I had better explain what I mean by this question! The doctrine of 'Total Depravity' (TP) says that in his natural state a man cannot please God because every part of his nature is sinful. Even the good things done by an unbeliever are done, at least in part, for the wrong reasons. Therefore the person is totally helpless without the intervention of God's grace in salvation; he cannot even accept this grace without God giving him the gift of faith by which to grasp it. Thus the Christian has nothing to boast about. He did not start out any better than unbelievers. He did not even possess in himself the wisdom or goodness to reach out to God. Salvation begins and ends with God alone.
This is all quite biblical. I have no trouble accepting it. However, many conservative evangelicals go further and teach that Christians too are, in effect, still totally depraved. They say that all the good things done for God or other people are tainted by sin. For the purpose of this discussion I will call this idea Regenerate Depravity (RP).
At first this seems very humble and spiritual, yet I find it disturbing. Why? Is it because I think I am now good? No - far from it! But I do think that God is good, so when he is working in me then I can do good things.
TP says that an unsaved person can do one of two things:
The potential third option, good things for the right reason, is not possible for the unbeliever. RP says that the third option is also unattainable for the believer. So the saved and unsaved are in exactly the same boat! Isn't this a denial of the new birth? Evangelicals say that we have been saved from both the penalty and the power of sin, yet RP seems to say that the power of sin has merely been reduced.
I am not saying that the Christian is sinless. Paul said that in himself (i.e. in his flesh) there was no good thing. When operating according to the flesh, a Christian is capable of any sin; we do bad things and we do good things for the wrong reason. However, unlike the unsaved person, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit. He can do good things through us. So when we operate according to the Spirit we can do good things for the right reason. We can claim no credit for these acts, as they are the works of God.
Another way of looking at this is to remember that Scripture tells us that "without faith it is impossible to please God" and "anything which is not of faith is sin". The corollary of these two statements is that with faith it is possible to please God, and something done in genuine faith is not sin. Aren't we all imperfect? Yes, but inadequacy (i.e. lack of perfection) in performance is not the same as sin. Sin involves some form of rebellion. I remember reading in a book (by James Dobson?) that when training children it is important to distinguish between childish irresponsibility and deliberate disobedience - the former must be corrected, the latter punished. Is God less wise than a human father? Does he regard our lack of perfect performance as sin? This is not to reduce the enormity of sin, but to properly distinguish between morality and performance. If God is pleased with something we have done how dare someone else say that it is mixed with some unspecified sin?
The main consequence of RP is that Christians feel permanently defeated. When we do something bad the Spirit convicts us of sin, so we can repent and receive forgiveness for that particular sin. Our defeat is only temporary.
When we do something good, instead of thanking and praising God for enabling us to do it, RP insists that we have sinned yet the Spirit does not seem to provide any specific conviction. The Holy Spirit seems to be less holy than some conservative evangelicals! We can't repent, because we don't know what sin we are supposed to have committed. We are just left with the general feeling that we are defeated sinners. Our defeat is permanent. Satan loves this! What are the effects of RP?
Given the damage done by RP, why do people believe it? An obvious reason is that people simply repeat what they have been taught. This applies to all sorts of unbiblical ideas which propagate down the generations, especially if they appear to originate from a respected guru such as Augustine or Calvin.
Is RP a sign of humility? At the risk of upsetting some people, I want to suggest that it could be a sign of pride. Someone preaching RP could really be saying "I know I have mixed motives, so I assume that you have too because otherwise I might have to accept that you are more full of the Spirit than me (but other aspects of my theology won't let me believe that)". Conversely, one who disbelieves RP can say "I know that through the Spirit I can sometimes do good things, so I will assume that this is even more true of others". We are supposed to consider others to be better than ourselves!
Is RP a sign of spirituality? Only if you equate spirituality with feeling constantly guilty. It is true that the more spiritually mature a person is the more they are aware of their own sin; that is, they recognise when they sin and they are aware of their own particular weaknesses and temptations. It does not follow that a constant awareness of unspecified sinfulness (i.e. condemnation) is a sign of maturity. It is far more likely to be a sign of immaturity, unbelief or false teaching. In some cases it could even indicate that the person is unsaved.
The way forward is to believe what Scripture says about you. If you are in Christ then you are part of the new creation, you have passed from death to life and you are accepted in the beloved. You have the Holy Spirit of God in you and he can glorify the Son and please the Father through you. The normal Bible word for you is not "sinner" but "saint".
You can still sin. You can have mixed motives. You won't always get it right. You will need to repent. Yet when you operate in the Spirit you will please God. If others praise you for this you will know that you deserve no credit. If others, believing in RP, question your motives then you can simply and humbly correct them and pray that they will one day find the freedom in Christ you have.
Back to bible home, Becoming a Christian, Received the Spirit?
updated 21 Jan 2009: Minor tweak, add link to saints and sinners page