Germany named Martin Luther, nailed a list of 95 objections or protests to the door of the church in his town of Wittenberg. Most of his objections were to medieval church fundraising practices of his time–basically the idea that with the right donation, you could buy your way into heaven.
Luther’s protests began a movement to “re-form” the church. This “Reformation,” was continued by others after his death, including the reformers John Calvin and John Knox, whose efforts led to the formation of the Presbyterian church.
So in celebration of that 500 year anniversary, for the next five Sundays, I’ll be preaching on five of the core teachings of the Reformation, particularly those espoused by the followers of John Calvin, also known as Calvinists. They distilled Calvin’s teachings into five points easily remembered by the acronymn TULIP. T-U-L-I-P.
T is for the doctrine of Total Depravity (more on that in just a moment);
U is for the doctrine of Unconditional Election (that’s next week’s sermon);
L is for the doctrine of Limited Atonement (week 3);
I is for the doctrine of Irresistible Grace (week 4); and
P is for the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints (our final sermon on Reformation Sunday)
So to paraphrase Sesame Street, today’s message is brought to you by the number 1 and the letter T.
Total Depravity. In today’s age of feel-good, “God is on your side,” “Jesus is your Best Buddy” religion, we Calvinists seem to be leading with our worst foot forward. “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m a Calvinist. I’d like to tell you about God, but first, I just have to let you know, you suck–completely and totally! Can I buy you some coffee?”
Yeah, we kind of have that reputation. And when we get to the doctrine of Limited Atonement, or predestination, it only gets worse, not better. But I think Calvin, and Calvinism, is also pretty misunderstood, especially here in 21st century America, where we are convinced about just how exceptional and amazing we are, how we can do anything we put our minds to.
The problem, as Calvin puts it his Institutes of Christian Religion, is that “for those confident they can do anything by their own power, things cannot happen otherwise.” Or they cannot imagine anything happening outside their power. They leave no room for God, for the miraculous, for the spiritual, or the divine.
In my own experience, I’ve noticed that people are quick to blame God when something goes wrong–“God, how could you let this happen?” but even more quick to take credit when something goes right–“I got a promotion; I earned this money through my hard work; I raised my children right; I, I, I, me, me, me.”
As harsh as the doctrine of Total Depravity sounds, I think it’s absolutely the right place to begin in our contemplation of God, Spirituality, the Universe and our place in it. It’s a much needed antidote to our supreme confidence in our own exceptionalism. It’s a humble place to begin.
The name for this doctrine, Total Depravity, is also somewhat misunderstood. We tend to use the word “depravity” or “depraved” to mean wicked or evil. It does carry that sense, but the way Calvin and his followers used the word had less to do with any specific evil actions or deeds, and more to do with a lack of something good. Depraved and deprived are etymologically related–both indicate a lack of something.
Here’s Calvin on the subject of total depravity: “Man with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding by himself the mysteries of God, as an ass is incapable of understanding musical harmony.” Calvin certainly doesn’t mince words.
But the key word there was “incapable.” And that’s perhaps the best way to understand the doctrine of total depravity–not that we are totally and completely bad, sinful, evil–but that despite the very good things we do from time to time, we are still utterly incapable of becoming all that God intended us to be on our own, without God’s help.
One objection I often hear to the idea of total depravity (when it’s used to mean completely evil, thoroughly corrupted) is this: What about babies? What about small children? Aren’t they innocent? Surely they aren’t born evil?
As the father of three children, I’m not entirely convinced they are as innocent as they seem when they are that little, but I still don’t believe that they are wicked and corrupted by their very nature all the way to the core. On the other hand, it’s very easy for me to view a small child as incapable of taking care of itself all on its own–totally dependent on parents and others to survive and grow. My five-year old son, Jonah, has gotten to that wonderful age where he is absolutely convinced he can do everything by himself, on his own. But his newfound confidence in his own abilities does not make him any less dependent upon others to survive. He just doesn’t always recognize that.
