The basic question here is – given man’s fall into sin, is there anything human beings can do in our own strength to remedy our spiritual condition? As you read the Reformed perspective compare it with your own. Let’s begin.
According to Reformed theology Scripture teaches that Adam’s fall into sin affected all human beings (Romans 5). The condition they are born into is one of “Total Depravity” or “Original Sin.” Let’s examine this in some detail.
Total Depravity means that, insofar as our ability to save ourselves, our human nature is totally corrupt. Our fall wasn’t 99.9%; it was 100%. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). The word “flesh” is used by Paul to describe human nature in the state of total depravity. There is not one good thing in it.
Depravity comes with physical conception and birth. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). We are not sinners just because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. Sin is in our nature.
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) Before God destroyed all but eight in the Flood He noted how much we human beings love our sin. We’re preoccupied by it.
This fact didn’t change after the flood. “And… the Lord said in his heart… the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
Can an unregenerate sinner trust their own heart not to lead them morally astray? Not according to scripture. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
How Modern Man Views Human Nature
There is almost universal denial in our day of the concept of Total Depravity. Turn on the T.V. Tune into Oprah. Listen to the radio. You constantly hear, “Most people are good…there’s a basic goodness in man…” There’s universal unwillingness to acknowledge man as sinful to the core. But the way we go about our lives after we lose childhood innocence shows we understand sin isn’t just the condition of a few “bad” people gone astray.
We have locks on our car doors and homes – and most of us use them.
We unconsciously turn on the internal lie detector when talking to a salesman (and most people we don’t know very well).
We’re tempted to have relationships that would betray our marriage vows (and many of us do in fact betray our marriage vows).
Before becoming a parent, child molestation isn’t something we think about. After our first child is born it becomes a top concern.
We hate gossip (especially when it’s about us). We’re tempted to gossip. And so on…
There’s a LOT of sinning going on and we are all doing it. Sometimes sin is very subtle. Other times it bursts out in terrible revelations – – in people we never would have suspected doing certain things. “Oh no… it can’t be… Uncle Henry did WHAT?”
The Standards of God
People have lost sight of the fact God isn’t created in our image. We’re created in God’s image. If you don’t remind yourself of this you’ll never get a handle on how people are really supposed to behave. Your behavior isn’t judged by how well you live compared to other people. It’s judged by how you live relative to the character of your creator God.
Compared to Hitler you’re probably a better person than him. Compared to your next-door neighbor you might be a nice guy. Compared to Mother Teresa you’d likely be considered somewhat selfish. But compared to God our nature and behavior in its natural state is outright wicked, vile, and disgusting.
“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6). According to Strong’s Concordance the words “filthy rags” here refer to garments stained from menstruation. These kinds of stains can’t be removed under normal circumstances. Likewise, there’s a gap between our “goodness” and God’s “holiness.” God is so holy that if the only sins you ever committed were little “white” lies the gap between you and God would be far greater than a comparison of Hitler with Mother Teresa.
God’s holy character and nature is the standard governing us. When you fail to live perfectly (of which all of us are guilty) you’re in sin (Matt 5:48). When you take actions without considering their relationship to God or considering whether or not those actions will bring Him glory, you’re in sin.
This means everything we do to attempt to save ourselves is sinful since it is done apart from Christ’s finished work on the cross! Sure, many people do some very “good” things. But none of these good works are sufficient to save us given the absolute holiness of God. Otherwise, why would need the cross?
Am I saying that when a non-Christian gives to charity it’s a sin? Of course not! But can that good deed somehow warrant him another rung on his self-made ladder to heaven? No! That is where it becomes sinful. Doing kind deeds for a sick neighbor is a good thing. But it does not save us. To think that it does is where sin enters in. Even when a non-Christian takes care of their kids, provides for them, cuddles with them, and tucks them in at night they’re in sin if they somehow reason that this gives them a free pass to heaven.
“Wait a minute now. I thought sin was stuff like adultery, stealing, lying, and murder?” That’s correct. But according to Scripture “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” The New International Version says “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Any and every action designed to earn eternal life that isn’t born out of living faith and relationship unto the one true God is sin. Now there are many kind and loving deeds done for selfish reasons. For example, the entrepreneur who gives large amounts of money to a good cause so that he or she may be recognized on a socially elite status log does so to his or her own detriment. That is sin.
Can a sinner do anything pleasing to God that will earn him salvation? No. Not ONE SINGLE thing? Not one. “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:12). “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). The NIV reads, “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”
Are you shaking your head and thinking, “Hold on now, what about all those religious people? Surely there’s a few good non-Christians among them somewhere?”
What do you mean by the word “good?” Who defines what is “good” – you or God? “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
According to the Bible no one who can ever seek after God for salvation while they’re in the unregenerate state of total depravity. “There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God” (Romans 3:11).
Written by: Dr. Charles F. Betters and Joe Farinacchio