“I just can’t beat it,” he said with his hands in his hair. He had been confronted with the reality of indwelling sin. “I’m just a guy. I’ll never break this porn habit.” I sat across from this man entranced by pornography’s mystical pull. As I look into the eyes of my brother, I want to say so many things. I begin, “You’re not alone” and go on “If I’m honest—the only thing that broke my porn habit was living in a van with three other guys when I was a traveling musician. There’s just not much room for porn when you can’t even change clothes in privacy.” Most of all, though, I want to ask him this question: “Can you imagine the Day when you will be physically unable to sin?”
Sometimes we are so overcome with our sin and so quick to make excuses we are in danger of overshadowing one of the most glorious truths of Scripture—one Day we will be made gloriously new, like our risen Savior.
Where the Discussion Starts
Without a robust understanding of depravity, we cannot have a correct understanding of the gospel. Recognizing sin as “within” rather than “without” must be the fuel that drives our desperation for redemption. In other words, we are not saved from the scary things out there; we are saved from God’s just wrath toward our own sinful nature.
This discussion is not new. Augustine argued in his own time that human free will is bent toward sin, and apart from a divine act of grace, humans freely choose evil. This is total depravity. The Reformation principle of unconditional election was founded on the same notion that man is totally depraved—nothing in any of us merits the gracious election of God from before the foundation of the world. We don’t bend toward him. He graciously condescends to us.
I’m all in on the discussion of total depravity, especially in light of today’s Evangelical climate—which for some can be summed up as simply, “You can do it.” Well, actually, you can’t. I can’t. That’s the point of grace. And without this understanding, when indwelling sin surfaces, we have no category by which to cry out for grace.
Where the Road Forks
However, there are two ways to frame the discussion of total depravity, as if we stand at a great fork in the road of Christian experience—one sign reading “slavery,” and one reading “freedom.” The first road is our default mode. It is a man-centered view of total depravity. Claiming to be wise, we show ourselves foolish when we declare, “wretched man that I am,” without also boldly proclaiming our redemption in Christ (see Paul in Rom. 7:24-25). Is that not the heart of what Luther was trying to communicate when he wrote to Melanchthon, “Let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.”1
The second way to frame this discussion must be God-centered. Here are the questions we need to ask: How long will God allow totally depravity to continue? What has he done to enter into our depravity and redeem it? What is the end of all this?
Where the Scriptures Meet us
And in the weeds of that discussion, we often find ourselves camping on this. Is this a post-Genesis 3 world, or is it a pre-Revelation 21 world?I completely understand that every fiber that God has intricately woven into his creation has been affected by man’s fall into sin. Total depravity is just that—total. However, as I look to the Scriptures, I see them more often pointing forward to a different world. I sense the longing of the prophets and the apostles for a time in which the effects of total depravity will be wholly reversed and when the redeemed of God will always choose righteousness.
When I read articles or hear sermons about the distortion of this post-Genesis 3 world, I want to scream out, “BUT A DAY IS COMING!” And I don’t think I am alone in this . . .
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. –Romans 8:18
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. –Philippians 3:20-21
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. –Isaiah 11:6
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. –Revelation 21:3-4
Here’s what I don’t see—excuses. I don’t see Genesis 3 being used as a crutch by which we might cry, “I wish I could do better . . . but I just can’t.” That notion is just not present in the Scriptures. To be fair, neither is the notion that we can do better, at least on our own.
This beautiful doctrine floods the pages of Scripture—we will be made new. In fact, everything around us will be made new. And, characteristic of the gospel of Christ, this is all by grace! None of it hinges on our own earning. Rather, God will make all things new at the consummation of his redemptive work in Christ.
Also characteristic of the gospel of Christ, this truth is compelling. It compels us, or drives us, to holiness. Or at least it did so for the biblical authors.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. —2 Peter 3:11-13
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Back to the young man in my office across the table, sulking over his porn habit and hiding behind a cup of coffee. When I asked him whether he could conceive of a time when he will be physically unable to sin, he answers honestly, “No.” I completely understand. I have no idea what that will feel like either. But here’s what I preach to him (and myself), “Don’t be driven to despair over your addictive habits. Look to that Day.” On that Day we will see our Savior face to face and be made new. We will simply be unable to sin. The physicality of the new earth should push us towards living holy now.
Christian, who does your depravity drive you to look? To yourself or your Redeemer? Where does your help come from? Are you looking back in despair, or are you looking forward with hopeful angst? Are you living in a post-Genesis 3 world, or in a pre-Revelation 21 world? Look to that Day, to your Redeemer.
1. Let Your Sins Be Strong: A Letter from Luther to Melancthon. “Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521. From Wortburg (Segment).” Translated by Erika bullman Flores. From Dr. Martin Luther's Saemmtliche Schriften. Dr. Johannes Georg Walch, Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol.15, cols. 2585-2590.↩
Alex Dean (@AlexMartinDean) is a pastor in Lakeland, Florida. Holding an undergraduate degree from Dallas Baptist University, Alex is currently completing his graduate work at Reformed Theological Seminary. His book, Gospel Regeneration: A story of death, life, and sleeping in a van, is available on Amazon, iBooks, and other online retailers. Follow his blog at www.GospelRegeneration.com and follow him on Twitter.