The Nature of Our Depravity

ReFocus Conference | Vancouver

Most of you were not here at my last session, so I need to put this in context so that you’ll know why I’m approaching this topic the way I am. My first talk was about why God created the universe. And the answer was this: to uphold and display his glory for the maximum enjoyment of his redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation — his glory upheld and displayed for the enjoyment of his people.

All of it reaches its apex — its highest, most decisive, most beautiful point of display — in the suffering of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, to save millions of hell-deserving people. All of the universe, all the suffering in the universe, all the events of the universe serve to magnify the grace of God in the suffering of Jesus Christ. And we will make Christ crucified — slain for us — the centerpiece of our worship forever and ever and ever.

Now, that is the stage that has been set for the question: What’s wrong with us? What is our depravity? That is the theme or the question for tonight.

The Worst of Times

I was preaching a couple of years ago in a park in Minneapolis, and I spent significant time talking about the exceeding sinfulness of my own heart, the heart of my people, and the heart of everybody. And a woman from our church came up to me afterwards and she said a woman next to her had whispered, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

People find it hard to believe that we Christians think we’re as bad as the Bible says that we are. And there’s an irony to that. The twentieth century, as you know, was the bloodiest century in the history of the world. Not just because there was a holocaust with six million Jews slaughtered in Germany, but because there were millions more killed by Stalin across the Soviet Union. I read a biography about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and what I learned about the effects of the Russian regime was simply breathtaking. And then there was Mao Zedong and the millions killed under his regime in China.

And then there was perhaps twenty percent of the population of Cambodia wiped out under Pol Pot. There were 800,000 Tutsi slaughtered in Rwanda. And, of course, there have been forty million unborn babies killed in my country since Roe v. Wade in 1973. There were World War I and World War II and countless other smaller wars. And still there are people who say that human beings are basically good, and the need of the hour is education. My observation is that the meaning of the twentieth century is that uneducated people have no corner on depravity.

It was the century of mega-educated murderers. They were the most educated people and slaughtered the most people. It’s amazing. It’s one of the wonders of history that humans can go on thinking we’re good, but that is in fact what they think.

Cutting to the Chase

I want to affirm something that Mark Driscoll said last night. Do you remember that point in the message when he talked about how the twenty-somethings in Seattle are willing to be spoken to straight about certain things? And one of the things he mentioned was their sinfulness. He looks at people and says, “In all of your problems, the unvarying common denominator is you.” In other words, that kind of blunt straight talk seems not to drive a lot of people away.

And when I was thinking about that this afternoon, it reminded me of this testimony from Joseph D’Agostino, who is a conservative, unbelieving writer for Human Events magazine in Dallas. And he wrote this:

Protestantism is a joke. The evangelical right is faith without intellect, the left is intellect without faith. Catholicism fares little better, it seems so soft. At some point you either go with Aristotle or you go with Jesus, and that’s that. Reason can only take you so far. My problem is that I just don’t have faith. In the end, I have not accepted by faith that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. You see, I don’t think it’s the church’s job to hold polite dialogues with the world. The church’s job is to give people the answers that Christians have lived and died for to defend through the ages. If I’m going to convert, that’s what will convert me, the real thing.

So Mark is on to something: straight talk, the real thing, no pussyfooting around about this issue in particular. We are depraved. So my challenge in this message is this: What is it? What’s wrong with us? Let me give you my definition and then we’ll spend the rest of the time unpacking it and defending it.

An Issue of Preference

I’m after the essence. There are a lot of things you can say about human sinfulness, corruption, wickedness, bentness, fallenness, but what’s the heart of it? What’s the essence of our problem? If you dig as deep as you can dig, what do you run into at the bottom? Here’s my effort: the inner essence of our depravity is our preferring (and that’s going to be a very, very operative and crucial word) the glory of created things over the glory of God. The essence of our depravity is our deep preference, our deep preferring, of created things — the glory of created things, the value of created things, the satisfying nature of created things, the joy of created things, the pleasure of created things, the significance of created things — over the glory of God, such that we are blind and insensible to the infinitely preferable glory of God.

