I was brought up in the Reformed Church and nursed on TULIP. As the years passed by, I was more and more dissatisfied with the abbreviation. It is an oversimplification of some tremendous truths. I still hold to the Canons of Dort, which teach more fully those doctrines that are intended to be summarized by TULIP. But I find TULIP to be oversimplified, good as a mnemonic for children, but should probably be left behind when one becomes an adult.
I’ve been thinking about the “T” – Total Depravity. The way I have mostly heard it taught is Jonathan Edwards style – that man and women are loathsome spiders held over the pit of hell by an angry God.
It is emphasized so much in Reformed circles that it is almost as if an essential attribute of humanity is depravity!
It is true that sin is a cancer that has invaded every part of a human being. There is none that seek after God. There is none who do good. No, not one. But we are talking about those kinds of works that can stand before the judgment throne of a holy God. The scripture does not teach the inherent goodness of man. Before God, all of our works must be perfect and we can’t even satisfy our own consciences, much less a holy God. Sin has corrupted us all – body and soul. We have fallen short of the glory of God.
But this does not mean that there is nothing good whatsoever in humankind. Murder is an affront against God because men and women are made in God’s image. To be sure, they are tainted by sin apart from God’s grace, but the image is still there.
Men and women still create beautiful things, have tremendous insights into human nature, and are capable of making relatively wise decisions. We celebrate art and music and humanities, and do not ask whether that celebrated person was in Christ or not. A Hindu or Muslim might teach our children math far better than a Christian could, and this should not alarm us. All gifts of beauty and wisdom come from the Father and are given to the children of Adam and should be celebrated. All humanity needs a Redeemer, but there is something beautiful there to redeem.
There is something in humanity that reflects the nature of God. This is what makes sin such an affront to God. It corrupts his beautiful creation and the dignity with which men and women were created.
That is the bad news. It isn’t the gospel. The gospel is that our Great Physician has redeemed us, body and soul, to belong to him. He has conquered sin and death and misery. He has delivered us from this deadly cancer and has begun the process of our re-creation after his image. We are being restored to his image by union with him. Each day we are his “workmanship – created in Christ Jesus unto good works.”
So what if we started treating people as if they were ESSENTIALLY image bearers of God rather than essentially sinners?
What I mean by essentially is that which makes up the essence of what we are. When all of the accidental attributes are stripped away, and when those things that make us different are stripped away, what is left? What is the humanness of humanity? What is the whatness of the essent?
Here is a hint: It isn’t sin. Sin came later, a pustulant cancer invading the will and the reason and the emotions. It took God’s good creation and turned it inward upon itself like Narcissus in his stagnant pool.
But God came into this world and took upon himself our flesh – born under the law. He bore that sickness and that infirmity and carried it to the cross, putting it to death once and for all.
And our humanity remained, forever united to the divine nature in the person of Christ, risen from the dead.
And in him, our cancer is being healed. Our doubts, lusts, fears, grumblings, pains, sorrows – are all being taken away, until we stand before our Groom complete, beautiful, whole and free from sin. He takes our gaze and lifts our head up from the stagnant pool so that we can see the glory of God and the beauty of his image bearers. And the day will come when we will be whole again.
And still gloriously human, but without sin.
If we view humankind as essentially sinful, then we will view the world as a place to be afraid. We will never rest for we must continually be on our guard against sin. We must look at every person in every situation and find out what they did wrong so that we can fix them.
We tell the church about the horrific abuse we have suffered, and they tell us what we did wrong, for that is all they know.
Our spouse, who vowed to love and cherish us, abuses us and takes a lover, and the church tells us what we did wrong, and how to dress and how to not be bitter, for they only see the world and humans as essentially fallen. They become C.S. Lewis’s dwarves sullenly hiding in their caves, looking out for themselves.
Because so often the church views people, at bottom, as sinners, rather than image-bearers of God. So we discount emotion, we take away choices, we silence the voice, we consider our neighbor as a poison to be avoided.
But what if, instead, humans were image bearers of God in their essence, as the scripture says,
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
And, yes, sin has tainted all of that. It is a deadly cancer eroding its host and will end in death if it is not taken away.
But the cancer of sin is horrible precisely because it has brought corruption and putrefying sores to something that was in essence very beautiful.
Start there. View your neighbor, the barista with the tattoos and nose rings, the lesbian co-worker, your middle aged boss – first and foremost as God’s image-bearers. Practice looking at the world beyond the taint of sin, to the beauty beneath. There you will find the connection, the common ground – the thirst for significance and beauty and intimacy and belonging.
Your view of the world will change. And maybe you will start to think God’s thoughts after him. For he so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Wrath is coming. But first comes mercy.
Edwards famously compared humans to a loathsome spider being held over the pit of hell by an angry God.
Let’s change that image. Jesus showed us how God views sinners: as lepers who need pity, rather than spiders to be crushed.
The crushing will come in God’s time. But today is not that day. Now, God’s hand of compassion is reaching out.
When the leper asked the Son of God, “If you are willing, you can make me clean”…
Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean.”