On the Danger of “Total Depravity”

Romans 2:14-16

Paul here continues to show that the Gentile is counted as one of God’s people when his conscience leads him to obedience towards the Lord. See, as we have already noted, the Jews had received the Law, and because they had chosen their faith in the Law over their faith in Grace, they would be judged, not by one or the other, but by each. The Gentiles, however, having never received the Law, were to be judged by their conscience alone. It’s important to note that when Paul speaks of the Gentiles being judged, it is exactly that. As he later expounds, in the example of food; to eat meat is not a sin, however, to believe in your heart that to eat meat is a sin, it becomes a sin, because you believe that it is an offense against the Lord and yet you still choose it over the Lord. In your belief, you have created it to be a sin against the Lord, and that because of your conscience.

It’s important to notice how Paul phrases this exactly, as well. The Gentiles whom Paul is referencing believe, they trust in the Lord, and then they do the good that is in their nature as a display of that obedience. At various points in the Old Testament, we see examples of Gentiles being judged to be righteous because their deeds displayed their faith in, and fear of, the Lord. Through their own decisions, these people who are not of the Lord are made to be righteous by the Lord because they consciously choose to obey the Lord. See, it’s important to recognize this because when we are conceived, when we are freshly formed in the womb, we are inherently good. And then, at a particular point, sin begins to creep in. And, once that happens, we grow accustomed to that sin, we embrace the pleasures, the fleeting moments of happiness that are brought about it, but all of that doesn’t change one thing. In our nature, we are still good. We are created in His image, and no sin is powerful enough to destroy that image. Those who claim that we are evil in nature are claiming that sin is more powerful than the One who created us. Some, from their own love of self and pride, choose to reject that voice, while he who hears His voice and chooses to obey understands. As the Psalmist says, “You make me wiser than my enemies with Your commandment, for it is mine forever.” (Psalm 118:98). But, it is just that, a conscious decision that we make based on our love of self and sin, or our love of Him who formed us.

If each of us is truly, utterly, lost and depraved, as so many claim, then Paul’s statement here makes no sense. If our nature is depraved, then none of us would ever choose righteousness; and if that were the case then the “unsaved” Gentiles would never, “by nature do the things of the Law.” No, rather, it is our nature to love, to obey, to worship and glorify the Lord, and it is sin which distorts that. By nature, we are inspired by and cooperate with God. It is once sin steps in that we turn away from His grace. We are not wicked by nature, but rather learn wickedness. Young children neither hate nor judge anyone, until they are taught to do so by someone that they look up to. Our children are mirrors of our own behavior; usually if there is a trait in your child that you don’t like, it is pretty easy to find that same trait in yourself. Albeit an exaggerated version of that trait, it is still there. The child who fights has a parent or role model with anger in their hearts; think of a child in the car. They never grow impatient until their parent displays “road rage” in front of them, and then seeing that, they mimic it. A child who spend too much time focusing on name brands and such usually has a parent who is very vain, one who spends hours preening in front of a mirror, because that parent has taught them the importance of other’s impressions of them. I stress this because so often, children are used as an example of this “total depravity” that so many reference, and yet, when pay closer attention, you find that they are not totally depraved, but rather depraved in the same manners that they’ve learned from their parent’s indiscretions and iniquity. When I think of Paul’s letters to Titus and to Timothy, the “criteria” for eldership in the Church, I consider that in terms of parenting as well. A parent with a bad temper will have a violent son, a parent with a penchant for alcohol will have a child who has the same preference. A parent who disrespects their spouse will have a child who will disrespect that same spouse, and then eventually their own. We must watch our behavior, and not merely in their presence, but in our own hearts, as children are so naive as to be wise. They don’t look at an upset person and begin to rationalize why they’re upset, they just see an upset person; and that affects them more than we could ever recognize.

