Depravity and the Need Step

June 26th, 2009 § 0 comments

About a week ago, I had a much appreciated opportunity to speak at PBF, concerning a topic of my choosing. I chose to speak on the book of Job. Afterwards, I asked a friend to critique me, to help me see how I can do something better. My friend took some time to think about it, and he proposed that my greatest weakness (though there were many others he could have chosen, no doubt) was the need step. I could do a better job of convincing the audience that they needed to hear what I was going to say. This key component of a presentation usually follows the attention-getter, and is an important means by which the speaker engages the individuals in the audience to actively search for ways that this mini-sermon is important to them and will change their life.

To me, a need step for Job seemed superfluous. Job is a book in which God speaks! And I haven’t done any research to back this up, but I think that it may be the longest passage in the Old Testament where we actually hear the words of God himself. Indeed, this passage may be as long as any of the sermons of Jesus. How can this book need a “need step”! Does not everyone wish to hear the voice of God? And besides that, I was hoping to upset people’s notions of what the book is really about. Though any good theodicy must learn a few things from Job, justifying the existence of evil and the presence of a loving God is not really what the book is about. In fact, when God appears, he seems utterly uninterested in any sort of theodicean dialogue whatsoever. No, curiously enough, God is interested only in himself, and in talking about himself, using divine sarcasm to show how great he is an how unsearchable are his ways. With such an unexpected turn of events after chapters of seeking to understand how tragedy can befall an innocent person like Job, how can anyone not be interested?!

But apparently not everyone is like me. Such a grand plot twist is not, I suppose, enough to hold everyone’s attention. And hearing the words of God himself can be boring to someone who hasn’t been taught to read poetry. (I suppose that some might think God a rambler, worse even than the Sunday preacher when he’s winding down.) The question is, then, how are we to live tomorrow because of what we’ve heard today? Or rather (since the need step comes at the beginning), what am I hoping to learn from this lesson that will change my life?

The Sunday after my lesson on Job, I taught on the Sovereignty of God. This week, I was prepared. I had a very thorough need step, one which, in itself, was almost a mini-sermon, and it ended up being one of the best parts of that lesson, and it did help bring the points home to people. My friend was right; I needed a need step.

This coming Sunday, I’m talking about total depravity. I have spent some time (not enough) thinking about what sort of a need step is required. Why does my audience (primarily a bunch of saved people) need to know about total depravity? They have already been (and are being) regenerated. Their (and my) depravity, though still rather dramatic, is no longer total. They have been brought back to life, their eyes have been opened, and they now can respond appropriately to the things of God. So why is this doctrine important to them?

John MacArthur recently gave a talk (at T4G) about total depravity. (link to a site with the mp3) He calls this “perhaps the most attacked doctrine, either wittingly or unwittingly… It is the most despised doctrine.” He goes on to say that this doctrine is “the most distinctively Christian doctrine.” Right there I’m hooked. This is exciting and different! I need to understand this if I’m going to understand Christianity. But I don’t think that this is what grabs the attention of everyone who comes into church. No, they want to know what is going to change about their life after the lesson.

At this point I must ask, “What do I hope to change in their life (and in mine) by teaching this? Why this topic and not the myriad of others available to me?”

My answer ends up being surprisingly practical, yet it is not something that can be applied, like a 3 step process. There isn’t a simple “put off, renew, put on” process that I hope happens because of my teaching. Rather, I simply want people to see the greatness of the glory of God revealed in their own salvation. For the goodness of God is all the more dramatic when it is held up next to the corrupt rebellion of the human heart.

That is, the reason why we cry at the happy ending of a movie is not simply because people are happy, but because there was something awful and monstrous to be overcome. And even though, going into a movie, we often have some idea of how the show will end, we cry because we are surprised by the dramatic nature of the twist and the totality of the redemption and the fullness of the happiness that has sprung so unexpectedly from the dark depths of the middle act.

Total depravity is just that middle act of the gospel narrative. Act One is the nature of God, the fullness of his love and the glory of his goodness. We see his justice and sovereignty and are in awe. His creative handiwork is complete and we stand in wonder because of what he has done. But in the second act of the drama, we learn of the vast and unbreachable rift between us. Depravity tells us nothing of God, but everything about ourselves, and as soon as we understand who we are, all of our wonder turns to fear. This great and marvelous being of justice is against us, for we are under his wrath, and who can fight for us? We find ourselves in a more hopeless situation than any that could be imagined in another book, for we are not opposed by robots, computers, dinosaurs or mere paltry humans. No alien, weapon, or natural disaster seeks our destruction, but the almighty God of heaven and earth. Who is there who can fight for us, and who can come between us? Is there no champion who can protect us from the wrath of God?

This is the predicament of total depravity. With it, our story goes from how-great-and-amazing-is-our-God to I-am-going-to-hell to the-glories-of-our-saviour. Without it, our story is God-is-great and so-is-Jesus so now let’s all go to heaven.

So in one sense, total depravity doesn’t need a need a “need step” it is the need step for everything else. It is why we need Jesus; it is why, more than ever, we are able to appreciate the amazing work that God has done. It is what forces us to lean completely on the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is because of this doctrine that we find ourselves totally humbled before the magnificent and unforeseeable miracle of the cross. That God would stoop to save man seems almost understandable, if we are not depraved. But when we realize the extent of our rebellion, the work of salvation is not merely wonderful, but it is the supreme surprise of existence.

To put it most simply, the reason we need to understand depravity is because without it, God’s grace is toothless and limp. But with depravity, we see the fierce and irresistible nature of grace. Suddenly we find a power from outside of ourselves that can enact dramatic change. From the dark hopelessness of depravity, we see all the brighter the light of undeserved grace.

And that is why we must understand total depravity, for without it, we cannot understand the gospel, and without that, we have nothing.

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