Restored Dignity Trumps Total Depravity

Image by joselito.jb33 via Flickr

Mick Turner

Although I am far from a biblical scholar, I can say without reservation that I have spent considerable time over the years studying the scriptures, researching their subtleties, attempting to discern their different layers of meaning, and, above all, trying to apply these principles to my daily life. I mention this at the outset because I am about to say a few things that are likely to sit sideways in the throats of fundamentalists in general and those of a Calvinist persuasion in particular.

Getting right to it, let me say right out of the gate that one of the things that both galls and baffles me is how seemingly intelligent people can read the Bible and come away with the ill-conceived notion that we humans are forever tainted, stained by “original sin” and worse still, “totally depraved” sinner worms that deserve nothing more than to be roasted in Hell on the end of Satan’s skewer. Personally, I think this notion has caused more harm to both the church and Western culture than the invasions of the Magyars, Huns, and various other barbarian hordes.

This whole notion of “total depravity” is often cited as having its origin with John Calvin, and to be sure he held this view and elaborated on it. However, this teaching goes back much farther in the Catholic Church and in the fifth century, was kick-started once again by Augustine.

This teaching, in addition to being erroneous, unbiblical, and near-heresy, has also done much to rob sincere Christian seekers of their dignity as human beings. I am convinced, after pouring through the scriptures, that this was never the Creator’s intention and, as we shall see, it was never the intention of Jesus.

As humans, we were created in God’s image. This doesn’t mean we were created in his physical image as much as it means that we were created in his essential image – that our character and our capabilities were modeled on his. Does this mean that we are “little gods” as some claim? I don’t think so. But what it does mean is that when we humans were created, we bore God’s perfect image within us and, equipped with that image, that character, and our inherent capabilities, we were charged with ruling earth in God’s stead.

Granted, when sin entered the picture things changed. However, what many otherwise sincere Christians apparently fail to realize is the fact that Christ restored us not only to our former status, he brought us up to an even greater station. Whereas before Christ we bore the image of God, now we have that image within us and much more. Now, the Holy Spirit resides in each and every one of us, empowering us to do all the things we could not do on our own. Further, Christ has promised to be with us until the end of the age. Even more amazing, Christ is now in heaven interceding in our behalf and in an act that further boggles the mind, the Master had infused all creation with himself. (See Ephesians 4:10)

Our dignity as human beings has been fully restored. I find it shameful that, in spite of all that Christ endured to bring about this blessed state of affairs, elements within the church have, throughout its history, denied his accomplishments, ignored his teachings, and refused to teach the truths of scripture related to all that he accomplished on our behalf. Choosing instead to remain riveted on humanity’s sinful nature to the point of obsession, these supposed stalwart defenders of the faith have instead foisted a gospel on the church that is both incomplete and inaccurate. The result has been, as stated earlier, to erode our God-given dignity as human beings and to create false divisions within the church, thereby reducing its effectiveness and its power. If one listens very carefully, he or she can hear the gales of laughter flowing out of the gates of hell.

Rubel Shelly, in his excellent book entitled, I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian and I Liked Him Better Then, speaks candidly regarding the true intent of the gospel:

The gospel of Jesus Christ affirms, defends, and enhances human dignity. The message of salvation is about restoring the relationship not only between God and humankind but also among divided and alienated human beings. The wedge that 1700 years of institutional Christianity has driven between insiders  and outsiders, males and females, one racial or ethnic group and another, wealthy and poor, one social class and another, prostitutes and preachers is contrary to the explicit will of God on the pages of Holy Scripture. All of us know that. But we haven’t lived into it very well.

Given the details of the history of Christianity, particularly in the West, it is safe to say that the last line of the above quotation from Shelly’s book qualifies as massive understatement. Instead of the dissolution of socio-economic barriers envisioned by Jesus, the church quickly devolved into just another arm of those in power, operating by the principle of “divide and conquer.”

