The Essence of Humankind

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.”

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13 Comments

Filed under Anthropology, Sin and Grace

13 responses to “The Essence of Humankind

  1. Laurie

    Yes, yes, yes!!!! This makes such an incredible difference in how we view our fellow humans – and ourselves. Marred, but still beautiful. Thank you for framing this so clearly.

  2. Z

    Just beautiful! As a survivor of horrific childhood abuses by both parents and later by entire family of enablers (“Christians”!) the hypervigilance about people all being a danger to me that I carry in my body and mind are exhausting. But I needed to be aware of even the slightest facial expression, the tone of voice, an uptick in aggressive behavior, the very atmosphere..it was a survival skill I needed to protect my own life. I was always “on aleft” around people and rightly so!
    But seeing everyone as a potential danger to me is exhausting. And it does not serve me anymore. At least not HYPERvigilance. You are right, Pastor. I need to shed the self-protective mode since my abusers no longer have any access to me. Praise God, He provided a way of total escape!
    I can now at least try to see everyone as a person made in the image of God and of value and with qualities of potential beauty and excellence. It’s a hard adjustment to make after decades ugliness, depravity and harm and of needing my skills of super-suspicion and laser-focus on EVERYTHING and EVERYONE in order to survive. But you make such good points.
    MERCY, THEN JUDGMENT.
    And God will do the Judging part!
    With His help, I AM being restored to the whole and free person God created me to be. He sent Jesus to help me and to walk through this life alongside me. My High Priest Who lives to intercede for me at the Father’s Throne. And the Holy Spirit also to pray perfect prayers for me and be my supernatural Helper.
    And I need to realize that everyone else has the SAME opportunity and potential. Sin nature like me. But able to be redeemed by repenting and making Jesus Lord.
    Giving my now unnecessary level of survival burden to the Lord to carry, since I don’t need to carry it anymore, is part of my redemption! Your perspective has lightened my load.
    Thank you, Happy New Year and God bless and keep you and your lovely family.

    • Wonderful! Thank you for your comment. With Christ in you, you can truly experience completely restoration and he will do it!

    • Bunkababy

      Hey, you make great observations. I grew up like you, at least by damage comparison. I was commenting to my friend the other day how everything scared me as a kid. ( we were in the kids book section of value village) I was listing of the seemingly harmless books that terrified me. Until you said it, I had forgotten how hyper vigilant I was/ am. About danger and dangerous people. Now it’s less, the average person but now more than ever Christians.

      • Z

        Bunkababy,
        SO sorry you had to deal with anything near the terror I grew up with. Life/death were on the line every day. I didn’t know until I was an adult and sought counseling
        for what I didn’t realize were panic attacks that I’d always had Complex PTSD. (Different from PTSD in that it was ONGOING MULTIPLE TRAUMAS rather than one incident.)
        I used to be so afraid of the dark I had to sleep with a light on nearby or with a nightlight into high school age. I’d be so afraid of dark shadows cast by my own school clothes hanging up in my bedroom that I swore were “bad people in my room that were going to get me”. I’d wet the bed all the way through grade school because I was too afraid to get up and use the bathroom at night. I had the most horrific nightmares. The sick thing is I’d have to go to my now ex-parents’ bedroom to ask for comfort. Sick because THEY-my daily physical abusers-and my having to witness their violent DV near daily, were the REASON for those nightmares! But I had nowhere else to turn. My relatives-all “Christians”-accepted the culture of generational abuse and enabled it. They gaslit me into believing it was normal. Same with lifelong “church friends of the family”. I was trapped and hopeless and I often as a child prayed to God for me to die. But I escaped and now have No Contact with any of my ex-family. I’m happily married and we are living a true Christian life. They, however, are all doing the same things as always. Abuse and DV and severe codependency have spread to my siblings. And I was their target because I spoke up, resisted and mostly detached myself from them from a young age. I became their enemy. The scapegoat.
        You likely had childhood PTSD. And if you suffered spiritual abuse like I did-my abusers were professing Christians and have duped many churches and pastors and church congregants (still do!)-then I get why your “spidey senses” are on high alert with Christians now. Same with me. The most hurtful damage was the widespread betrayals and ostracization by “Christians” who ran to the abusers’ sides when I “dared” to call the police on them for their criminal violence and I went to No Contact permanently. I became the pariah to pretty much everyone I ever knew. The abusers’ and their synagogue of satan allies did a smear campaign of lies on me that still goes on to this day. Years later. So I get your hypervigilance around Christians if that happened to you too. It should NOT be that way among Christ’s family! But there are counterfeit christians for sure. And I let myself be vulnerable to Christians and pastors and elders, etc…thinking they could be trusted more than worldly people. Not! They did the most damage to my heart and spirit. Rocked my world and my faith! But not for long. Jesus has been my solid Rock! And Psalm 173 has been my go-to Scripture when I need to understand the injustice of it all. It has saved my sanity many times! I too am working on not being “on guard” all the time. It’s hard to shake when it’s “normalized” and necessary in your life from birth through well into adulthood. But my Lord is standing with me and giving me strength! I will be victorious over anxiety, CPTSD, chronic pain from longterm toxic stress, and hypervigilance that served me well to save my life but isn’t needed all the time anymore. Some level of caution is needed with people no doubt. The Bible even says to “guard your heart”. But we can let our HYPER-alertness relax when we get to know people are safe. Not all are and we have learned to read the signs and red flags through our hardships. We gain wisdom and discernment. God uses all things for our good! I pray the best for you. God bless you as you recover. And YOU WILL! Jesus has never left our sides. Even when we didn’t know Him, He never took His eyes off us!

