Here's what I think a lot of people are thinking about Phil's latest series on theology – and by "a lot of people", I don’t mean "our faithful and brilliant normal readers". I mean the passers-by and the people who, frankly, don’t think about theology all the time.
I think they see the topic "total depravity" and they think, "yeah, but what's that got to do with me?" And before we get all "thank God I'm not like that American evangelical" on those people, I think it is actually a very good question.
Here's one person I know who asks that question a lot, for example. There's a family who I know who, frankly, doesn’t want to hear about grace – and their oldest son is a really bright kid who wants to be informed about his faith. And in his Sunday school class, his teacher started a semester on the history of the Christian faith (!) in which they, obviously, encountered the Reformation.
Anyway, without making a massive parenthetical sidetrack here (HT: DJP), this young man was of a mind that lost people do good works, too – that the doctrine of total depravity falls right apart when we look at the fact that even Christopher Hitchens does charity work; even Hitler loved his mother. And in one sense, he's right: anyone can (and almost anyone does) give $5 to a hobo or donate books to the library or pretend to end poverty in Africa or whatever. Anyone can do those things; most people, if you watch them long enough, will do something like that once in a while.
But here's the question: in what sense is any of that "good"? I know Phil covered this on Monday, but he gave the high-brow Westminsterian sketch. What's that mean to this kid who thinks, or at least thinks he thinks, that everyone has some basic, native goodness?
My response is this: "good enough to prove you're a lot worse off than you thought".
Think about this --
whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus. [NET Bible]Here Paul is saying that people have the problem of not merely being occasional breakers of the decrees of God: he's saying that people show that they know better and therefore really don’t have any excuses when it comes time to judge whether they were willing law-breakers or merely ignorant foils trapped by a system they never understood.
See: any native goodness we demonstrate only highlights how broken our nature really is.
I was watching my son's basketball game a couple of weeks ago, and it's the "recreational" league where the kids really haven’t ever played on a court before with rules or a ref. And on the other team was this really aggressive kid who simply wanted to put the ball in the net. It was clear to me he had played football before because every time he got the ball, he tucked the ball under, ducked his head, and rolled into the crowd of boys in the key like a fullback.
And in this kid's case, it was actually kinda funny – he obviously didn’t know any better. He was playing by the wrong rules, and he had no clue what the right rules where. But if that same thing happened in a High School game, or even in the next age bracket up, it wouldn’t hardly be that funny – because those kids know better, and they prove it in all kinds of ways.
And this is the case with us: we show that we know enough about God's law to obey it when we want to, so when we are unwilling to obey God's law it's that much worse for us.
Here's what that has to do with you: you should be more worried about whether you have a savior than whether you are doing any good. See: you can admit that you really just aren't any good. Even the good you seem to do is really just the white space around the big black blobs of sin nature that come out of you, guiding the eye to the violations rather than somehow making you seem mostly clean – like that crazy talking stain commercial from the Superbowl.
And what that stain says is, "I need a savior, not a self-help book."
Jesus is a savior, not a life coach. The high-brow doctrine of "total depravity" is really another way of saying, "you need a savior." You do. The kid who thinks that everybody does something good once in a while, and only wants Jesus to be a good example rather than a bloody sacrifice which God accepts for the sake of those who believe.