This was a far cry from the way Jesus operated, as well as the early church. Instead of fostering divisions among people, races, and cultures, the early Christians, taking their cue from the Master, went about breaking down barriers between people. Jesus was their trend setter for unity. Charles Tabor remarks:

Jesus alone among all religious founders and leaders rejected all forms of discrimination and insisted that all human beings ought to be treated in exactly the same way. His own dealings with women, with children, with lepers and other ritually polluted people, and with foreigners radically undermined all the distinctions that human societies of his day unanimously institutionalized. He extended the category “neighbor” to all humankind and insisted that the two Great Commandments applied to all; and he taught his disciples to love even their enemies. These surely were among the reasons why Jesus’ peers found him troublingly subversive and therefore condemned him.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that our advancing technology had finally solved the mysteries of time travel, thus allowing us to go back to the days of the early church and witness the agape love they shared for one another. Time travel is still not a reality, yet God blessed me with the opportunity to witness this sort of barrier-breaking love and acceptance first hand. When I lived and worked in China my wife and I had the great fortune to meet with and develop friendships with many Christian brothers and sisters.

The churches in China are packed to overflowing, whether you are talking about the established Three Self Patriotic Church or the non-registered, underground house churches. What we witnessed, in addition to the fervor and the passion with which these Christians pursued their faith, was the fact that they came from all walks of life. Doctors, teachers, cooks, waitresses, painters, brick-layers, construction workers, professors, musicians – all came together in a spirit of unity, mutual respect, and singleness of purpose. As Christian brothers and sisters, these believers lived a truth that many of us in the West have long since abandoned – they recognized each other’s worth and dignity as children of the Light. For a foreigner like myself, to witness such a spectacle over a period of five years was a rare and wonderful blessing.

It was in this context of mutual respect and caring fellowship that the early church celebrated the restoration of human dignity. These first brothers and sisters clearly understood what Christ had wrought on the cross, through his resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and his infusion into all things (Eph. 4:10). Popular biblical writer and teacher N.T. Wright gives us a clear picture when he writes:

The life of believers, individually and collectively, is intended to incarnate the biblical reality of human dignity. The church is called to be an alternative society, living in a contrasting style in the midst of the world. Its members are, in God’s design, not self-promoting, as the world is; they are not competitive, as the world is; they do not advance at the expense of others, as the world does; they do not take advantage of the weakness of others, as the world does. They love one another and do good to and for one another. Failing that, there is no compelling reason for the world to pay attention. Which is to say that the only means by which Christians can commend a truly godly vision of human rights is to incarnate them in their individual and collective lives, to announce God’s actions and intentions that constitute the Gospel, and to act justly in the name of God.

As I reflect on the words of Dr. Wright, I am immediately aware of how far short of the mark many of us who accept the mantle of “Christian” come when it comes to treating people with respect and honoring their dignity. Further, we remain as a church a far cry from the unified body envisioned by Christ and advocated by Paul.  Quite frankly, I am often appalled at the manner in which professing Christians treat other people, even those of the same faith. Increasingly, and I say this with great sadness and more than a little shame, it is becoming difficult to find examples of the agape love the Master instructed us to incarnate into the world.

In his epistles, John clearly states that the defining characteristic of God is love and that the same holds true for his children. John’s point is clear – if love is not in us and if we do not manifest that love, particularly toward one another, then perhaps we are not truly children of the light. Unfortunately, this absence of love is increasingly becoming the norm among those who call themselves “Christian.” Just a few days before writing this article, the Faith and Values editor of a major area newspaper stated on her Facebook page that in her office she often received angry phone calls. Given the nature of her work and the fact that it involves writing about a very sensitive subject – religion – this was not surprising. A bit more unexpected, however, was her statement that the majority of these angry phone calls were from Christians.

 Clearly the evidence indicates that we, as alleged followers of Jesus Christ, have forgotten how to treat each other with care and respect. Perhaps, just perhaps, one factor contributing to this state of affairs is that many of us have been raised with the misguided notion that, as humans, we are depraved sinners unworthy of even a modicum of respect. Why treat a sinner worm as if they possessed dignity? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to treat them as the belly crawlers that they are?

Granted, I am engaging in a bit of hyperbole here. Still, the point remains the same. Many of us in the church have lost sight of the realities inherent in Christ’s mission to this planet. His was a mission of renewal and restoration and one of the primary things that he restored was our dignity as human beings, created in the image of the One True God. No, we are not perfect and many of us consistently fall short of the mark when it comes to “living by the Book.” Yet the work of Christ, in ways far too profound for me to even begin to fathom, has wiped the slate clean. In spite of our imperfections, we are still worthy before God with our heads held high, possessing and demonstrating the dignity that he placed in each and every one of us. To do less would be to deny the miraculous grace that Christ brought into this world.

 Yes, my friend, you are worthy of being treated with that kind of respect and dignity. And please keep in mind, so is your neighbor.

 Think about it.

 © L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved


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