How bad is it, Doc?
Published by Stan Mast
As part of our celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Canons of Dordt, Calvin Seminary focused our chapel services this fall on the famous summary of that document, the TULIP. I volunteered to preach on the ugliest petal of that lovely flower. Whenever I preach on doctrine, especially a hard one like Total Depravity, I am careful to preach on a text, not on the doctrine. And I do my best to make the sermon not only lively (for example, to illustrate various points I laid down flat on the stage, hobbled around with crutches, and climbed a very tall step ladder), but also enlivening, emphasizing the Good News of grace that overcomes Total Depravity. Here’s my meditation on Ephesians 2:1-10, entitled “How Bad is It, Doc?”
This year we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Canons of Dordt, a document older than dirt, that many think should be left alone to molder in the grave. But here at Calvin Theological Seminary we want to remember, even revive it. Who better to talk about Total Depravity than me, maybe not older than dirt, but older than anyone else around here, and pretty dirty. In fact, I used to be totally depraved, but no more.
So, I’m glad to talk about Total Depravity. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. I mean that literally. Someone has to do it, because it answers a question to which all of us want the right answer. How bad is it, Doc? When you go to the doctor, you want the truth. Our health, our life depends on an accurate diagnosis of our condition.
Most Christians agree that the human race has fallen into sin, but there’s significant disagreement about the effects of that fall. How bad are the damages from the fall? Here’s a graphic way to think about three very different answers to the question, “How bad is it, Doc?” You might say that the fall was so severe that it left us dead. (Here I’m lying on the stage.) We’re alive physically, but dead spiritually, sort of like zombies, the living dead. Left to ourselves, every human being is like a corpse, unable to move spiritually, incapable of doing the very things we must do to be saved.
Or you might say that the fall was bad, but it didn’t kill us. (Here I hobble around the stage with crutches.) It left us crippled. We’re like a person with a badly sprained knee who needs crutches. With some help, we are able to do what we must do to be saved. Or you might say that we haven’t really fallen at all, so we don’t need to be saved. (Here I climb up the stepladder.) We are simply climbing the ladder to goodness in our own strength, getting better and better as the human race evolves into a higher order of being.
What does the Word of God say about the condition of the human race: corpses, cripples, or climbers? I think the text in Ephesians 2 is very clear, don’t you? “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins….” Does Paul mean that, apart from Christ, we are all just as bad as we can possibly be? No, that’s not what he says. And that’s not what Total Depravity means. We do not believe that everyone is totally rotten, doing only terrible things.
Here’s how he describes being dead in sin: “You were dead in your sins, in which you used to live….” “In which” refers to sin as the dominating factor in life. Sin is the sphere or realm in which people live. Think of a prison cell, or a biosphere, an enclosed dome in which people live all day every day, so that everything they think and say and do is conditioned by the biosphere. Total depravity means that sin is the biosphere in which all humans live apart from Christ. Like the residents of a biosphere, they are so used to it that they aren’t even aware of it.
Further, says Paul, “you were dead in your sins, in which you once lived, when you followed the ways of the world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” Being dead in sin means that people follow the world and the devil as their natural masters. In the next verse, Paul adds another of those masters, which he calls “the cravings of our sinful nature,” or as older translations put it, “the flesh.” People willingly follow the Unholy Trinity of the world, the flesh and the devil.
Paul’s gloomy analysis of the human condition ends with this statement: “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” Well, of course. How could we be anything else when God is as holy as God is? If we willingly follow the Unholy Trinity, how could the Holy Trinity be anything other than angry with us? That’s what you’d think, but God had other thoughts. We were all dead people walking under the wrath of God, but God did a miracle. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions—by grace you have been saved.” That’s why Paul used all those past tenses when he described these Ephesians. You were dead in your sins, but now you are alive with Christ. You were conditioned by sin in all that you did, but now you are conditioned by the Spirit of God in all that you do. You were a slave to sin, but now you are set free by Jesus Christ. You were objects of God’s wrath, but now you are the apple of his eye. You were
nothing but a sinner, but now you are a child of God who sometimes sins. You were totally depraved, but now you are totally redeemed.
That good news does two things to us: it makes us flourish as human beings and it gives us hope for all the corpses we know. Calvinists who believe in this TULIP should be the most upbeat and joyful people in the world, because we know that as dark and desperate as the human situation is, God does miracles in his grace. He’s done them to us, or we wouldn’t be here as believers in Christ.
Now we can flourish as human beings. In Christ we can do what God calls us to do. Life is filled with incredible opportunities to live the blessed way God outlines in his Word. In fact, verse 10 says that God is now remaking us into the fantastic works of art, the good creations he always intended.
That should fill us with immense gratitude. We’ve been raised from the dead; we can spend the rest of our days celebrating our new life in Christ—not as mournful sinners, but as joyful saints. Sure, we should still walk the straight path that leads to life, not trudging like a prisoner on a death march. Rather, we race down the line like a grateful runner who knows the victory has already been won.
Second, this hard truth of Total Depravity and the good news of God’s life-giving grace fill us with hope for others. We all know people who are living in sin, enslaved to the Unholy Trinity, and experiencing the wrath of God in their lives. They are our family, our friends, our church members. We try to talk to them, we worry about them and pray for them, but we wonder how they can ever turn their lives around and become followers of Christ.
Here’s the good news of grace: What we cannot do and what they cannot do, God can do. He did it for you. He’s done it for billions of others. There is living hope for those who seem hopelessly dead in sin. Their total depravity is no match for God’s sovereign grace.
Once upon a time there was a man who hated the Church, tried to wipe it off the face of the earth. He was totally depraved, but he didn’t know it. He thought he was a totally righteous agent of God’s kingdom. But as he travelled to a distant city to eradicate another cancer cell of Christians, he was knocked off his horse by a blinding light and a thunderous voice, assaulted by the sovereign grace of God, arrested by the Lord Jesus, struck blind and made alive. His friends called him Saul. We call him Paul. For the rest of his life he said, I was dead in sin, but God made me alive. “Amazing love, how can it be, that you my Lord, should die for me.” (The chapel roof lifted as we closed with this song.)
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