One of the theological concepts my students often have problems with is the doctrine of total depravity. A typical response to the idea is not to examine Scripture or carefully study one of the classic theological developments of the concept, but to reject it out of hand. Typically, it’s just a knee-jerk response: “That can’t be! I’m not that bad!”
There are some common misconceptions about the classic doctrine of total depravity that can easily be cleared away. One is that it means that all humans are as wicked as they possibly can be, an assertion that is obviously false. Every day, the vast majority of drivers of automobiles choose to avoid running down pedestrians rather than running them over. Most business people avoid defrauding their customers. Most parents care for their children and provide what they need. While there are exceptions, it is clear that most people, most of the time, commit far less evil than they have the ability to commit. Total depravity does not claim otherwise.
Another misconception is that total depravity means that humans cannot do virtuous or laudable things–again, an assertion that is obviously false. History abounds with stories of heroism and altruism. On large and small scales alike, people sacrifice for the good of others and give to others with no expectation of anything in return. These are good things, and again, total depravity does not claim otherwise.
But even when the misconceptions are cleared away, and total depravity is carefully explained, the concept itself is hard for us to accept. Total depravity says that every one of us is born with a corruption that goes all the way down to our very center, such that everything we do resists honoring and glorifying God and insists on honoring ourselves instead. Martin Luther described it as being “curved in on oneself” (incurvatus in se, for all you Latin speakers). In commenting on Romans 5:4, he wrote,
Due to original sin, our nature is so curved in upon itself at its deepest levels that it not only bends the best gifts of God toward itself in order to enjoy them (as the moralists and hypocrites make evident), nay, rather, “uses” God in order to obtain them, but it does not even know that, in this wicked, twisted, crooked way, it seeks everything, including God, only for itself. As the prophet Jeremiah says in Jer. 17:9: “The heart of man is crooked and inscrutable; who can know it?” i.e., it is so curved in upon itself that no man, be he ever so holy, can know it. (Lectures on Romans, Westminster John Knox Press, 1961, p, 159).
Luther goes on to quote additional scriptural evidence that supports this (a task that is only difficult when one seeks to be comprehensive), including Psalm 19:2 and Psalm 32:6. One could also add Ephesians 2:1-3, Romans 3:9-19, Genesis 6:5, etc., etc. It is clear as well that Luther understands this to be a problem that remains in believers following justification, as he observes,
So therefore, if what we have said is true, namely, that the wickedness that works impatience or, at least, causes us to be impatient is nothing else than this curvedness, which cannot but hate the cross because the cross mortifies everything we have, while our self tries to keep itself alive together with all that is part of it, then (we can understand) why God in his great goodness inflicts tribulation, trouble, and trial upon man soon after he has justified him and bestowed upon him the gifts of the Spirit: he wants to prevent his ungodly nature from rushing in upon them in order to enjoy them, because they are indeed lovely and most enjoyable; and he wants to save man from eternal perdition, for he would not know about this unless he were tried (p. 160).
Apparently, Luther considers the understanding of our depravity to be essential to our sanctification, a concept that we also find in the Bible. Writing to believers, Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). We need to recognize that this “curvedness” is true of us if we are to obey Paul’s command to put these things to death.
But it is precisely here that Christians often deploy the “SEP juke.” Let me explain… Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, speaks of a cheap and astonishingly effective substitute for a cloaking device that uses an “SEP field.” The SEP field doesn’t make a spaceship actually invisible, but it causes all who see it to think that it is Someone Else’s Problem, which is just as effective as if it were invisible.
I’ve seen it time and time again. A Bible study leader or Sunday school teacher begins to talk about a common sin among Christians–say materialism, gossip, selfishness, prejudice, pride, or any of what Jerry Bridges called “the acceptable sins of the saints” (Respectable Sins, NavPress, 2007)–and the class begins to talk about how common it is to see these things in the godless society we live in, how they are so shamelessly promoted by popular media, and, by the way, how abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism is leading to the decay of our country. Or even worse, when the pastor reaches one of those uncomfortable passages in Scripture (like Colossians 3:5) that call us to put to death sin in our lives, and suddenly the application avoids what Paul actually names and turns to such things as overeating, procrastination, or spending too much time watching football. Because, obviously, it’s those people out there who commit the serious sins. In both of these situations and many others, the serious sins become someone else’s problem, not our own.
One problem with this is that the SEP juke is largely responsible for the reputation many evangelicals have of being self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical. The biblical archetype of the SEP juke is the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14 who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” These sins are someone else’s problem!
But it is just as clear from Jesus’ parable that such a strategy is spiritually deadly. Jesus explains that it was the tax collector, who prayed for mercy, who went down justified, and not the Pharisee. The SEP juke is, ironically, a clear confirmation of the very total depravity it is designed to cloak, and unfortunately it is all too effective, since when sin is someone else’s problem, we can continue complacently on our former course. None of that awful mortification stuff is needed. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out so forcefully, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan, 1959, p. 44).
In saying this, Bonhoeffer proved himself to be an heir of Luther, and a true theologian of the Cross. To miss this truth is to miss true life altogether, since as Luther noted, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 18). The gospel is for sinners, and it is truly good news, since “the love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 28). Luther explains, “This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person.” Don’t SEP juke yourself out of the loving, sanctifying grace of God!