While the concept of “Human Depravity” is an historic Christian doctrine, it’s also a condition I recognized as an atheist. My career as a police officer and my time as a parent settled the issue for me. If people are “basically good” shouldn’t we be able to verify this claim in the lives of infants? My toddler children needed to be taught about patience, kindness and unselfishness; these virtues were missing from their default nature. And it didn’t take long as a police officer to recognize the depth and complexity of our fallen citizenry. Most people who believe humans are “basically good” simply haven’t spent much time in the world as an experienced law enforcement first responder. So I was grateful when my ministry partner and fellow law enforcement professional, Aaron Brake, posted an article on the doctrine of Human Depravity. Aaron did an excellent job as he established two important truths:
All Christians Ought to Acknowledge “Human Depravity” Theologically
Aaron correctly identified the theological importance of the doctrine for both Calvinists and Arminianists. I recently received an email from a Christian who loved our work online, but was concerned about prior articles describing the doctrine of Human Depravity:
“My one gentle criticism is that in your article on human depravity, there is no need to go into the whole TULIP controversy, Arminian vs. Calvinist. This subject is unnecessary to your basic mission, reaching the lost for Jesus and building the faith and ability of others to utilize insightful evidences. In fact, going into this subject will likely be divisive.”
That’s why I was grateful when Aaron correctly identified this doctrine as a common feature of both Calvinism and Arminianism. He cited the work of R.C. Sproul:
“Arminius was emphatic in his rejection of Pelagianism, particularly with respect to the fall of Adam. The fall leaves man in a ruined state, under the dominion of sin. Arminius declares: ‘In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened [attenuatem]; but it is also imprisoned [captivatum], destroyed and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace…’” (from R.C. Sproul’s Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will)
Aaron’s article demonstrates Arminius (and other historic Arminians like John Wesley) accepted the concept of “Total Depravity”. The depravity of humans is a theological reality that ought not divide the church. As Aaron writes, it is simply “the sad state… into which we are born: dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-2), by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), darkened in understanding, excluded from the life of God, ignorant, and hard of heart (Eph. 4:18), in bondage to sin (John 8:34), unable to please God (Rom. 8:8), unable to accept and understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14), and unable to come to God in our own power (John 6:44).”
All Humans Ought to Recognize “Human Depravity” Experientially
But even without the teaching of Scripture, “Human Depravity” ought to be obvious to all of us. Aaron provided several lines of empirical evidence to support the doctrine, including our observations of young children who have not yet been trained by their parents, the historic evil committed by humankind, and psychological evidence from studies such as the Stanley Milgram experiment and the work of Christopher R. Browning in his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. If we are honest about our own experience in the world, we will recognize the fallen nature of humans, even before opening the pages of our Bibles.
It’s true that many Christians (and Christian Case Makers) have quietly benched the doctrine of “Human Depravity” on the theological sideline because they fear (like the emailer) it is “unnecessary to (our) basic mission, reaching the lost for Jesus and building the faith and ability of others to utilize insightful evidences.” Nothing could be more untrue. Our condition as fallen humans is foundational to the Christian offer of Salvation; one is inseparably connected to the other. When we take the time to explain how lost and fallen all of us are, the need for a Savior becomes all the more obvious. Only then will we be able to “reach the lost for Jesus” and interest people in the “insightful evidences.” The fall of humanity begins the Christian narrative in Genesis and it ought to be the starting point that motivates all of us to become intentional Christian Case Makers.