Our Cat and the Canons – Total Depravity

Julian (of Norwich).  Photo by Angie Poot.
Julian (of Norwich).
Photo by Angie Poot.

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

We have very few rules for our cat, Julian. She is not allowed on the kitchen counter or the dining room table. She is not allowed behind the television or the computer. That’s pretty much it. Overall, she’s fairly obedient, but inevitably during the day, we will find ourselves in this sort of situation.

Julian saunters over toward the side of our TV stand. She stops at the edge, then looks at me, then looks back behind the TV, then looks at me.

“Don’t do it, Julian.”

She darts as fast as she can through the mess of cords behind the TV, emerges out on the other side and glances my way as she runs off to somewhere else in my house.

“Our cat is totally depraved,” I remark to Olga.

This scene plays out often enough that it has become a running theological joke in our household to use the language of total depravity in reference to Julian. For some, using the phrase ‘total depravity’ might make you feel the need to clean your mouth with soap. For others, it might seem as understandable as French. Though often misunderstood, this language is helpful for understanding our cat (and ourselves).

The concept of ‘total depravity’ is used to describe the state of humanity after the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. It is the language of ‘fallen-ness.’ It means that we cannot do any good for the sake of salvation apart from the Holy Spirit. We can contribute nothing to our salvation because every part of us is fallen. However, to say humanity (or Julian) is ‘totally’ depraved does not mean that we are as wicked as we could possibly be. It is not necessarily to say that non-Christians cannot do anything good (in a more general sense). We are totally depraved in the sense that every area of our life is affected by sin. As Marguerite Shuster says, “The doctrine means that depravity extends to the whole of the person, sparing no human faculty or power.” Every area of our life – mind, body, soul, strength – has fallen and in need of redemption. Apart from abiding in Christ, we can do nothing.

Toward the end of the Reformation period, numerous debates surfaced surround the fallen-ness of humanity (among other issues). in 1618, the majority of the reformed churches (my tradition) met together in Dordrecht, Netherlands, to discuss the teaching of Scripture and to make a statement clarifying the church’s teaching on these topics. The document that arose from this synod was the Canons of Dort, which states,

Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform. (CD III/IV.3)

While we were originally created good, after the Fall our human nature was tainted by sin, enslaved to it. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, nothing we do is ‘good’ in any sense connected to salvation. We have no merit of ourselves which allows us access to God, nor any natural disposition to do so. Humanity is totally depraved because it cannot save itself, but must rely wholly and completely on God, not only for salvation, but even for the turning of the human heart to God in repentance. All of it is from God.

This picture may seem pessimistic, but I’d argue that it is realistic. Take a look at Genesis 1-11, the life of King David, Psalms 51 & 130, and the whole teaching of the prophets and the New Testament. Yet, however bleak the picture looks, total depravity is only one side of the story.

What humanity cannot do, God has done in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit.

What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and New Testaments. (CD III/IV.6)

The other side of total depravity is total communion. Apart from God, we are totally unable to make an headway toward salvation, but because of the saving power of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, we have communion with the Triune God. On the other side of alienation is communion. On the other side of bondage is freedom. On the other side of death is life. Not because of our own work, but because of the effective and solely-sufficient work of Jesus Christ. If every part of us is fallen in sin, then every part of us is redeemed in Christ.

Our cat enjoys Hebrew - meditating on it day and night.
Our cat enjoys Hebrew – meditating on it day and night.

Is Julian as bad as she possibly could be? Not by a long shot. Am I? No. But am I in need of God’s grace for the whole of my life and person? Absolutely, because, Lord, “I have no good apart from you” (Ps 16).

How have you heard the language of sin and fallen-ness talked about in your Church?

What biblical images of sin resonate with what you know about humanity?

Where does the teaching of total depravity-total communion encourage you? challenge you? confuse you?

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