“People find it hard to believe that we Christians think we’re as bad as the Bible says that we are.”

God’s glory is infinitely to be preferred over everything and everyone: wife, husband, children, mother, father, brother, sister, job, ministry. God is infinitely to be preferred over everything, and we don’t see that. Now, question: Why define the essence of our depravity in those terms? Why define depravity as a preferring of created things over God? Why not define it other ways?

For example, why don’t you go to 1 John 3:4 where it says that sin is lawlessness. This is a good, biblical definition of sin. Sin is lawlessness. Let’s go to 1 John, because I have a few things I want you to see there.

First John 3:4, and I just quoted a piece. Why did I give that kind of definition about preferring, treasuring, cherishing, being satisfied with, taking delight in created glory not divine glory? Why am I going there? Why am I doing it that way when the Bible, for example, in 1 John 3:4 says, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” So why don’t I just say it that way? There are at least four reasons, and they’re very helpful and illuminating to me.

Love Sums up the Law

First, the first commandment of the law is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” (Mark 12:30) but not less than heart. So if you go to define the essence of sin as lawlessness, what law are you talking about and what does it mean to break it? The first one is “love him with all your heart.” What does it look like to break that? It means not to prefer him. To love God is to prefer God over everything.

So I’m back to my definition even if I start with the fact that sin is lawlessness. You might say that I’m assuming something. I’m assuming that loving God means preferring him, delighting in him, being satisfied in him, rejoicing in him, cherishing him, treasuring him. I’m assuming all that kind of affectional heart movement toward him. Doesn’t Jesus say in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”? Perhaps you have heard that verse so many times as saying that to love is to obey. That’s precisely what it does not say.

It says, if you love Jesus, something else happens: obedience. So what’s this? And the answer is preferring him above everything. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Jesus says, “If I don’t mean more to you than your mother and your father and your son and your daughter, you can’t follow me. So if you feel that about me, you’ll obey me.” Don’t equate obedience with this. It’s a fruit. That’s my first reason for why I’m moving in the direction I’m moving and defining depravity as not just staying at the law level.

Love Obeys the Law

Second, turn to 1 John 5:1 and see what else he says. I start with the heart and the definition of depravity as not preferring God, not being satisfied in God, not delighting in God, delighting in everything else above God. I start there because it is possible that all the laws can be broken while doing them. You’ll see that in these three verses.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. (1 John 5:1–3)

And, if you stopped right there you’d say, “That’s different than what you said.” But listen: “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). So if loving God means keeping his commandments, and they are not burdensome, then you can keep them begrudgingly and be totally disobedient.

You can go to your Bible, get your ten commandments or 620 commandments, and list them and just cut out whatever obedience you can and totally be in disobedience because they’re not supposed to be burdensome. Well, what would make them not burdensome? Preferring God, delighting in God, treasuring God, esteeming God, valuing God, being satisfied in God. That’s why I’m there.

Evils of Wrong Preference

Third, Jeremiah 2:13. This is a very important verse — I won’t quote it for you; let’s go there. This is so important I want you to lay your eyes on it. If you have a Bible, find Jeremiah 2. Big books in the Old Testament are not hard to find; little ones are hard to find. This is a big one. Jeremiah 2:13 may come as close as anything in the Bible to defining evil the way I’m defining it — the heart of it.

My people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
   the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
   broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

What is the definition of depravity in that verse? What is evil? “My people have committed two evils.” Here they are: First, they have put their lips to the fountain of life and spit it out. That’s God. Second, they have turned to the dirt and have scraped and scraped and scraped to make a cistern that will hold muddy water. And they’ve put their mouths to it and said, “That’s satisfying.” That is the nature of our depravity, that’s who we are. We’re born this way, everybody in this room is that way by nature.

We do not prefer God, the fountain of all beauty. We prefer alternatives, created things, you name it: wife, husband, job, health, retirement, sex, drink, drugs, workaholism, success, name it. It doesn’t matter what it is, and most of them are good, and wickedly good because they’re idols, they are alternatives to God. That’s the nature of depravity: We prefer broken cisterns over the fountain of living water. That’s the meaning, the deepest meaning of our wickedness. That’s the third reason I’m saying it the way I’m saying it rather than just staying at the low level.

Matter of Affections

And here’s the fourth and last one. Let’s go to John 3. This is the Gospel of John. Mathew, Mark, Luke, John — in the New Testament — chapter three. And I just want to put some vocabulary on this dynamic — namely love/hate vocabulary, not choice vocabulary.

“The inner essence of our depravity is our preferring the glory of created things over the glory of God.”

So much in evangelicalism (at least historically) has been defined in terms of decisions and choices, and our religion becomes something we choose. And then we do our sanctification by what we choose, choose, choose, choose, choose as though there were no reality underneath all these choices inclining our hearts. So here’s Jesus in John 3:19–21.

Love and Hate

Listen to this: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world,” — so there’s God arriving, the light of the world, Jesus — “and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Now mark the reason they’re not coming to the light. It’s not that they’re choosing; they’re loving, and so they’re not coming.

They’re loving the darkness. Then you hear more: “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light” (John 3:20). They love darkness, they hate light. This is vocabulary that is far deeper than mere choices.

The work of the ministry, pastors, is impossible. Just settle it. You’re not mainly about getting your people to make choices. The main thing we’re after is to stop loving the world and to stop hating the light. To have a total revolution of your affectional deep soul so that you love the light and hate the dark. That’s not a mere choice, that’s a change.

It’s called new birth; it’s called sanctification. It’s a miracle; it’s a work of God. You can’t make it happen, which is why the ministry is impossible, which is why we’re always desperate, why we’re on our faces, why we pray, why we’re totally hopeless in Canada or America without the almighty work of the Holy Spirit. Depravity is just so deep, you can’t just decide not to be depraved.

Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:20–21)

Missing Piece

This sequence, that John has given us — which I love — has a piece missing, doesn’t it? He talks about goal of creation and the nature of depravity, then we leapfrog over the work of Christ and the objective means of salvation to the nature of faith. Well, I won’t leapfrog over it. Like I did this morning, I’ll try to keep that before me but this is all seamless. I hope you’re thinking with me in the seam.

I’ve tried to address the question: Why are you defining depravity in terms of preferring the glory of created things (almost anything) over the glory of God? That’s the way we’re wired. We prefer, we delight in, we take pleasure in, we’re inclined toward, we treasure created things more than God. God is sort of done. We do it on Sunday, but Monday to Friday we’re driven by what we like, and it isn’t him unless something miraculous happens.

Now, here’s the next question: What is the relationship between depravity and the glory of God as the ultimate goal of God in creation? This is the connection between the message from this morning and this message on depravity. Let’s go to Romans 3.

Glory and Depravity

Everybody who wants to share the gospel (and you should all want to share the gospel) should have a simple outline memorized of the basics of the gospel. I’ve been teaching my little girl, Talitha, how to share her testimony because she professed faith three years ago. And she’s going to be baptized, God willing, in May.

She and I have gone to a five-hour class together taught by one of our pastors, and she’ll be giving her testimony to the elders (which is very intimidating) on the 28th, next Saturday. And the outline that we’ve worked on is this: God, sin, Christ, faith. That’s the outline of the gospel. You just need to turn them into sentences.

On the sin piece, God is great and holy and created us for his glory, but we’ve all failed. And Christ died for our sins. Trust him and you’re saved. I mean, that’s the gospel, and it’s simple. An 11-year-old can say it profoundly.

Fall Short?

But on this second piece of sin, Romans 3:23 is the verse most people memorize. But look what Paul does here: “All have sinned.” And almost all the English versions say, “and fall short of the glory of God. So Paul explicitly makes the connection between depravity and the glory of God. That’s why I’m making the connection. That’s why I started this morning where I started, why this thing is developing the way it’s developing. Sin is a falling short of the glory of God. But this word fall short is the Greek word, hystereō, to lack.

“To love God is to prefer God over everything.”

So, translated literally: “All have sinned and lack the glory of God.” Well, what does that mean? It surely doesn’t mean we should be God, that we should have as much glory as God has. In what sense do all people lack the glory of God? My answer is that Romans 1:23 defines the meaning of Romans 3:23, which is easy to remember. Romans 1:23 defines Romans 3:23, so let’s go there. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22–23).

Do you see the word exchange? They exchange the glory of God. Is it okay if I say prefer? They consider the glory of God, and they take it to the pawn shop and exchange it for a reptile. Thus, they lack it. They don’t have it anymore. That’s what I think Romans 3:23 means. “All have sinned and lack the glory of God,” meaning that all have sinned and exchanged the glory of God. All have sinned and traded it away. All have sinned and preferred other things to God.

Horrible Trade

Now, to make that go home, let’s just follow Paul here in Romans 1. Go back up to Romans 1:19.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19–20)

Why? What did they do?

For although they knew God [they knew that he was infinitely to be preferred over all creative things], they did not honor [the word should be glorify] him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21–22)

So they saw, they knew, that God’s objective revelation was in front of them. It was in redemptive history for some and in natural revelation for all. And when they saw it, they suppressed the knowledge (Romans 1:18). They suppressed it. They didn’t want to have to be in love with one who made them, ruled them, owned them. No, they would be God; not see God and love God and submit to God and enjoy God. They would decide like Adam and Eve that this fruit is wise and to be preferred. They would to eat this, not enjoy God.

That’s who you are and who I am. Women and men, little boys and little girls so sweet, so kind, and so wicked. Beautiful women, wicked. Handsome, gentle men, wicked. Wicked — they don’t hurt anybody, they just don’t prefer God over everything. And you can see it by the way they run their lives. He’s marginal.

If you trace the argument of Romans 1, you bump into a couple more verses. Romans 1:25: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” They exchanged. They know the truth; it’s been revealed to them. They suppress it; they exchange it. Now, creature, we worship you, we love you, we cherish you, we bow down to you, we build our lives around you. God marginal, you central — you money, central; you video machine, central; you DVD, you computer, central; you sex, central; God, marginal.

Romans 1:28 says, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God” — now there’s a paraphrase. Let me give you the literal rendering: “They did not approve to have God in their knowledge.” That’s a literal way to translate Romans 1:28. “Since they did not approve to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a debased [you could say depraved] mind.” So what is depravity? It is considering the knowledge of God as infinitely to be desired and saying, “I don’t want to infinitely desire him. I do not infinitely desire him; I desire something else more.” That’s depravity.

To reaffirm, depravity at its essence is preferring, valuing, cherishing, treasuring, and finding satisfaction in the glory of the created thing above the glory of God. Family, work, toys, friends, food, home, praise, a man, sex, money, fame, achievement — you name it, anything but God that we prefer.

High Treason

Why is that so serious? The reason it’s so serious is because it contradicts the ultimate boulē of God. Those of you who were here this morning will know what I’m talking about. Boulē is the Greek word for purpose, intention, will, counsel.

The ultimate plan, purpose, intention of God is to uphold and display his glory for the maximum enjoyment of his redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. This depravity says No to that purpose. You know there’s a name for that. It’s called treason, and it is worthy of infinite punishment called hell, which is where all of us should be for how little we love God.

