Why Can't I Be What I Want to Be?

by Rev. L. John Gable

Why Can’t I Be What I Want to Be? by Rev. L. John Gable
October 15. 2017

Introduction: As I know you are aware, this year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany.  As Presbyterians we are part of that Reformation movement.  So in remembrance and recognition of our heritage, we are going to spend the next five weeks looking at the theological principles undergirding the Reformation as laid out by John Calvin, our theological father and one of the truly great thinkers of his age.  The theological principles we are going to look at are called the “five points of Calvinism” and while they are distinctive, they are not necessarily unique to us as Presbyterians.  They form the acronym TULIP, like the flower: T– Total Depravity; U– Unconditional Election; L– Limited Atonement; I– Irresistible Grace; and P – the Perseverance of the Saints.  Our topic today: Total Depravity, what some would call the only empirically provable doctrine of our faith.

Several years ago at about Christmas time Kristin and I went with friends to the little historic community of New Harmony, down on the Wabash River.  We had a wonderful time, but what I remember most is the curious story of the history of New Harmony, most particularly a period in the early 1800’s.  In 1824 a gentleman named Robert Owen, a social reformer and wealthy industrialist, came to the United States from Scotland with his son and a friend in search of a site where he could create a utopian community, “a New Moral World of happiness, enlightenment and prosperity through education, science, technology, and communal living”.  Owen envisioned a “superior social, intellectual and physical environment” based on his ideals of social reform.  When they arrived in what was then called Harmony, Indiana, he found the little community perfect for his vision, so he bought it and renamed it “New Harmony” and invited “any and all” to join him there, and people came.  The new community of idealists laid out a constitution detailing how they would do life together with members providing both for their own needs and for the mutual needs of the community in a way that would “achieve happiness based on principles of equal rights and equality of duties.  Cooperation, common property, economic benefit, freedom of speech and action, kindness and courtesy, order, preservation of health, acquisition of knowledge and obedience to the country’s laws” were all part of the constitution they agreed to.

It sounds wonderful, idyllic, really, doesn’t it?  You know the only problem with that utopian vision?  It didn’t work.  People came alright, some who shared Owen’s ideals and others who in his words he called “crackpots, free-loaders and adventurers.”  Almost immediately New Harmony was in total “dis-harmony”and as wonderful as that utopian community sounded on paper, within two years it failed, the property sold and Owen moved on.

I offer that as an example of John Calvin’s first principle of the Reformation called “Total Depravity.”  What a terrible name, and it doesn’t even really describe what he meant by it.  What it does describe is what we all already know about ourselves: despite our best ideals and efforts we cannot achieve “the ideal” we desire.  There is a basic, fundamental corruption, a brokenness, a “dis-harmony” we call sinfulness which affects every aspect and relationship of our lives: our relationship with God, with one another, with the creation, even with ourselves.  We don’t like that about ourselves and we do everything within our power to correct it, improve it and remove it, but the fact of the matter is, we simply cannot.  It is part of who we are, not just what we do.

Let’s be clear, the doctrine of “total depravity” is not saying that everything we do is bad; rather it is the honest confession that everything we do and say and think is tainted or corrupted by sinfulness.  Our sin is “total” in that it infects and impacts everything we do, individually and corporately.  That is, there is a “shadow” side to even our best intentions and convictions.  Our sin is “total” in that it is true for me and for you and for each of us; it is not unique to any one of us but is common to all of us, and the sooner and more honestly we come to that understanding the better off we are.  This is how I apply this doctrine in my own life.  I find some measure of comfort or solace when I am disappointed by others, by you, by the church, by the government, by those who make promises they are not able or willing to keep.  In a healthy way it lowers my expectations as I recognize that they are as flawed as I am.  In his book, Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “The recognition that the highest of human achievements are infected with sinful corruption will help us prepare for new corruption on the level of world community.  Such a realization will drive simpler idealists (think Robert Owen and the New Harmony socialists) to despair, but the Christian faith recognizes that our human striving is incomplete and so points us beyond ourselves to another perfected Kingdom.”  As Christians we take seriously the pervasive nature of sin.  We candidly admit that it has infected every aspect of our lives and every life, our homes, our church, our community, our nation; not because we want to beat up on ourselves, as some would suggest, but so that we can honestly face and address a reality which affects us all.  This first of the five points of Calvinism answers the question all of us ask in one way or another, “Why can’t I be who I want to be?”

