During a workshop I brought up the aspect that we are depraved but also created in the image of God. A pastor felt that I went too far. We had a sort-of-agreement when he said, “It depends on what side of the horse you get off” Looking back I should have responded, “Why can’t we just stay on the horse?” In other words, we need both views but in balance.
Depravity of Humankind
After some years in prayer and resolution counseling with Christians, no one has to convince me that we are depraved! One theology book says that we have a “continuous bias toward evil.” I say that we have a predisposition towards sin.
When we only focus on our depravity then we begin to excuse sinful behavior and bad choices. One famous evangelist recently forgave another because he understood the frailty of man! God doesn’t use that standard in excusing wrong behavior and neither should we.
When we emphasize our depravity and think in terms of total and complete depravity we cannot accept the selflessness of the starving mother who gives the last piece of bread to her daughter. In my younger days, my way of explaining this, was to assume that such people had ulterior motives.
But tending towards evil does not mean we cannot be or do good at times! The most depraved seem to have a good side: The prison guard who tortures humans but is kind, considerate and loving to his dog. The man who loves his wife yet cons the elderly out of their life savings without a hint of remorse.
As we consider how to forgive others and how to ask forgiveness with awareness, we can be misled if all we view is our fallen nature.
The scriptures tell us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. That is absolutely true — in its context. The issue is that none of us can maintain absolute goodness and most of us, even in the best of circumstances, tend to shift back and forth between righteous and unrighteous behavior throughout the day.
The Image of God
God said, “Let us make man 9in our image, after our likeness . . .” (Genesis 1:26). In that likeness we have personality, will and emotions. We are moral beings in that we have a sense of right and wrong, a conscience. We have choice.
An indication of our moral nature is that we desire justice! When someone sins against us or against society we intuitively recognize the need to balance the scales of justice.
This also means that we recognize a standard of right and wrong. Our standard, however, is getting increasingly distorted in today’s world as we shift toward an ‘anti-moralist’ position: “We shouldn’t impose our views of right and wrong on others.” Or, “It is only wrong if it hurts another.”
If we do not recognize that we can do good, then it takes away the basis for recognizing that we have a choice to do good, to do evil. If we only view our depravity then we can excuse, in a sense, our unrighteous choices.
But God judges us on the basis that we have the freedom and ability to choose and that choice includes both good and bad ones. And God respects us enough to hold us accountable for those choices. Even in a distorted way, the fact that we know right from wrong shows that we were created in the image of God, marred by sin though we may be.
Focusing only on our depravity can get us in trouble as we try to understand the wrongs that have been done. When we sin we can conclude that “we did the best we could” (There is no higher standard we can reach) or “We couldn’t help ourselves” (That is just who we are).
What I find interesting is that the average non-Christian, Muslim, Hindu or pagan accepts an ideal standard of behavior and, even if they don’t live up to it, they use it as their rule of thumb for determining right from wrong.
In Colombia, the tribe we lived with killed babies for 3 reasons: (1) the baby was deformed (2) the baby was a product of incest, (3) the baby was the second member in a set of twins (The first baby was considered normal;’ the second one was a ‘monster’ in disguise). We also knew one mother who killed her new born baby to spite her husband. The Indians seemed totally unconcerned about the death of babies and talked about it on the same level as the weather.
When Anita, one of the Indians, became a Christian we asked her, “What sins did God forgive when you accepted Jesus?” She replied, “He forgave all of them.” We asked it another way, “What kinds of sins did he forgive?”
The sins Anita mentioned were sins like mocking God, being unfaithful to her husband, sleeping around, stealing and so on. Not one sin was outside the standards set by the Scriptures. For example, she did not mention eating meat when she was sick or ritually unclean, or eating a certain bird — which was taboo sins for the tribe people. Anita did say however, “But I never killed babies.”
Anita knew in her heart it was wrong — that is both the Holy Spirit in action and an indication that Anita knew right from wrong in her innermost being. A fallen nature, yes, but also created in the image of God. She was still in that image of God even in her fallen state.
There is None Righteous?
In North Africa, on two different occasions, I have met missionaries who were disturbed because they had met Muslims who were godly people. They could not reconcile how someone could be righteous, and yet not ‘saved.’
In our fallen state we still have the ability to make choices, often bad ones but also good ones. In every culture I have lived in I know people who consistently make good choices and are righteous people. The issue is not that righteous people exist but that righteousness, by human standards, is not enough by God’s standards.
The Scriptures tell us that our righteousness is as filthy rags and that is true, but that is in comparison to a holy God. It does not rule out our doing righteous deeds — they just don’t compare or stand up to his holiness. When Jesus talked to the rich young ruler he actually acknowledged that man’s righteousness and loved him for it — but it still did not match up to God’s standard of righteousness.
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Image of God or depravity of man? Both views are needed to get to the truth. Created in the image of God we have choice; predisposed towards sin we often make bad choices. We sin. We are held accountable for both the good choices and the bad choices. No matter how many good choices we make, they cannot cancel out or erase the bad/sinful choices.
So, on the one hand, it is nice to recognize that we can make good choices and be righteous in our living but, on the other hand, it is somewhat depressing to realize that the best that we do isn’t enough anyway! But God has provided the answer to that dilemma.
Since we cannot reach God’s standard he has reached down to our level and provided a bridge to righteousness. Wrong-doing, or sin, has to be handled. Through the ages, in most cultures this has been recognized and that is why sacrifice tends to be the answer to payment for sin. The problem is that no sacrifice at the human level can satisfy a holy God. So God provided a ‘god sacrifice’ that would satisfy even his holy nature and that is where Jesus came in.
If no human payment could be enough to pay for sin then God would have to provide a payment at his level. So God sent Jesus as a man (really god-man) who lived a godly life until he died on the cross. He came to die and that is what he did. A perfect and blameless sacrifice which God could accept as payment for us. And since it was provided at the ‘god level’ that sacrifice was timeless (eternal) and all-sufficient (enough to cover all sin). The only requirement is that people accept that payment.
We are made in his image but we cannot stand on our own righteous accomplishments as a means to approaching a holy God. There are a few who might be righteous but not by God’s standards.
We live in an age of pluralism: People should be allowed to think whatever they want about life, God, good and evil. There are many ways to God. Who are you to tell me that I can’t find my way to God in a different way than yours!
There is only one way to God and that is his way. If there were many ways, would God have sent ‘a part of himself’ as a sacrifice fur our sin payment? Meeting God’s standard demanded a God answer not a human one.
Copyright 2000 Richard D Smith