Sunday, 1 February 2015

Anyone for Total Depravity?

The Doctrines of the Salvation Army were the Founders' attempt at expressing their core beliefs in such a way as to summarise the Army's message, invite Christians who shared their vision of the gospel to identify with the movement, and to ward off those whose vision was significantly different at what they saw as key points. They are still, unaltered, the doctrinal standard of TSA, to which all soldiers and officers must subscribe. It is because of one or two such differences with the doctrines that I have stopped at being an Adherent rather than becoming a Soldier, but I would not be an Adherent if I didn't recognise in the Doctrines a fair summary of authentic Christianity, a preachable faith which has led many to love Christ as he really is. 

Some of my wife's students (cadets at William Booth College) were looking at the doctrine of Total Depravity last term, and I got into some significant conversations and personal study on the topic. Some I wrote up on another blog; I have plundered and edited some of that material in what follows. This doctrine is absolutely foundational for Christians - accepted as catholic (universal and orthodox) doctrine ever since Pelagius' controversy. And it has far-reaching consequences - as my daughter said to me recently regarding a theology course she is taking, she has come to realise that, after the doctrine of God, the doctrine of sin is all-important. 

The Salvation Army's statement on sin, which includes direct reference to Total Depravity, runs like this:

We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.

The Doctrine itself 

The doctrine of Total Depravity does not say that we are all as bad we could possibly be, but that there is an all-pervasive quality to our sin which mars every aspect of our nature, making us totally bankrupt and incompetent when it comes to dealing with God. 

It is not only our worst moments, our open, blatant, high-handed sins, that are expressions of our sinfulness. Even our best, our highest efforts, our attempts at reform or even at religion, are spoiled and rendered valueless by our sin. As Isaiah put it, our righteousness is like filthy rags. 

The doctrine of total depravity says that sin has affected everything, and that includes our consciousness of sin. It says that we can't see how bad we are. It says that, as we face the oncoming disaster referred to in the phrase "justly exposed to the wrath of God" we are, by our fallen nature, unaware of our peril. We are asleep in a burning house, and it is a drugged sleep. Or to use a more biblical image, we are "dead in our sins"; a dead person doesn't even know they're dead.  

The repercussions of the doctrine

1) This Christian doctrine anchors our idea of grace within the Christian faith. 

It is against the backdrop of this deep view of sin that the Christian gospel says three things, or one thing with three elements:

  • Where we are unable and bankrupt, God is able and active. His grace is extended to us - what we cannot do, he will do - he treats us in a way we have not deserved and cannot deserve. Our only hope lies not in what we do but in his grace and kindness - we can only throw ourselves on his mercy. This insight in itself marks out Christianity amongst the world's religions.

  • God's grace comes to us specifically through the person of Jesus Christ. His obedient life, his submissive death, his resurrection - these are the events in which God's grace is worked out for us. Grace reaches us in life, in time and space because grace has reached down into time and space - ours is a historical faith.

  • God's grace in the once-and-for-all work of Christ can only be grasped because of the gracious work of the Spirit, whose awakening power is needed if we are even to perceive our need of Jesus. Like the dry bones in the valley, we need God's breath upon us so that we come alive to our spiritual need, and his spiritual provision.  

We have to grasp the depth of the badness in order to see the greatness of God's goodness. Imagine that two people are rescued from a house fire.  One insists, "Oh, it was no big deal - I could have got out of there on my own" but the other says, "Man - I was totally stuck! I was utterly lost; no way could I have saved myself!" Which one will appreciate and praise the rescuing fire crew the most? 

The fact is that we are asleep in the fire. A drugged sleep, no less. The doctrine of total depravity says that sin has affected everything, and that includes our consciousness of sin - it is only the fireman breaking graciously into the room that alerts us to the seriousness of the danger! 

Our understanding of grace is anchored at its top end, as it were, by the unspeakable marvel of God's love in Jesus Christ. But it is anchored at the bottom end by our view of the sinfulness of human nature. A serious view of sin leads to a big view of Christ and a breathtaking insight into the love of God.

