Dear Church Family,
In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:
Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3
Preaching: Depravity, a virtue to be embraced? Part 1
Last week, we sought to define the term “depravity” and we examined how the Bible teaches that believers are no longer totally depraved. This week, we will continue to examine some more examples of how this erroneous view concerning the continuation of depravity in the Christian is alive and well today.
Evidence of the Problem
Many believers fail to see the glorious benefits of the new birth, and how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ does away with both the punishment and the power of sin in our lives. We are not only forgiven; we are also able to now resist sin and live righteously (Titus 2:11-14).
There are other evidences, however, of how the erroneous teaching that depravity is a virtue to be embraced is alive and well. For instance, I have heard believers pray things like, “O Lord, forgive us – for we increase our depravity every day.” Believers sin every day in thought, word, and deed, but if you’re increasing your depravity every day, you might want to examine your heart and life and see if you have true faith!
Or, the most pervasive evidence of this faulty understanding of “depravity as a virtue to be embraced” is in the general call for believers to pursue sanctification by embracing their depravity – sometimes termed “brokenness.” In this line of thinking, Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:54-62) becomes a paradigm not only for every believer’s conversion experience, but also of every believer’s daily sanctificational experience. Understood this way, the only way to grow in Christ is by focusing and dwelling upon what a miserable sinner one is.
Not only is this practically dangerous in that it inevitably stunts the growth of believers, but it is biblically untenable. Instead of embracing – or even focusing on his sin and failures – the Apostle Paul acknowledges his own weakness, but is not satisfied to wallow in the mire of his sinful condition: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). And, his focus is not on who he was in his own sin, but on who he presently is in Christ Jesus: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).
There’s a world of difference between acknowledging one’s sin and weakness and embracing one’s sin and weakness. David J. Bosch writes in his book on a theology of missions A Spirituality of the Road (p 77):
When we realize that Christians are weak, we usually react in one of two ways. I use my weakness as an excuse or I reject it and demand strength. If I use weakness as an excuse I am not to blame for what is happening. God has caused me to be as weak as I am, therefore He is to be blamed if things go wrong. In fact, arguing this way, our weakness does not only become an excuse but a virtue. We are grateful for being weak because this relieves us of our responsibility; we may relax with a clear conscience.
Linked to the call to continually embrace one’s brokenness as a means toward sanctification is the refusal to ever compliment or recognize a person for their goodness or good work. In fact, if weakness and depravity are virtues to be embraced, rather than conditions which God remedies by the power of His Holy Spirit, then people are actually to be praised for their weakness and self-awareness of their own depravity. If depravity is a virtue to be embraced, then one could never say of a man, “He is to be honored for the work that he has done for the furtherance of the gospel” (actually, this is a paraphrase of what Paul said of Epaphroditus, Philippians 2:29-30). Instead, according to this view, one ought to only praise men for their worthlessness! Or, at least praise men for their awareness of their own worthlessness.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then keep your eyes open for this sort of “wormology.” It’s out there, I promise. Listen to how people talk about how to progress and grow in the Christian life. Listen to how people talk about others and what is virtuous. I once attended a gathering of Reformed pastors and elders in which every speaker and preacher was introduced the same way, “The best thing about Joe is that he understands what a great, big, fat sinner he is.” Well, OK. Good for Joe. But is that really the best thing that we can say about him?
In the early 1940s, in The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote the following:
If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
Thinking about how the positive virtue of Love has been replaced by the negative virtue of Unselfishness, causes me to think about how for many Christians the “pursuit of righteousness” has been replaced by the “denial of self-righteousness.” The New Testament has a lot to say about the denial of self-righteousness, but not about the denial of self-righteousness as an end in itself. We are told to deny or turn from our own self-righteousness and trust in Christ (Galatians 2:16); and nearly every description of what we shall find, if we do examine the Scriptures, contains an appeal to the desires of our new natures and the Holy Spirit within us.
For example, in his letter to the church in Galatia, even as the Apostle Paul condemns works-righteousness and the false notion of obtaining salvation by works of the law, his main exhortations at the end of the letter in chapter 6 are an appeal to sow to the Spirit:
For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary (Galatians 6:8-9)
But, here’s another thing that strikes me as I think about the above quote from C.S. Lewis: there are Christians today who have so embraced depravity as a virtue that they would deny one of Lewis’ main premises. They would deny that there even exist twenty “good men” whom one could ask such questions about virtue. They would argue that having a category of people whom one labeled “great Christians of old” would be inappropriate, prideful idolatry, or at best, humanism.
I remember having a discussion with a leader from another church about a church discipline issue and whether or not a particular action was right or wrong, his dismissive conclusion to our disagreement was this, “Look, all I know is that I’m 100% wrong all the time, you’re 100% wrong all the time, and God is 100% right all the time.” Need I even probe why this line of thinking is illogical, inappropriate, self-refuting, and can only lead to apathy?
Let me conclude this essay with a quote from outside the Reformed tradition from a man who also recognizes the dangers of embracing depravity as a virtue – though he uses slightly different terms. As he points out, one of the dangers of this line of thinking that we have been discussing is that it actually leads to the place that it so desperately wants to avoid: prideful self-aggrandizement. Commenting on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, in his book The Divine Conspiracy (p 103), Dallas Willard writes:
If all we need to be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens is to be humble-minded through recognizing our spiritual poverty, then let’s just do that and we’ve got bliss cornered. We escape the humiliation of spiritual incompetence because, strange to say, we have managed to turn it into spiritual attainment just by acknowledging it. And we escape the embarrassment of receiving pure mercy, for our humble recognition makes blessedness somehow appropriate. We have egg on our face perhaps, but at least we know it – and then can wear it defiantly, even proudly, like a badge of virtue.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch