Big Words: Depravity

Pastor Craig Carter

Last week I introduced a new sermon series called “Big Words.” In it, we’re going to explore the language of our faith that helps us understand what we believe and enables us to live accordingly. In essence, this series is a course in basic Christian doctrine. 

As I mentioned last week, we’re going to look at these theological concepts from a distinctively Methodist point of view. In some cases, we have a lot in common with other Christian denominations but in other areas, we differ from one another. 

One thing we can all agree on is that we don’t have to look far to see lots of trouble in our world. All around us there is crime and violence, greed and immorality, wars and factions, hunger and disease. So we have to ask ourselves, “What is wrong with our planet?”

The answer, in a word, is sin. But since that’s not a very big word, let’s call it depravity instead (for the sake of our series title!) 

As Methodists, we stand squarely in the Orthodox Christian tradition in defining depravity as universal human sinfulness. To understand this big word, we have to see it in the context of our Christian faith. 

At its simplest, Christianity is good news, bad news, good news. 

Good News: Humankind was created in the image of God. The founder of our Methodist denomination, John Wesley, called it the “perfect state.” According to the creation account in Genesis 1-2, everything and everyone was made exactly as God intended and it was all good, except humans. He called us “very good.” 

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for things to go awry as documented in Genesis chapter 3, where we read the Bad News about the Fall of humankind, when sin entered the world. 

This has historically been called “original sin. In the Garden of Eden, the image of God was marred and distorted. Intimacy between God and humans was destroyed because of human disobedience. As a result, sin has infected the entire human race so we are now born into sin. 

“When Adam sinned, sin entered the world [and] spread to everyone, for everyone sinned…Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners.” (Romans 5:1, 19a NLT)

John Wesley never tried to explain how we share in Adam’s sin. It’s just clear we do. The evidence of this is human conduct at every level, starting with two year olds. Did you have to teach your children to say, “No!” or “Mine!”?

The result is not just depravity, but total depravity. We are hopelessly lost and consequently, we seek our own way and do not seek after God and His will. 

As Wesley wrote, “[Sinful man] has a deep sense of the loathsome leprosy of sin, which he brought with him from his mother’s womb, which overspreads his whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof.” 

But thankfully, there is the second bit of Good News: God did not give up on us. Rather, He intervened. 

It is the gospel of grace, God’s unmerited favor, that starts in Genesis 4 and ends in Revelation 21-22 with the creation of a new heaven and a new earth (back to a “perfect state.”)

According to Wesley, the awesomeness of grace cannot be understood without a corresponding view of the dreadfulness of sin. 

So, how critical is it to understand this big word, depravity, or universal human sinfulness? Wesley went so far as to say it’s impossible to be a Christian without a belief in original sin. We have all been infected with the disease of sin and, as a result, all of us have sinned. 

“The Bible does not say we are sinners because we commit acts of sin, it says we commit acts of sin because we are sinners. Sin has struck at the root of what it means to be human.” (Steve Harper in John Wesley’s Message for Today, page 30)

To understand the big word of depravity, we have to understand the little word called sin. Sin is commonly thought of breaking a rule, but while rules may be involved, it’s more than that. In the Bible, sin is literally, “missing the mark.” 

Think of it as shooting at a target with the bullseye being the goal. What is our “bullseye” as human beings? Nothing other than God’s holiness. 

Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. (Romans 3:23 NLT) 

When it comes to sin, we all miss the mark. Some miss it by inches while others miss it by miles.

Sin can best be thought of in terms of broken relationships rather than broken rules. When we don’t live up to God’s standard we fail to keep the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

Since God is all about love, life is ultimately all about loving God and loving others. But depravity keeps us from doing that and we suffer the consequences. The original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden led to all humankind being estranged and separated from God.  

We noted the effects of depravity on our world, but what are the effects of sin on us?

Scripture suggests there are at least three:

1) Death 

For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23a NLT)

Desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. (James 1:15 NLT)

Humans were created in God’s image, and since God is immortal, we were intended to be as well. But sin brought with it mortality. 

Adam’s sin brought death, so that death spread to everyone. (Romans 5:12b NLT)

Some have suggested physical death was God’s first act of grace as it prevents us from having to live in this sinful world forever (i.e. there is an end to our suffering). But there is also a spiritual death that comes with sin. It involves separation from God and communion with Him. Cut off from God’s life and love, we are, in essence, dead persons. 

Can we all agree sin has a numbing effect on us?

Many people are unfazed by sin and its effect on their lives or those around them. Depravity brings spiritual death, making us insensitive to God, His will, and His ways.