2) This Christian doctrine is unique among world religions

The doctrine of Total Depravity sets Christianity apart from all other religions. In fact, it is starting from this point that it becomes clear that Christianity is not, in the normal sense, a "religion" at all! While religion urges us to do this and do that in order to reach up to God, on the presupposition that what we can do will be enough, or at least make some significant difference, the Christian message is that our sin so weighs us down, so blocks us out from God, that there is nothing we can do by way of ritual action, social good or internal spiritual exercise that can possibly deal with the gravity of our problem and even start to bring us into the presence of our Creator. And for good measure it tells us that we are blinded to the degree of our sinfulness and have no natural awareness of the depth of our problem! This is the most pessimistic world-view of any faith.

If grace is a religious rarity, historical grace to the totally unable is unique. While religion always ends up saying "DO", God in Christ says "DONE". And it says this to those who don't even yet know their need. To the dead it says, "Live!"

3) This Christian doctrine stands over against our contemporary, human-centred culture.

We live in a self absorbed, self-pampering, self-congratulating age. Christian pessimism about human nature is utterly at odds with our generation's crazy optimism. (It is crazy because the evidence that ought to explode it flows in with every day's news!) 

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of versions of spirituality currently available on the supermarket shelves of faith which adopt contemporary thinking rather than Christian doctrine as their template. Just to take one sentence from a popular "spiritual" website:

At the core of each life is true, eternal goodness—and the key to a successful life is opening up that true self so that we can compassionately connect with God’s world.

Although this is totally incompatible with the SA doctrine and that of other Christian churches, such thinking is really pretty common in Christian circles today. It stems partly from a confusion about the nature of God's love; for a generation for whom romantic and sexual categories have become all-pervasive and exclusive when speaking of love, it becomes natural to say that "God was so in love with us that he came to earth so as to be with us". But it is horribly unbiblical and destructive of the gospel. Our doctrinal statement ought to be all the exclusion required. After all, the idea that we are all fundamentally good is in itself a demonstration of the blindness that sin has brought about; to bring this idea into the church is, to say the least, not a very good idea.

Nowhere is this clash with contemporary culture more acute over the last twenty years or so than in the great debate regarding sexual ethics.

The idea of a "fallen world" is hardly dominant in contemporary thought about human medical, psychological or sexual issues. The general assumption is that what is, is what is meant to be - or at least, given that nothing is "meant to be", as if it had a mind behind it, nothing can be said to have ceased to be what it was meant to be. As a result, we are not permitted to critique any aspect of innate human desire or behaviour on the basis of a concept of fallenness. And this dominant attitude in the world is now frequently found in the church.

The result of this is that the phrase "God made me this way" is used as a catch-all defence regarding all manner of moral issues. The doctrine of Total Depravity just won't let us do that, and yet, through ignorance or rejection of the doctrine, people are driving a coach and horses through classical Christian morality with the phrase. 

The doctrine of Total Depravity says that our world has entered into rebellion and madness; it has slipped away from the ideal. In the place of order and harmony and regularity is disorder and twistedness and loss of equilibrium. In such a world, my desires cannot be trusted. I cannot simply say, "God made me this way" when it would also be true to say, "Sin made me this way."

I have read a very sensitive blog which makes this very point. The writer is qualified to speak to one of the chief presenting issues today in a way which I am not. His comments remind us that, on some contemporary moral questions, it is the very heart of the Christian faith that is at stake. Not for nothing is the doctrine of sin under attack within the church. See here

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If I look for moral or spiritual compass bearings inside myself, I do not merely run the risk of being misled - I am sure to be misled! I need a word from outside, a word from God the Father that speaks to me where I am, tells me who I am, tells me what is right and tells me what is wrong. Above all, I need a word from outside that tells me of the Saviour who came from outside, and yet came as one of us, to bear our sin, attacking our depravity at root, and then, victorious, poured out the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit who opens our eyes to who we are in sin and to the glory and sufficiency of Christ, and who transforms us from day to day into his likeness. 

I hope you are all up for Total Depravity. There is no hope without it.

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