This is exactly what Paul was getting at when he writes in the seventh chapter of Romans, “I do not understand my own actions.  I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  Centuries before King David struggled with the same as he poured out his heart to the Lord, “I know my transgressions and my sins are ever before me.”  We find ourselves in good company with these men of faith and with every other believer who is honest enough to confess that we are not all that we hope to be or try to be or present ourselves as being.  This is in no way an attempt to excuse our sinful behavior, for there really is no excuse; rather it is the honest admission of the reality of a struggle we all know too well.  We know how to live rightly, but the problem is, despite our best efforts and intentions, we simply cannot do it.

There are many ways to speak of sin, or this “total depravity”, which befalls us all.  The New Testament uses five different Greek words for sin.

One aspect of sin is “living a life out of control”, think a 2 year old on a sugar high; another means “to cross the line”, like stepping out of bounds when playing a game.  Still another is more subtle, rather than “stepping over the line” it means, “slipping over the line”, think chocolate cake when you are on a diet.  A fourth meaning for sin is “missing the mark”, as in archery when you are aiming for the center of the target, but “miss the mark”, maybe not by much, but it is a “miss” still the same.  And the final meaning is a business term which means the “failure to pay a debt”. This is the term we use when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  Regardless of how we best understand the sin that besets us, in all cases it reflects a sense of “lawlessness”, of living beyond the law or the way God intends for us to live, and that lawlessness affects every aspect of our lives.

Back to Paul’s teaching in Romans.  He writes that the Law, meaning God’s Law, was intended to save us, but instead it resulted in condemning us. Rather than setting us free, it made us all the more aware of our shortcomings.  Take for example driving on the autobahn in Germany, something I have never done but would love to do.  No one is ever stopped for speeding on the autobahn because there is no speed limit.  No law means no violation, no breaking of the law.  The same is true of God’s law.  If God had not told us the right way to live we could live as we please without sin or guilt, but God has told us how to live, and as a result His law condemns us by making us aware of our sin.  The giving of the Law marked the end of our age of innocence.  Is Paul suggesting then that the giving of the Law was bad or evil on God’s part?  No, it was given for our goodness, for our benefit.  The problem is with us, not God.

The logical answer to our problem then is, either we ignore the law and live as we please, which many try to do with a predictable outcome of failure (who was it who said, “We don’t break God’s laws, we break ourselves against them”?) or we commit ourselves to living perfect lives in obedience to the Law, which brings us to our present struggle.  We know how to live rightly, we just can’t do it.  We are powerless to free ourselves from the sin which holds us captive.  Our failure to live up to the demands of God’s Law, despite our very best efforts, only leads us to despair.  So we cry out with the Apostle Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  And that is exactly the cry which this first principle of the Calvinism is hoping we will make.  Who indeed has the power to save us?  There is only One who is greater than the sin which infects and controls us.  There is only One power greater which can rescue us.  In the words of Pastor Bruce Thielman, “I need someone not who will tell me what I ought to be, but who will forgive me for what I am, and then in His love will enable me to become more than I ever believed I could be.”  When, and only when, I come clean with my “total depravity”, with the pervasiveness of my sin and brokenness, can I honestly admit that I need a Savior, a Redeemer, a Rescuer, a Deliverer.

Friends, the Good News is there is such a One.  One who is more powerful than the sin which binds us.  One who alone is able to save us.  His name is Jesus and He is ready and willing and able to come to our aid when we cry to Him for help.  He alone is able to establish the kind of utopian community we desire; a place of harmony rather than discord, unity rather than division, wholeness rather than corruption.  He calls it the Kingdom of Heaven and He invites us to be a part of it, starting right now, right here.

So with the Apostle Paul and the countless host of heaven and earth who have recognized their brokenness and their need of a Savior, we say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” and about that we will talk more next week.


Prayer:  Lord, we confess our sin and our ready desire to hide that fact from You and from others, even from ourselves.  We try to present ourselves as better than we are, but know in our hearts that we have fallen far short of Your intended glory.  You know us, Lord, yet You love us still, so we pray now Your mercy and forgiveness that in our need You will hear our cry and come to our aid.  This we pray together and in the silence of our hearts, through Christ our Lord.  Lord, hear our prayer.