In the wake of a strong debate revolving around the neo-Reformed teaching of human “brokenness” as a form of “deep” total depravity, and how this teaching affects children, I wanted to look at a couple of the fundamental biblical issues at work.
Really, I’ve been thinking about how modern Reformed theology so egregiously takes Paul out of context in communicating its systematic message. How the “doctrines of grace” as they are called, or the TULIP, or even the bedrock doctrine of justification by faith, so often represent distorted messages that the apostle never intended. Because he was speaking in a specific context that new Reformed people are simply not seeking to understand.
And I’ve been thinking that perhaps, if we understand him in context, we might really arrive at a biblical theology – a gospel – that will do no harm to its hearers and believers – especially children.
While there is much to say on this and many angles from which to approach it, I want to focus on two simple things: Paul’s use of the word “all” in Romans 5 (this post) and his use of the word “us” in 2 Corinthians 5 and Ephesians 1 (in pt. 2). Wesleyan-Arminians often make a big to-do about that word “all” in the New Testament, but I think the word “us” has just as much power. Because just like all means all (if you are an Arminian), us means us. The former obviously represents radical inclusion while the latter – strangely enough – represents a radical limitation. And both are needed to make the same basic point about the character of God and the nature of salvation.
So for this post, let’s look at how “all” does this in a famous portion of Paul:
So, then, just as, through the trespass of one person [Adam], the result was condemnation for all people, even so, through the upright act of one person [Jesus], the result is justification – life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of one person many received the status of “sinner,” so through the obedience of one person many will receive the status of “in the right.” /Romans 5:18-19 KNT
This passage, the primary prooftext for what’s called “original sin” and the foundation for Calvinistic total depravity, gives us a strange pattern. Namely, as Paul notes a few verses earlier, the pattern is: “as the trespass, so also the gift.” Paul is saying that through the trespass of one person (Adam) condemnation and death came to all people; thus through the obedience of one person (Jesus), justification and life came to all people. All! But then, oddly, Paul switches to the word “many” to expand on the pattern: as through one person the status of “sinner” came to many, so through one person the status of “in the right” will come to many.
Pertinent to the aforementioned debate is the fact that while all means all with respect to both sin and justification, there is a variable involved that may exclude some on both sides, rendering all to be, in the end, only many. And that variable is choice. More specifically, because Paul is speaking to the first century Israelite situation in Roman exile, the variable is covenant breaking (sin) or covenant keeping (justification). And it always has been.
Thus, with both all and many, what is true of the trespass must also be true of the gift. And that means the Reformed position is wrong because while it claims all on one side, it fails to claim it on the other. Thus, All are sinful! All are broken! All are depraved! From birth! Because of Adam’s sin alone! They are deeply broken in the innermost parts, so that all of their faculties are corrupted and even their good is tainted by evil and they are so dead in sin that they cannot even will to do the good, nor choose faith by their own power! But, of course, Not all are saved! Not all are justified! Only the elect are! Only those predestined in eternity past and moved upon by the Spirit to awaken the deadened will according to God’s sovereign choosing can believe! Etc.
But, see, if all means all and the variable of exclusion holds, then while all are enveloped in a sinful world from birth because of Adam, many develop into the status of “sinner” by covenant breaking choices. The sin status is not a horrific spiritual birth defect that our children must be convinced they possess – it is a status they grow to attain as the world created by Adam takes its toll. Likewise, while all are enveloped in the Messiah’s loving sacrifice for sin and victory over death and justification unto life, many develop into the status of “in the right” by covenant keeping choices.
Of course, there is a new covenant distinction. Verses 21-22 trace Paul’s argument about Israel and the law, showing that the old covenant law served only to amplify Israel’s covenant breaking choices…SO THAT God’s faithfulness to the covenant could abound all the more! In response to the covenant breaking of Israel and the whole world, God entered in by sending the Messiah to erase this covenant breaking in a sweeping act of convenant keeping even unto death on a cross – so that the only choice needed now to participate in this gift is a simple life of faith! And free from the law’s demands, all are enveloped and welcomed in!
The significance of this cannot be overstated: Paul is exegeting what John simply recorded as “For God so loved the world.” Justification and life envelop all of humanity in redeeming belovedness, and Jesus’s obedient death is the atonement for us all, without limitation. Thus the situation of the fall – an enveloping brokenness that people develop into with covenant-breaking choices – is FAR EXCEEDED by the situation of redemption. God’s covenant faithfulness in Jesus has overcome ALL the brokenness so that the WHOLE WORLD is enveloped in belovedness and may realize that covenant status – in the right! – by faith only and not by burdensome works of law!
What we teach our kids about the world’s sin and brokenness, then, is not a guilt and shame laden message that they are deeply broken and depraved at the core of their identity. No! Instead, we teach them that indeed the world is broken, and it will invite them into its Adamic dance of failure and fragmentation, but be of good cheer little one, for Jesus has already overcome the world! And his love already envelops our kids in the safety of total acceptance, justification, and life, and invites them into a realization of that status by simply trusting in Jesus along the journey.
This is a fundamentally different message than the fundamentalism we so often witness in the neo-Reformed narrative.
And we find it in Paul, when we read him in context.