  3. Janice

    Pastor Sam, Thank you for expressing such gracious,gospel saturated truths with humble clarity…your words reach beyond the mind,deep into the heart and soul.You have captured the very best of Reformed theology minus the distortions…this will be reread and shared many times over! Would love to read a longer version of this( like a book? hint😄)

  4. Bill Everson

    Yes!! Exactly!
    I was trying to come up with a parallel example of why an argument AGAINST a bad theology is NOT a good way to teach theology; and that is EXACTLY what ‘TULIP’ is. a REFUTATION of BAD THEOLOGY.

    I spent my life in higher education, mostly in medical schools, doing medical research. I did teach people that some things we were taught were wrong; but that was so they weren’t barriers to what we were leaerning together in the pursuit of knowledge that would help us find better ways to treat disease and help lessen human suffering. God shines Sunlight and brings rain on the crops of both the righteous and the wicked; we are called to proclaim the GOODNESS and GRACE of God.

    TULIP bears NO resemblance to the central theology Jesus taught His disciples, in all four gospels. And we are called to be FOLLOWERS of Jesus; disciples who FOLLOW Him in OUR lives. So the GOSPEL is the message that we START WITH; and it NEVER begins with total depravity.

    It begins with God; who made Himself fully known to us, in the Mystery of the taking on of human flesh, by Jesus, the Son of God.

    We don’t have to tell anyone what God inherently has revealed from His Whole Creation. His ‘wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness of man’ is ‘clearly seen through what has been made, so that they are without excuse’. And more-His ‘Invisible Attributes, Eternal Power and Divine Nature’ are also part of what God reveals.

    We already have a starting point; and what is most important in the Whole Counsel of God, Jesus summed up in the Great Commandments: Love God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

    Followers of Jesus are guided by teh GOSPELS, which show us how JESUS, the Son of Man, walked in Love, for His Father and for HIS ‘neighbors’. He even tells us WHO our neighbors are in His ACTIONS shown extensively in four gospels, and in parables, like the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    God already has laid the ground work for the foundational truths; which He made known to everyone; He is a God of LOVE, Who , who delights in Justice, Righteousness, and MERCY. Jesus came to redeem us, and offer to everyone, a Way to LIFE. He came to redeem sinners who fall short of God’s Love, Justice and Righteousness, and bring us into His Kingdom, out of a kingdom of darkness, into a Kingdom of GLORIOUS Light. the LIGHT OF THE WORLD is here; who ‘enlightens every man’, and calls us to be transformed, and renewed, and ABLE NOW to love God and love one another.

    Because JESUS came, paid the price for our failure to love, for missing the mark, for falling short of perfection. And so much more flows from that beginning Good News!

    God already has made us know and it is plain to all, that there is right and wrong and we all fall short.. but the GOSPEL is that we now cam KNOW God, the God of LOVE, the God of JUSTICE, the God of RIGHTEOUNSESS, the God Who WAS ‘set apart’ from us, that we now can JOIN… in a MYSTERY. Which brings HOPE. not despair.

    in contrast to the emphasis of TULIP.

    Rightly said, Sam!

    Bill Everson

  5. Yes! How different would we treat people in our own hearts and minds if we were to look for Christ in them? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I have a long way to go in this practice.

  6. Oof this is a tough one. Total depravity, at least the way it’s taught in Reformed circles, is a hard thing to deconstruct because it functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, every time some evil thing happens, or I hurt someone, or someone wrongs me, I find myself thinking “well, people are inherently evil, so why did I expect anything different?” Every wrong thing that happens confirms the belief.
    I like your perspective. It resolves a lot of the cognitive dissonance that comes with applying the TULIP theology to a world full of people who are generally trying to do the right thing. I’ve been trying to adopt a similar view for some time. But it’s a tough mindset shift when you’ve spent most of your life disgusted with yourself and you see everyone around you, even the good ones, as ultimately corrupt and untrustworthy because “even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”

  7. Kay O.

    Thank you Pastor Powell – for your beautiful words and for your prayers from previously. ♥️

    I had an amazing opportunity to share part of this with my youngest daughter a few days ago. She told me that I could keep talking, but I didn’t feel like it was the right thing at the time. Two days later I was able to send this to her – and it felt absolutely perfect.

    Beauty, grace, goodness and answered prayer. THANK YOU for the many, many wonderful blessings!

    (My message is short, my gratitude is truly enormous!) 🤗

  8. Bunkababy

    I really agree here. I can vividly remember going to youth, going to church and Christian school feeling superior to the Heathen and even other denominations. I don’t know how these ideas took hold or where they came from. But by golly if you even looked at a non Christian you were BAD.

    This has stuck to my core for so long. I mean I hang out with non church people. I prefer them. And have for almost 30 years. But SEEING and knowing the value of them for just being them, is happening all the time.

    I’m always surprised at myself for thinking the tattooed, furry tail wearing, bizarre make up etc, etc person is real under all that. They say something compassionate, or highly intelligent and I’m shocked. That is MY issue. It is MY judgment. It is My stupidity, my pride.

    I like watching Soft White Underbelly interviews on YouTube. You wanna start stripping off your own sinful judgments it’s a good place to start. It’s a great place to learn mercy and compassion for the human race.

  9. Yes! This is what my heart has longed to let my words sing!!!

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