“I know there is good in you.”
—Luke to Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi (1983)
As Seen on TV
The mass murderer … the serial killer, the paid assassin, the warmonger, the man responsible for the death of dozens or thousands of innocent people … suddenly becomes one of the good guys and joins the team. And everyone’s okay with this. Of course.
How many times has this plotline been drawn up for a TV show? We can think of Alias, Stargate, Babylon 5, Deep Space 9, Dr. Who, Once Upon a Time, Person of Interest, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black List, for starters. Our common rationale for buying into this frightening scenario seems to be, “Yes, he was bad. But he’s good now.” This assent to “instantly good” usually betrays a rejection of some basic biblical categories. So, let’s take a closer look at guilt and depravity.
Guilty as Charged!
We begin with guilt. Guilt is a legal category, not really an emotional or psychological one. In general terms, a man who commits a crime is guilty. He has broken a law and deserves punishment. How he feels about his crime is irrelevant. His guilt is an objective matter.
Scripture tells us of our legal guilt before God our Creator. God has clearly revealed His law in Scripture. That law is an expression of His holy nature and of the loving and faithful communion that exists among the Persons of the Trinity. God’s law is, therefore, good and right in this absolute sense. The man who breaks that law is in conflict with and at war against God himself … at war with Ultimate Reality.
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We might ask, “Can’t love overlook guilt? Can’t divine love just accept every man as he is, murderer and victim alike?” Scripture says: nope. God is One. There can be no conflict in His Being. In Him justice and love meet. His law is a perfect expression of His love, and God’s justice requires that He punish those who war against it. In fact, God describes Himself with these words:
The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation (Ex. 34:6-7).
‘At One’ (Atonement)
Hold on just a second, you say. God says He will “by no means clear the guilty,” and yet He claims that He forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin. Isn’t this a contradiction?
It’s not a contradiction, because God has many attributes. But it is, to me at least, another fascinating mystery of the Gospel. Though God must certainly punish sin, He can punish it in the person of a “fit” substitute. And His love and mercy have moved Him to provide such a substitute.
That Substitute is God Himself. The eternal God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, gave Himself as a penal substitute for sinners. Scripture speaks of atonement. The shed blood of Christ covers our sins so that we can be “at one” with God. God can forgive us because Jesus already bore our punishment on the cross. He can and will cover us with Jesus’ righteousness when we believe the Gospel. This is the doctrine of justification by faith.
You Dirty Rat! (Depravity)
But substitutionary atonement and justification by faith are not the whole of the Gospel, because guilt is not the whole of man’s problem. Fallen humanity is not just guilty before God … we also have a depraved nature, and that nature taints all that we are and do. In the days before the Flood,
. . . GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).
Theologians call this total depravity. This depravity has to do with the condition of the heart. So it’s “total” not in its depth, but in its breadth. It touches and defiles all that man is and does. It lies behind all of our choices, all of our thoughts and feelings. And, as long as we are dominated by such depravity, we will continue to be at war with God.
What depraved man needs, of course, is a new heart, a new nature. And this is the rest of the Gospel. The God who forgives sins for Jesus’ sake also transforms sinners through the regenerating and sanctifying power of His Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:7-14). Jesus forgives sinners and makes them new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). He also gives sinners a heart to love God and to keep His commandments (Heb. 8:10; Ezek. 36:26-27).
But here’s the important thing: If man has no “depraved heart,” there’s not a lot for Christians to talk about, is there? Because it follows quite logically then, that we don’t need Jesus to change hearts. In fact, we don’t need Him at all, except as a little frosting perhaps on an already beautiful cake, so to speak. If our nature is basically good, then we can’t really talk about human depravity in any meaningful sense. Absolutely no need for “the Gospel rescue mission.” If you believe this, it’s the “gospel of humanism” that shapes your basic beliefs, assumptions about reality, and ultimately your worldview.
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Romanticism in all its forms and from all ages assumes that man is basically good, that our emotions are pure and our basic intuitions always trustworthy. For those with this humanistic worldview, mankind in general has learned its destructive habits from society. Humankind’s poverty, education, food or “the man” has somehow corrupted him. We’re all hapless victims of Christianity or capitalism, of dark magic or our DNA. From this starting point, we’ve moved to saying, “But, if you just give us a new environment and the right external influences … you’re going to see change. Maybe regenerative wonders. Maybe behavioral miracles.”
Where’s the love, right? We’ve got to share the love. Come on people now… If we just loved the criminal more, his inner goodness will “break on through to the other side” and he will become the new man. The good man. And since none of the criminal’s corruption was ever his fault, we must now also receive him warmly back into society without qualification or question. Liberal theology demands he’s never had a sin nature, so the orders are … forgive, forget and integrate back into our neighborhoods with starry eyes and hopeful grins knowing we’re all in this together and we’re all good. But where do these ideas really come from? Ideas like we are “all good?”
The Pelagian and the existentialist assume that man has no fixed nature. Man creates his identity, creates himself, moment by moment by his own autonomous choices. The “good” man is the one who is currently choosing to do good. The “evil” man is the one who is currently choosing evil. But either man can alter the nature of his choices at any moment. The evil man can decide that he no longer likes the sort of person he’s been and suddenly choose good; the good man can abandon his good works and just as suddenly choose evil.
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Why would either make such a choice? Environment. Crisis. Loss. New perspective. Impress a woman? Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s not for us to question, we’re told. But once the man says, “I’m good now,” we are supposed to instantly forget what he’s been and regard him as he says he is. The past is a dead letter.
Think this is just theology with no practical application? One of my employee’s husband had a sister who was murdered back in the 80s. She was savagely beaten, raped, tied to a tree and shot in the head. Her murderer got away with the crime. Ten years later he even started to brag about it. Then one day he bragged to the wrong person and was turned in. He admitted in court that he did it and was given 71 years in jail. After serving only 10 years, he came up for parole and is about to be released. He told the parole board he was “good now” and proved it by getting a law degree at the taxpayers’ expense while he was serving time. A law degree proves you’re good? Irony of ironies, I suppose. Bottom line: His parole board and liberal judge wants him in your neighborhood because he says he’s good.
Conclusion: Ideas Have Consequences and Theology Matters
Man, in his rebellion against God, will not admit the existence of guilt and depravity. Yet our culture still clings to corrupted notions of atonement and justification. Atonement becomes self-atonement, a demanding program of charity and self-sacrifice or an elaborate system of blood rituals and magic, or a hell of suffering and torment inflicted by the mindless universe, the helpful sadist, or even the empty angst of one’s own self-destructive habits. Regardless, the goal of self-atonement is self-forgiveness and self-justification. The rest of us are expected to forgive on demand and, of course, pity anyone who struggles dutifully on their own personal 12-step journey. (We’ve got Freud to thank for much of this.)
The Gospel says that self-atonement is self-delusion and madness. Only God can forgive sins. He forgives sins only because of Jesus’ sufferings and death 2,000 years ago on the cross. In that divine atonement is true justification and new birth. There is no other remedy for sin.