Then, Paul goes on to make a very important statement. One which we would do well to pay careful attention to. He states that the Gentiles “show the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness.” See, when we do something wrong, our conscience bears witness against us. Someone in junior high school taking a test comes to a question that they don’t know. They look over and get the answer from someone else, and their conscience immediately bears witness against them. Without being caught or being told otherwise, we innately know it’s wrong to do it. It accuses them of iniquity. And yet, so often in our generation, we train ourselves to ignore that very conscience, which is truly the will of God written in our hearts. And yet, we train ourselves and find that the more often we do it, the easier it becomes, until it eventually becomes a “second nature.”

And that leads us to the danger of teaching that we are depraved by nature, that our hearts are wicked. The danger of that teaching lies in the end of this verse. If we are good by nature, then when we slide into iniquity, our conscience accuses us of that sinful act. Again, the boy who cheated on the test; if he knows that he is good and to do wrong is wicked, his conscience tells him immediately what is wrong and he can either heed that warning or choose to ignore it. However, if we teach someone that they are wicked by nature, then we have already given them the opportunity to train their conscience to excuse any wickedness that they perform. See, if our natural state is obedience and holiness, then our conscience will stand on our side and help us to maintain that standard. If, however, our natural state is depravity, then our conscience will again stand on our side, this time, however, excusing any wickedness of which we are guilty. Holiness becomes the anomaly. Our conscience immediately excuses our sinfulness by convincing us that we can never be truly righteous, so “why bother trying?” Rather than warning us of sinfulness, it teaches us that it is our nature to be sinful and accepts those shortcomings, destroying any work that would lead us to the “holiness of God.”

Our generation has completely turned everything around. We live in a generation, in the Church, where people proclaim that someone such as Mother Teresa, who spent her entire life doing God’s work, will never achieve the kingdom, meanwhile someone who was baptized once in their life and didn’t even truly repent is “assured” of that salvation. Saint Teresa would never attain the kingdom based on her work, however, her work was the “work of the Law.” What Protestants call “mercy ministry,” or as I like to call it, “loving your neighbor,” alone will not merit salvation, however, it is a fruit of the work of the Spirit in the life of someone who is truly walking in the faith. To simplify this claim, feeding the poor will not “earn you salvation,” however, faith will; and that faith must be accompanied by these works that display the “work of the Law” written in the heart, otherwise, we must remember Jesus’ warning; “Well did the prophet say when he spoke of them, ‘these people worship Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.'” (Matthew 15:8).

Works will not save you, lest every Hollywood celebrity be assured of a seat at the Lord’s table, however, the faith that will save must be accompanied by those works. By this obedience to the Law of the Lord, not the laws of men, lest we become legalists and Pharisees. A growing number of believers have adopted this ideology that we are wicked in our nature, that we are totally depraved, and yet, when we teach that, we free people from the accountability of that wickedness. If we have no choice in the matter and are naturally wicked, then God’s judgment is unjust when He “renders to each man according to their deeds.” However, if our nature is good and we, through our own self-love and deceit, choose to do wicked, then His judgment is fully just. And that is the danger of this ideology that we must be careful not to allow to corrupt our thoughts. We are, by nature, created in the image of God, and though sin can corrupt our vision and our actions, it can never corrupt our nature. We must, through the power of the Holy Spirit, fight and struggle through the temptations of the world, through the trials, through the suffering, and seek to attain that holiness that the Lord created us for; to become “partakers of the Divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:4), to become truly “Sons of the Most High.” (Psalm 81:6); never once proclaiming that the spirit of the world or the spirit of the age is more powerful than our beloved Lord, for “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4). Our nature is not sinful, it cannot be, for we were created by the Lord, in the image of the Lord; and to claim otherwise is to allow our conscience to excuse, rather than, accuse us, of our iniquities. Through our conscience, we can know the Law of the Lord, let us not train ourselves to ignore or reject that revelation.

May the grace of the Lord be with you all, my beloved family.

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