I was sitting in a college history class many years ago. My professor asked for a show of hands: “How many of you believe man is basically good?” Most people raised their hands. “How many of you believe man is basically bad?” Two or three people raised their hands, including me. I looked around somewhat perplexed; my Calvinist upbringing put me at odds with almost everyone. Yet when I look back, something was wrong.
More recently, a young man who attended a Bible study I was leading asked me a question. During one study, I mentioned that God considered human beings valuable enough to save; otherwise, He wouldn’t have sent His Son to die for people. I said we have inherent dignity; there’s a worthwhileness about us. This young man came up to me after the study, confused. He quoted Romans 3:12:
“All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
He respectfully asked how I could say that humans are worthwhile if the Bible tells us we’re worthless. I was thrown off guard, because I could see how I appeared to be directly contradicting Scripture. A plain, surface-level reading of Romans 3:12 led him to believe that men and women are worthless. God saved dirty rags (Isa. 64:6), trash (1 Sam. 2:8), worms (Job 25:6; Ps. 22:6). Who are we to think of ourselves as worthwhile at all?
I realized in reflecting afterward that I had found myself caught on the horns of a false dilemma, but to understand the dilemma, we need to think about our historical context.
It’s our inheritance as Protestants to think of ourselves as sinners, incapable of willing spiritual good. This was the underlying logic of Martin Luther’s despair as he went through the repetitious cycle of the Roman Catholic sacramental system. He realized he would never measure up; he would never stop sinning in this life; his sin went so deep that he could never confess or do enough to merit salvation. He had a sober understanding of who he was before God, and this led him to be awed by the grace made apparent in the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17).
He realized that God’s saving righteousness was Jesus Christ, and God stoops to save sinners. Therefore, when we throw ourselves on the mercy of God exhibited in the infinite grace freely given to us in our Lord Jesus Christ, then we experience the joy of salvation — by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It’s no wonder that Protestants sing “Amazing Grace” with gusto.
Luther, however, lived in an age permeated by Christian thought. Protestants and Roman Catholics didn’t argue that we were made in the image of God. That was a given; the question was: How far did we fall? Did we simply lose a certain grace that was divinely imparted to us so that we now stand in a somewhat neutral position before God (as Roman Catholic doctrine asserts)? Or did we fall so far that now we’re unable to will true spiritual good apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (as classical Protestantism asserts)?
Moreover, the doctrine of total depravity, which has come to define the Reformed understanding of sin, wasn’t even introduced at these debates between Luther and the pope, though Luther likely would have agreed with the doctrine. It was a century after the Reformation, at the Synod of Dort, that internal debates among Reformed churches in the Netherlands led to the doctrine of total depravity being systematically codified. These debates, like the debates between Protestants and Roman Catholics a century earlier, centered around how sin had affected man’s being made in the image of God.
Arminians at the Synod of Dort posited that mankind wasn’t affected wholly by sin; rather, we were affected only partially. The Reformed responded that sin has wholly affected our every faculty. Sin goes deeper than we all might realize; we cannot fully trust our minds, wills, hearts, souls, and bodies anymore, for they are prone to sin. Man can still achieve a measure of relative good (e.g., caring for our families, helping our community, being honest at work) apart from regeneration. However, apart from grace we don’t do these things unto God’s glory, so they are not spiritual goods. God’s common, non-saving grace remains in effect, yes, because man is created in God’s image. But his sin goes deep — in short, he’s totally depraved.
The image of God
Today, we are 500 years removed from these debates. The average individual on the street often has no inkling of what it means to be made in the image of God, much less any subtle theological understanding of just how much sin has affected our being created in His image. The very foundation for total depravity — the assumption that we’re created in God’s image — has been eroded. Witness the ongoing debates in our culture about human dignity: whether babies in utero have rights; whether women are women and men are men; whether sexual exploitation and pornography are empowering or not. Christians, as a result, may be tempted to forget about our being made in the image of God as well. And if we do, we will also forget what total depravity actually means, and we will be caught on the horns of a false dilemma:
How can we say that man has inherent dignity (the image of God) and yet at the same time he is a terrible sinner — worthless (total depravity)? Isn’t he either the former or the latter?
The answer to this false dilemma is simply “yes.” We are both. Man is far above all other creatures (Ps. 8:5); he is “wonderful” (Ps. 139:14) and “beautiful” (Prov. 20:29). No other creature has the honor of being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). But he has also fallen very far:
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive” (Rom. 3:13).
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way” (Isa. 53:6).
We are deeply sinful — dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) — and can contribute nothing to solving our spiritual predicament. We cannot will the truly good and deserve judgment; in that sense, we are worthless.
So, the answer to my young friend’s question about the worthwhileness of men and women was, “Yes, we are worthless, but we are also worthwhile — but not in the same way and in the same relationship.” The image of God imparts dignity and worthwhileness to us in our very being because that is how God created man; but our every faculty has now been corrupted by sin in this post-fall world. We therefore deserve judgment. Ironically, the very judgment we deserve speaks to the dignity we’ve compromised. We were created to be the pinnacle of creation and to experience eternal bliss; now we deserve eternal damnation.
So, we are worthless in terms of our spiritual good, but not in terms of our being human. Humans, both Christian and non-Christian, are always valuable because the image of God cannot be erased. It’s marred in sinners but not eliminated. Moreover, Christians aren’t totally depraved any longer — the image of God is being restored in us (Col. 3:10).
I wish that when I was in that college class years ago that I simply hadn’t raised my hand at all. There are times when we’re pressed to accept an oversimplification of a particular subject and it’s best to abstain or reframe the question. What I experienced on that day was what’s called a false dichotomy: dividing a complex subject into two different viewpoints, neither of which do justice to the subject at hand. The questions didn’t allow for nuance: “Yes, in one sense, people are basically good, because they’re created in the image of God, and no, they’re basically evil in another sense, because they’re sinners.”
Let us therefore be careful, as Christians, to recognize the full scope of what it means to be human, avoid oversimplification, and speak discerningly with our neighbors about what we believe it means to be human for the sake of God’s Kingdom and glory.
Rev. Thomas Brewer is vice president of publishing and senior associate editor of Tabletalk magazine. He is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.