2) Darkness 

Once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8a NLT)

“Because of our sin, we are unable to see our true condition of being sinful and lost. The poor unawakened sinner has no knowledge of himself. He knows not that he is a fallen spirit. Full of diseases as he is, he fancies himself in perfect health.” (John Wesley)

Combining this with the first effect I think of the disturbing line from the movie, The Sixth Sense. In that movie the main character, a little boy named Cole says, “I see dead people…but they don’t know they’re dead!” People who don’t realize they are sinners fit that description and don’t even realize it.

3) Deception

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. (1 John 1:8 NLT) 

Satan is the “father of all lies,” so he convinces us that what we are doing isn’t really sin. He uses several deceptive practices.

For one, we adopt patterns of behavior that we don’t consider sin. We call our behavior all sorts of other things, such as “an alternative lifestyle” or “personal choice.” Or sometimes we fool ourselves into making something noble out of our depravity. We think we’re a concerned Christian sharing a prayer request, but God sees it as the sin of gossip. We’re just being just by making a friend pay for her transgression, but the Lord calls it unforgiveness. 

Another form of deception is when we become like the proverbial “frog in the kettle.” Are you familiar with that concept? Supposedly, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he’ll immediately jump out. But if you put him in a kettle of room temperature water and then start to warm it, the frog will become comfortable and stay even when it leads to his demise when the water boils. 

Like the “frog in the kettle” we can easily become conditioned by our environment. Slow shifts in cultural norms are sometimes imperceptible and take us places we don’t intend to go or need to be. We are easily deceived by the inherent dangers of living amid depravity. 

And what is that danger? Death! 

Sin kills us relationally, sometimes physically, and always spiritually. 

So don’t be deceived, sin kills and it does so slowly and surely. We are only fooling ourselves when we think, “Just one sip, just one time, just one look…it won’t hurt.” 

Yes, it will because sin is deadly, serious business!

But perhaps the greatest and most destructive form of deception is thinking we can deal with our depraved condition ourselves. 

Despite our best efforts and deepest desires, we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and stop sinning. We are not the Little Engine Who Could, who chanted, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” and succeeded. Rather, we will fail every time. 

“Now he (a man under conviction) truly desires to break loose from sin and begins to struggle with it. But though he strive with all his might, he cannot conquer; sin is mightier than he.” (John Wesley). 

Because of this deception, which is a self-deception, many have died trying to save themselves. 

The Apostle Paul was right when he wrote these words to the Colossians: “When you were stuck in your old sin-dead life, you were incapable of responding to God.” (Colossians 2:14 MSG)

So, Craig, what other cheery thoughts do you have to share with us today? ☺

Here it is: We must remember that the Christian faith is good news, bad news, good news. That’s the gospel (which literally means “good news.”) 

Our view of depravity (or original sin) affects our conception of the gospel. 

According to John Wesley’s sermon, Original Sin: “A radical disease demands a radical cure. Only the cross can supply the antidote to sin. But, of course, if the seriousness of sin is questioned, the need for a desperate remedy is likewise rendered less certain.” 

We need a Savior, only if we need saving.

We need a Savior, only if we cannot save ourselves. 

John Wesley concluded, “We know no gospel without salvation from sin.”

If sin is a disease, then healing is the only solution…and Jesus is the Great Physician. 

If sin brings death, we need the abundant and eternal life Christ promised. 

If sin puts us in darkness, then we need illumination from the Light of the World. 

If sin deceives us, only the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life can set us straight.

So a proper understanding of depravity doesn’t have to nor should it depress us. Instead, a proper perspective on sin serves to awaken us, make us aware of our true condition, and move us to deal decisively with our sin. That’s because there is help for the helpless, hope for the hopeless, and a cure for our sin sickness.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT)

John Wesley’s brother, Charles, captured this image in his classic hymn, And Can It Be:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound by sin and nature’s night.

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee!

We’ll investigate how that occurs in the coming weeks with some other big words. Let me give you a sneak peek at next week’s message by mentioning that our view of how God does it sets us apart as a denomination (i.e. Wesleyanism vs. Calvinism). 

Because of total depravity, meaning we can’t do anything good ourselves, some would suggest the only solution is God’s sovereign action called unconditional election (i.e. the Lord decides and chooses who will be saved and who will not be saved). But, as United Methodist Christians, we believe in something called “prevenient grace” which enables us to respond to and accept God’s offer of salvation. My next sermon and blog post will discuss that term.

Back to the big word of depravity… 

The question isn’t whether or not we have sinned. We all have. The question is what are we going to do about it?

We don’t have to wait to learn about the other big words to put into practice what the Apostle John suggested: But if we confess our sins to God, he can always be trusted to forgive us and take our sins away. (1 John 1:9 CEV)

Let’s do exactly that by praying what we call the “Sinner’s Prayer” together:

Dear God, I know I have sinned, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe your Son Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow Christ as my Lord and Savior. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit and guide my life. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.