The same is true for us, as adults. In our mature, infinite wisdom, we may believe we don’t need God, that we are capable of pulling ourselves out of whatever messes we create, or understanding the deep mysteries of the universe all on our own, but this belief doesn’t change the reality of our dependence on God, and the world God created to shelter and sustain us.
The doctrine of total depravity is simply an acknowledgement that we aren’t perfect, and we need help. This is what Paul means in today’s scripture passage (which no doubt influenced the reformers) when he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I don’t do what I want, but instead I do the very thing I hate.” Later on, he adds, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” I think we can identify with that cry of the heart for divine help.
So that’s a pretty good understanding of Total Depravity in the classical sense, as Calvin and the reformers taught it. But I don’t want to stop there, and I don’t think the Reformers of the 16th century would want us to stop there either, as if they had somehow arrived at the perfect, infallible doctrine to end all doctrines. In fact, they believed that the church (and its people) should continue reforming, continue refining our understanding of scripture and the human condition in every generation.
And so I want to end by taking a stab at just that–a new take on the Doctrine of Total Depravity, inspired by science, in a way that (I hope) makes sense for Christians living in the 21st century.
I have already shared with some of you my own story of how I came, kicking and screaming, to consider myself a Calvinist, when someone pointed out to me that John Calvin and Charles Darwin were essentially saying the same thing, but just using different terminology. And so I often interpret Calvin through the lens of Darwin, Reformed Calvinism through the lens of evolutionary biology.
In evolutionary biology, there’s this concept that organisms–from the lowliest cell all the way up to the highest primates–will act selfishly for their own preservation. This instinct is deeply ingrained, an inherited trait from millions of years of evolution, popularized (though not invented) by the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, among others.
Nature is actually pretty brutal about this–while we worry and fret about race relations, gender equality, vegan lifestyle, animal rights and world peace, most things in the world continue to eat each other and be eaten, aggressively defending what is like them and violently attacking all that is not, right down to the cellular and genetic level.
This selfishness–or, if you will, this total depravity–gets passed on from generation to generation through reproduction and natural selection. It is extremely useful…up to a point. There’s a tipping point, however, where this selfish behavior (whether from a cell, from an animal, or from human beings) actually starts to work against the organism. Evolution flips, and in order to continue to evolve, it turns out that belonging to a group, acting selflessly or even sacrificially for the good of the larger entity provides more complexity, and more evolutionary benefits.
Families become tribes; tribes become cities; cities become nations and empires. Our human history can be seen as a series of expansions–some violent but some peaceful–into larger, more cooperative groupings with greater benefit to all within. It’s not a completely even growth, and sometimes we take a step or two backwards, but the trend is to fewer, larger, more peaceful and more inclusive groups. Perhaps this will someday culminate in just one–what Jesus meant when he used the political language of his day to talk about “The Kingdom of God.”
And yet, no matter how enlightened or collaborative we become, there is still engrained deeply within each of us this primal instinct toward self-preservation. It manifests itself as greed, lust, violence, ambition. Often we lean too much on this instinct, forgetting the limits of self-interest and trading short-term gratification for long-term progress. It’s a continual struggle and balancing act. We need that self-interest, that depravity, to survive. But if we want to do more than just survive–if we want to thrive, then we need to learn to let it go, to love each other, to serve each other, and to work together. And by very definition, that is something we can’t do on our own. We need help. Some would say we need God–I don’t disagree, but I think the image of God resides in each one of us; we are God’s hands and feet in the world. To overcome our selfishness, our total depravity…we DO need God…which means we need each other.
I see God at work in this evolutionary process–in our basest, most selfish instincts, and in our longing for community, in our acts of selflessness and love.
People of First Presbyterian Church, we are reformed and always reforming. Which is just another way of saying that we are evolved and still evolving. May our love for each other continue to evolve and grow, and may our total depravity yield to the grace of God in this sacred community of faith.