I’ve heard a few people from time to time complain that Evangelicals talk too much about original sin and not enough about original goodness. The complaint is that this leads to a negative attitude to humanity. We fail to see our potential for good.
So, I was interested to read Chris Goswami’s article in Premier Christianity, Five Things I wish I’d been told when I became a Christian. The whole article is well worth a read. I want to pick up on point 4. Here’s the quote in full.
“We underestimate both original sin and original goodness
We make two mistakes – at least I do.
Sin is more pervasive, has a greater hold on us, than we think. I am convinced, for example, that the way Christians sometimes treat each other in church, between churches and especially online, is sin, pure and simple. We imagine that we are somehow the defenders of the faith, our job is to put others right, until, as theologian Marguerite Bennett said: “being right becomes more important than being Christ like”. We underestimate sin in our lives – sadly we can even dress it up as something fine.
But we also underestimate the goodness of God in our lives. Our Christian worldview teaches us that, although on the surface we appear decent, polite and virtuous, beneath that we are sinful, selfish and we hurt one another. And, too often, the story ends there. But that isn’t the end! Beneath that we were all created in God’s image. Imago Dei, the image of God, within us is good. It does not rub off; it sticks. It’s the reason we see goodness in people from all walks of life, of all beliefs and no belief.
I am not trying to pick a fight with Calvinists on the doctrine of “total depravity” of mankind. But I am saying as Christians we can fixate on our sin and fallen nature, and completely lose the familiarity of Christ in us – “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)!”
Chris is right to say that “Sin is more pervasive than we think.” That’s the point of the doctrine of “Total Depravity.” Sin has affected us far more than we want to believe so that every aspect of our nature and character is under its reign outside of Christ. Not only that but it has affected us more deeply. We are not simply sin sick. The Bible tells us that we are dead in our sin.
Chris is also right to say that there is “original goodness.” We’ve kept returning to this point on faithroots.net. God made this whole creation, including humanity, good. God made us in his image.
So, I’m intrigued. Why would Chris be concerned about the risk of picking a fight with Calvinists because I’ve just re-stated a position that Calvinists would happily sign up to. I appreciate his desire not to pick fights and I think I can help him a little here.
The risk of a fight seems to come from a common misunderstanding of Reformed Theology, the perception that it starts and stops with Total Depravity and ends up with a miserable view of life. I also want to gently suggest that the Reformed or Calvinistic explanation will give us a more helpful way of explaining that relationship between sin and goodness.
So, we’ve already started with original goodness. God made this world without flaw. He made us in his image and placed us in his creation to worship him, care for his world and rule over his creatures under him. We were made good and for goodness.
Original Sin describes the fact that Adam chose to reject God’s goodness and rebel against him. We all sinned in Adam so that death came into the world. We are all subject to death in terms of our spiritual state, the coming reality of physical death and the future certainty of eternal judgement.
Yet, even though we are fallen, God still cares for all his creatures. Even after they sinned and even in the context of judgement, God covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness. He still gives them the role of looking after his creation and filling and subduing it even if that work now comes with pain and suffering. We are still able to be creative, to work hard, to be kind and generous. This is what is usually referred to as “Common Grace.”
It is “Common Grace” that enables us to “see goodness in people from all walks of life, of all beliefs and no belief.”
The problem is that I can do things that are creative and even kind and generous but if I am not doing them for God, if I am doing them to preserve myself then they are still sinful and idolatrous. It is my relationship with God that matters. That’s why the Bible tells us that outside of Christ there is no-one righteous. Even my good works fall short of his glory. Paul regarded his as filthy rags.
When we come to faith in Christ, the Bible describes a number of things that happen. We are brought to life (Regeneration), Jesus has taken our guilt and shame on himself and we are justified.
The third thing, justification is vital. When we think about the believer and goodness, it isn’t simply that we are trying to find our way back to an original goodness. Rather, Christ imputes his righteousness to us. We belong to him, we are united with him and so everything that belongs to him belongs to us. His goodness is ours. God looks at us as those who have always kept his law completely meaning he treats us as people who love him with our whole hearts and our neighbours as ourselves. It is my relationship with Christ (referred to as faith union) that matters.
It is in that context that we talk about something else. The Christian is justified, s/he has a right relationship with God. This is a description of our status and identity. But God is at work doing something else. God’s Holy Spirit comes to indwell us. He is at work in our lives changing us. We are becoming more and more like Christ. This is known as sanctification and sanctification leads to glorification. We are promised that one day we will be with Jesus, we will see him face to face and we will be like him.
I hope this helps us to think a little bit more about sin and goodness. When I am tempted to be proud and trust in my own good works, I am reminded that I have no righteousness of my own. I am human, I am a sinner saved by grace. In this life I continue to fail him. There is a constant battle going on as I am called to put to death sinful desires. Yet I also know when I struggle with sin that I am saved, I am justified. God has made me a new creation and given me a new name in Christ.