Totaled Image Bearers

With this entry, I’ll begin a series of meditations upon the meaning and application of essential   Calvinistic beliefs.    I hope these thoughts will encourage all who read and be a particular encouragement to those grappling with Calvinism or wrestling with the claims of Christianity in general.  (Note:  Sorry for the formatting issues -I’m still learning!)

Calvinists subscribe to what are popularly called the Doctrines of Grace. These are summarized in five headings and planted in the acronym TULIP. This entry will deal with the T: Total Depravity.

In our fallen natures, sin permeates our entire being. Though the Lord restrains our innate evil such that we are not as sinful as we could be, the influence of sin upon and within us is, in effect, total. Fallen humanity continues to bear the image of God (Genesis 9:6), and yet that image is drastically distorted in each of us. Think of a “totaled” car – it is still a car but is banged up beyond any practical usefulness. So, too, totally depraved image bearers are banged up by sin beyond the ability to merit God’s approval. Though we may do good things, such as helping and serving other people, we are inherently incapable of following the Law of God flawlessly from the heart as He desires and demands. On the contrary, love of self and a soul-deep desire for autonomy from God so fuels our thoughts and actions that Paul writes in Romans 3, drawing from Psalm 14, that there is no one who is righteous, no one who seeks God – not even one person.
People are sometimes puzzled by that last statement, for it seems that many people seek God. Thus, we have what have been labeled “seeker sensitive” churches and ministries. But any true seeking of God comes only (and irresistibly, as we’ll examine later) by the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, people may claim to seek truth as an abstract concept, but they do not naturally seek the One who is the Truth. People certainly seek the benefits of knowing God, but they do not in and of themselves seek God Himself, for the sake of God Himself.
The depth of our depravity is seen in the fact that we would not naturally give it up if we had the chance. John Calvin aptly refers to us as “voluntary slaves” to sin. Sin blinds us and binds us, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, we’d love to avoid the consequences of sin, and we can lament the effect of evil upon ourselves and others. But though our hearts break at the evil in the world, we will not naturally humble them before the true and living God and confess our complicity in that evil. We would rather go down with the sinking ship of our autonomy, and watch others sink with us, than turn to the One Who is willing to forgive sinners and even remake them according to His own character, His own flawless from the heart obedience of God’s law.
Here’s a quick spiritual gut check to prove these points. What is the implicit statement made by every sin we knowingly commit? Is it not: “I am God”? When we sin, if even for a moment, we are declaring to God that His Law is inapplicable to us, that we are in fact above it. To presume ourselves to be above that law is to presume to be the law’s master. And of course, as James tells us, there is only one Lawgiver and Judge. Thus, to sin is to declare one’s own deity. Now think about how often, and how willingly, you and I make such declarations every day.
A bit of a deflating thought, no?  Well, before we move on in the next entries to more meditations and applications of the Doctrines of Grace, consider this fact: The Lord knows our sin even better than we. And if you are in Christ, you are forgiven – freely, finally, forever. If you love and seek God, it is because He first loved and sought you, and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for all those obvious and subtle declarations of deity we make against Him. What’s more, Christ is alive! The perfect image bearer reigns as King and despite our shameful rebellions against Him, the book of Hebrews tells us that He is not ashamed to call us His brethren. Can you see why “Total Depravity” is called a doctrine of grace? When we peer honestly into the depths of our depravity, we see more clearly the depths of God’s grace in Christ.


  1. Brett Robb December 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

    Good paper Pastor Rut! I especially loved the analogy of a totaled car representing man’s fallen image bearing state. Nothing like a good word picture to really make a concept easier to understand. Can’t wait to read more.

  2. Kathryn Lee December 29, 2011 at 5:15 am #

    So in the end, the God you describe is much like the gods of other ancient peoples in that this God requires human sacrifice to appease his anger? I’m not sure that his providing the human sacrifice himself and particularly in the form of his son is all that comforting when his very nature requires human sacrifice to appease him. It has been helpful to me to read theologians who wrestle with the violence of the atonement you describe and suggest different ways of understanding it.

  3. Kathryn Lee December 29, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I would recommend J. Denny Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement, published by Eerdmans. This book provides a very helpful, alternative perspective.

  4. Rut Etheridge III December 29, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    @ Brett – thanks for the encouragement! Miss and love ya, brother.

    @Kathryn – thank you for your post! I think I understand what you’re getting at – the whole sacrifice motif in Scripture can seem to some people to be the stuff of ancient paganism – archaic and barbaric. But in terms of the blog entry, please consider that the severity of the remedy (substitutionary atonement/sacrifice) reveals the severity of the disease (sin). In my study of theologians/theologies which suggest other understandings of the clear biblical language on such matters, I’ve found that they typically deny the severity of sin, usually by way of redefining sin itself. Please consider also that God’s willingness to give His Son over to death on behalf of people who naturally and wilfully hate him reveals the “severity”, if you will, of His love. And yet (back to the post) such is our natural depravity that we deem even God’s self-sacrificial love to be repugnant. I think that it’s precisely at the various points at which the gospel offends our natural (fallen) sensibilities that we find its essential glory. Ironically, theologians who are embarrassed at the Bible’s teaching on substitutionary atonement and who try to clear God’s good name of such alleged barbarism end up missing exactly what they claim to be defending – the goodness of God in Jesus Christ. If you or others would be interested in following up, may I suggest a few sermons I wrote/preached which address precisely the points you raise? One is on Exodus 20:4-6, called: “Christ the Iconoclast” and the other is James 5:10-11, called “A Prophetic Pedigree” and lastly, there’s “God in the Dock” (a title borrowed from C.S. Lewis) from Malachi 2:17-3:6. They can be found at Also, you may be familiar with these already, but very helpful works (from sources much better than I!) are R.C. Sproul’s “The Holiness of God” and J.Gresham Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” – thank you so much for reading and commenting!!

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