“Total Depravity” is not a phrase you’ll find in the Bible, but it describes a very biblical concept. In part, it’s the teaching that sin permeates everything we do, even at our best. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the aspect I need to touch on today.
Why? Because a wonderful fellow-blogger named Tami asked a very pertinent question in a comment on my last entry. She wrote:
One thing I find confusing is your statement that if we sin at all we are putting confidence in the flesh. Don't we all sin every day? How can humans ever say they are trusting God if sinning in any way means we live by flesh?
Excellent comment, Tami, and a wonderful point. I hope more people will follow Tami’s example and write down such thoughts and questions in their comments. I love to hear about what I need to clarify (especially if I’m scrambling for ideas for a new entry)! I won’t always know the answers, but I do want to know what the questions are so I can start thinking about them and researching them.
The Christian life is one of hope. In fact, Christians are supposed to be such hopeful people that it makes unbelievers actually approach us and ask us why we’re so hopeful (1 Pet. 3:15)!
Whew, I’ve got a long way to go with that. I grew up cynically convinced that Hope was a cruel trickster who only lifted people up so it could enjoy crushing them again. “You sucker,” Hope would sneer as it ground the shards of my shattered dreams into my face. “How could you be such an idiot?”
Of course, since God is our hope, I was accusing Him of being this monster! Such is my depravity. And even this week, my Father has been gently pointing out to me that I distrust Hope, and that I mistake the brittleness of cynicism for strength.
And it’s true. I have done, and still often do these terrible things in my heart.
Yet I write this without discouragement. How?
Because there is a world of difference between battling the flesh and walking in it.
Yes, I am totally depraved…in my flesh. Before I had the Holy Spirit, the flesh was all I had, so Total Depravity pervaded all that I was. But now that I have the Spirit, even though Total Depravity still pollutes all of my flesh, there is a newness of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6) which is God-given and genuine. That’s why my stumbling can’t steal my hope.
I can’t separate flesh from spirit clearly in my mind. They have a mysterious bond that is beyond mortal understanding. But the Word of God is sharp enough to divide even the soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12), so I have no doubt that the Word can also divide flesh from spirit. And when Jesus lived among us, He showed us His discernment when looking into sinners’ hearts. He said to his disciples as He pointed out their failings,
And while all of those disciples forsook Him and fled shortly afterwards, there was only one whom He referred to as His “betrayer.” That was Judas, of course. The rest He forgave and restored because they were His. They were marked out as His before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and would soon be sealed as His own by the Spirit of Promise. That same Spirit of Promise indwells true believers today (Eph. 1:13). Because He is in us, our sinful flesh no longer defines us. We can walk in the Spirit even though we still have that clingy Gollum of the flesh putting its putrid fingerprints on the very best that we do. The flesh is no longer the sum total of who we are.
The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mat 26:41)
God in his gracious mercy is very patient with the sins which we do in weakness and ignorance. These sins must be confessed and repented of when we become aware of them (Lev. 5:18, Acts 17:30, 1 Pet. 1:14). But God can see the difference between our toes and our heels…between feet that are stumbling towards Him and feet that are running away.
Just as He did with the disciples, God looks past our weakness to our spirit which He has brought to life. More importantly, He looks at His Spirit indwelling us. His own goodness shines through the slime of our flesh, and because He has graciously identified us with Himself, He attributes that goodness to us. No wonder we will stand in astonishment in Heaven, joyfully declaring our unworthiness to be there, and casting our crowns at His feet!
So in answer to your question, Tami, every time we willfully sin, we are putting confidence in the flesh, but we can’t say we are “living by the flesh” unless the flesh guides the general direction of our lives. As long as we are in this mortal body we will sometimes stumble, but we will repent, and we will get back up and continue our Spirit-led walk toward the One we desire.
He honors our desire for Him, because He gave us that desire in the first place (Deut. 30:6, Rom. 5:5, 2 Co. 4:6). And He always honors the work of His own hands. Therein lies our hope.
It’s true that, “In my flesh dwells no good thing,” but we who have the Spirit and are growing in Him will find too much encouragement in who He is to be discouraged by who we are.
But this entry is getting too long to dive further into the “hope” part of it. That will have to wait until next time. In the meantime, please leave your questions and comments below. I love hearing them, and other readers benefit as well.