Saturday, September 15, 2012

Total Depravity Vs. Utter Depravity and Why It Matters for Evangelism

I am not opposed to theological categories. They can often be very helpful to describe your biblical position--or at least provide a starting point. Granted--when I tell someone I'm "reformed" regarding salvation or "baptist" regarding believers baptism  or "continuationist" regarding the work of the Holy Spirit--I am eager to describe what I mean by that--and hopefully point people to the Bible in my defense and not contemporary teachers or famous dead ones.

But some theological language isn't always helpful. I feel this way about the concept of "total depravity." Generally speaking this doctrine is intended to communicate what the Bible describes as the far-reaching effects of sin--or the pervasiveness of sin. This maintains that the original sin of Adam has a cosmic effect touching everything and every person--right down to the conflicts of desires. In other words--the depravity of sin is total--everywhere and everyone--no exceptions. I believe the Bible teaches this.

However, the truth of the "total" effect of sin is sometimes mistakenly understood as "utter depravity." This would mean not only is the depravity of sin pervasive--touching everything--but that it touches everything equally--in the worst possible way. In total depravity all men are bad. In utter depravity all men are as bad as they possibly could be. I don't believe the Bible teaches this.

What's wrong with that? 

Well. A lot. But essentially, the problem with affirming the utter depravity of man is that you must deny certain aspects of God's grace. Utter or absolute depravity denies the grace of God's active goodness toward man and in man--restraining the effects of sin in a thousand ways--and revealing his glory to those he created. It assumes no difference between wickedness in seed form--from wickedness actualized and freely committed by those who reject God's constant goodness toward them. To be utterly depraved means not only that all men choose sin, but that all men freely choose sin equally--and in the same measure.

Utter depravity tends to deny that men are still created in the image of God. That the pinnacles of God's creation--made just a little lower than the angels--are greatly flawed because of sin--but are nevertheless glorious and endowed with enormous potential for good. It can even deny God's loving posture to pour out protection, comfort, and revelation on all men "day after day" (Ps. 19:2). It forgets that God's plan was not to destroy an utterly depraved people when they sinned, but to send his Son into his creation to restore the broken image of God in man.

Why does this matter in terms of evangelism? 

In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West...Again, George Hunter describes Celtic Christianity as having an "optimism about human nature...[seeing people] created in God's image...only a little lower than the angels and are crowned with glory and honor." Celtic Christianity viewed "human nature not as being radically tainted by sin and evil, intrinsically corrupt and degenerate, but as imprinted with the image of God, full of potential and opportunity, longing for completion and perfection."

Hunter goes on to say that "Celtic Christianity's theological optimism about human nature cannot adequately account for the Holocaust and the many other cases of genocide and man's inhumanity to man." He adds, "Augustine's doctrine of human nature does more adequately account for large-scale depravity and for much else that has gone terribly wrong" but at the same time, Hunter appeals "it is possible to observe, in most people, both sin and goodness."

As he reflects upon the way in which Celtic Christianity would enter a pagan town or village--he described this optimism. Because they had a strong understanding of the doctrine of man as created in the image of God, they believed they were joining God in his mercies and would find fresh ways to engage the culture they were in. They "studied the host culture and affirmed and built on every indigenous feature that they could." They sought "not to destroy, but to fulfill their religious tradition" believing God to be previously at work in many wonderful ways.

The way we view fallen people made in the image of God really matters. Hunter comments, "my interviews with converts indicate that, for many people, becoming a Christian involves experiences of being rescued and experiences of being completed...Celtic Christian movement suggests that it is often more effective to begin with people at the point of their goodness, however latent, than to initially engage people as sinners."

I wonder if this isn't true for most people who can remember their conversion.

All men are sinful. Depraved. Pervasively so.

But sometimes when we share the gospel we can start with the fall of Genesis 3, and forget the good creation of man in Genesis 1 by a holy and purposeful God. Hunter challenges us to not let the overdone "positive" view of man cause us to swing so far that we no longer affirm God's goodness in man wherever we can.

The good news is that God didn't give up on man "for the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)." He made a way for his image-bearers to return to him--to redeem the glory we've all forsaken. We know this because Paul said, "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)."

We should talk like that.


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