Are We Really That Bad?

Ever since I returned to the church, I’ve been intrigued by certain doctrines. One of those is Calvinism. Now, anyone that knows me knows that I’m not about to go out become a hard-core Presbyterian. My interest is more in the vein of “Where did that idea come from?” One the aspects of Calvinism that I struggle with the most is that of Total Depravity. This is the idea that,due to Adam’s fall in the garden (original sin), we are, on our own, unable to love God. Instead, we are drawn by our sinful nature to serve our own ends and desires.  This doctrine says that not only are we unable to pull ourselves out the muck and mire of our lives, we don’t want to do anything like that.  We are saved only through God’s grace, which He bestows on some and not on others. If you listen to the hard cases describe our condition, it’s terrible. Things like “vile, corrupt creatures” and “completely unworthy of God’s love”, that sort of thing. I’ve never liked that characterization. If we’re God’s children and he created us, why would he make us like that? I’m a father, and I would never hamstring a child of mine that way? And, if I see that, why can’t God?

Once, I spent a good deal of time happy about being a Wesleyan and Arminian because I thought they were diametrically opposed to Calvinism. Or so I thought. Then, I did a little reading. It turns out old Jacobus (Arminius, that is. Founder of the doctrine Wesleyanism built on) was a student of Calvin’s hand-picked successor, Theodore Beza. If that wasn’t bad enough, Arminius even agreed with Calvin about total depravity. In fact, the first tenet of Arminianism states that we are naturally unable to make any effort to move toward God. That kind of shook me and I began think I wasn’t such great admirer of Arminius after all. The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me, so I spoke to a pastor about it. When I explained my reluctance to embrace original sin, she said to think of it this way: since the Fall, our condition is one that’s predisposed to sin. I can buy that. I can also buy that I can’t give up sin without help. I don’t believe that we’re totally unable to do so because we’re tainted as a result of Adam’s fall. Now, I realize the hard-cores would call me a Pelagian (a 5th century priest who built a theory of salvation based on works and morality), I’ll take it a step farther. I think prevenient grace, that grace that helps us see we need God’s help, doesn’t so much engage our free will and allow us to accept God’s justifying grace as it helps the better parts of our nature to overcome those parts that want to continue wallowing in sin. Maybe that’s radical and maybe it’s not. It is how I see the situation.

To answer the question in the title, I’m reminded of something Rob Bell said in the “Dust” video from NOOMA,

“God has an incredibly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things. I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me. I have been told that I need to have faith in God. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that God has faith in me.”

If that’s true, I can’t all that bad, can I?