You Are Totally (Not) Depraved

How to Recover Positive Self-Image

“Well, that seems depressing to believe about yourself,” he said with a slight wince. “Are you happy having such a negative perception of yourself?”

The comment was not what I expected him to say. While my wife and I shared the gospel with Ryan and Meg — strangers we met at the restaurant’s bar — we were discussing the bad news which made the good news good: that, by nature, all men and women were spiritually dead in their sin and found guilty before a holy God. Ryan did not protest against the indictment against him; he only questioned how one can go on with a healthy self-image while acknowledging it.

“Christians should have a positive view of themselves — in Christ.”

To him, being “reborn” didn’t solve the problem. To him, Christianity meant signing up for a perpetual guilt-trip and a negative self-image. It was not a freeing and joyful existence, but one of looking down, avoiding mirrors, and mumbling apologies under one’s breath. It was a groveling life haunted with “should-have-done-betters”; a bemoaning existence devoid of self-worth as one self-deprecatingly crawls into glory.

And sadly, I don’t think he is far off in some cases. Some hang their heads and talk about themselves as if they are essentially wretched. They carry around their “chief of sinner” card like a driver’s license. Their experience of struggling with sin defines how they view their identity and how they hear what God says about them.

In an effort to articulate man’s plight before a holy God, in an attempt to campaign for humanity’s sinfulness in a culture that no longer believes in sin, and, endeavoring to remain humble before God and serious about our own remaining corruption, we have forgotten what God says about us as Christians. We have been, as Anthony Hoekema says, “writing our continuing sinfulness in capital letters, and our newness in Christ in small letters.”

Healthiest Self-Image on the Planet

Simply put, Christians should have a positive view of themselves — in Christ. As the secular world lies in the sun of ignorance and licks itself with self-help gurus cheaply affirming their self-worth, the born-again Christian should have the most concrete, positive, confident self-image on the planet. Not because he is sinless. Not because he wakes up every morning and reads his Bible. Not because he is more selfless than his fellow man. But because God has made him alive, forgiven him all of his trespasses, adopted him into his family, and dwells in him. If any man desires true self-worth, he should see all he can hope for in the shining faces of the church of God.

“The smell of our sin does not out-perfume the aroma of Christ that is upon us.”

As Christians, we are not to scrape the gutters of depravity for our identity. “Totally depraved, wretched, naked, pitiable, blind, beggars, orphans, sinners,” no longer describes the church nor the Christian at their core. Now we are not spiritually proud because, as C.S. Lewis states, “The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cesspool.” But we must always remember that the smell of our sin does not out-perfume the aroma of Christ that is upon us (2 Corinthians 2:15). The Christian can look himself in the eye and not grimace.

Who You Are in Christ

If you are truly born again, your history and self-perception does not define you. What God says defines you. How God sees you is who you are. The eyes of faith look not only to Jesus, but also must look to ourselves and see what God does. Although Satan cannot snatch you from God’s hand (John 10:28), he can steal your identity, convincing you that you are still inherently wicked, orphaned, and merely tolerated by God.

But God says otherwise. God says:

1. You Are Light

At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. (Ephesians 5:7–10)

Who would be so bold as to look his brother in the eye and tell him that he is light? But the apostle Paul, writing by influence of the Spirit, says something shocking: “now you are light in the Lord.”

The church and the Christian are not partially light and partially darkness. In the Lord, they are light. And knowing this precedes his call for them to walk as children of light. We do not walk as children of light to become light. We are light — and know it — and then live as children of light. Identity for Paul is crucial for how we fight the flesh. Identity first, then fight.

2. You Are His Child

To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the authority to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)

“If you are truly born again, your history and self-perception does not define you. What God says defines you.”

Has being a child lost its warmth? Has it merely become a Christian cliché? The holy angels are not sons and daughters of God, but we are. We no longer are orphans clothed in rags, raising our cracked and dirty bowls up to God wondering if we could have just a little more stew. We are children graced with our Father’s name, to sit at his table, to laugh in his house, to feel his embrace. We now have authority to be called sons and daughters of the Most High.

We must not sell our birthright to return to our jail cells and write, “I am guilty,” repeatedly on the walls. We have not received the Spirit of slavery, but one of adoption (Romans 8:15–17). Jesus did not teach us to pray, “Our Warden who is upstairs”; he taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9, NASB). And our Father, to whom we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” loves us with the warmth of a million suns (Matthew 6:12).

3. You Are Holy and Loved

To all those . . . who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)

Paul wrote to saints, not scoundrels. God calls us beloved, not be-tolerated.

Although some segments of the church may try to steal “saints,” reserving it for miracle-working, super-Christians, the title literally means “holy ones,” and Paul addresses whole churches with the name (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). All born-again Christians are addressed as set-apart ones, righteous ones, sanctified ones. In Christ, you are holy.

Although you may feel like anything but a “holy one,” this is how God addresses you. Your muttering self-assessment is swallowed up by the voice of him who spoke the world into existence and later declared, “It is finished!”

Be Who You Are

It is sad when professing Christians, heirs of Christ and the universe, undersell their God-given identity in Christ because they are scared that if they get too comfortable, they will get careless about sin. But the exact opposite is true: the more you know who you are in Christ, the more you will hate all that does not conform to your identity.

When we think of ourselves as dirt, are we more likely to be alarmed when filth proceeds from our mouths or is enjoyed on our screens? When we consider ourselves unholy and unloved, are we more likely to punch back against the flesh, to stand in the victory of Christ, or to advance the cause of God in the world? When we are convinced that all our works are disgusting to our Father, are we zealous to bring him more? No. We mumble and moan in our sickbed instead of taking up our beds and walking forth in Christlikeness.

“Our Father in heaven loves us with the warmth of a million suns.”

But when we know we are light, we walk by the Spirit as children of light. When we know we are beloved, we joyfully imitate our Savior. When we know ourselves as an adopted child, we live in a way that desires to please our Father. When we understand that we are truly new creatures at our core, we will walk increasingly as new creatures. “Cleanse out the old leaven . . . as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

We must not take the robe off our backs, the rings from our fingers, and sandals from our feet and return to live in the pigsty. Our Father has brought us into the family, into an eternal celebration, into a new identity, from which we fight and defeat sin in the power of his Spirit.