Why is the failure to enjoy God so serious? Why is it a threat to his glory? I’ve implied that it is. By the way, I’ve defined his goal. His goal is to display his glory as infinitely valuable for the maximum everlasting enjoyment of his people. Because we are so depraved, we prefer other things.

Why is the failure to prefer him a threat, an attack on his glory? Well, it’s not because when we fail to delight in him we contradict half of his purpose. Since his purpose is to be glorified and his purpose is to be enjoyed and we’re failing on the joy piece, we get fifty percent on this test. That’s not the case. When you fail to do one, you attack the other and don’t do it, either. But there’s an assumption there, isn’t there? And here’s the assumption (it’s the most important statement of my theology, probably): God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.

If you give up on being satisfied in God and move away to be satisfied in other things, you don’t succeed at half of his purpose; you fail at all of his purpose. He is not honored by you; he’s debased, discredited by you when you prefer broken cisterns to the fountain that he is. Now, I think I need to show this. I can’t assume it.

Glory and Desire

Most of you are familiar with the Westminster Catechism. Question number one is this: What is man’s chief end? And the answer (we all know; in fact, let’s just all say it together) is: Man’s chief end is to glorify God. Wonderful, you all get an A unless you didn’t answer.

Now, the question is: What’s the relationship between those two things? Because that’s a beautiful way to start a catechism. The chief end of man, I argued this morning, was the chief end of God — to glorify himself and to enjoy himself in the enjoyment of his people. But now it’s just saying our chief end is to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

Now, my little rhyme, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, means that I’m taking the word and to mean by. The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Am I warranted in doing that, historically and biblically? Those are the two questions I’d like to answer.

B.B. Warfield

Historically, I printed out here a page or two of B.B. Warfield on this question (the works of Warfield are about four volumes or so). In one of them , he’s got some commentary on the Westminster Catechism. On the first question, he comes so close but doesn’t quite get it right. (I think he gets it right, he just doesn’t say it right. Edward says it right, but we’ll be there in a minute.)

Delight in God, enjoyment of God — this is the recurrent refrain of all Augustine’s speech of God: delight in God here, enjoyment of God forever.

The distinction of the opening question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is that it moves on this high plane and says all this in the compressed compass of a dozen felicitous words: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Not to enjoy God, certainly, without glorifying Him, for how can He to whom glory inherently belongs be enjoyed without being glorified? But just as certainly not to glorify God without enjoying Him — for how can He whose glory is His perfections be glorified if He be not also enjoyed?

And he doesn’t say precisely how they relate. It just says you can’t have one without the other. Amen so far. He comes even closer on this paragraph,

The Reformed conception [I would say the biblical conception — I hope, pray, believe] is not fully or fairly stated if it be so stated that it may seem to be satisfied with conceiving man merely as the object on which God manifests His glory — possibly even the passive object in and through which the Divine glory is secured. It [the Reformed conception] conceives man also as the subject in which the gloriousness of God is perceived and delighted in. No man is truly Reformed [I would say biblical] in his thought, then, unless he conceives of man not merely as destined to be the instrument of the Divine glory, but also as destined [here it comes, this is as close as he gets] to reflect the glory of God in his own consciousness, to exult in God.

I’ll paraphrase that. He’s saying you don’t think rightly about God if you don’t think of him not merely as an instrument of the glorification of God, but as one who reflects that glory in his own consciousness.

That’s as close as he gets to saying, “If you don’t delight in God, you commit treason.” You’re not glorifying him, you’re against his glory if you don’t delight in him above other things. Now, that’s as close as he gets.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards nails it. Jonathan Edwards wrote a book called The End for Which God Created the World, the most important book I’ve ever read outside the Bible. It probably shaped everything I think about, because it put me in touch with the biblical teaching about the ultimate reason why God created the world, which I’ve been talking about. And here’s what he says, (this is one of the most important things I’ve ever read in my 61 years).

So God glorifies Himself toward the creatures also in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself. . . . [And here’s the sentence I have underlined] God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.

There it is. All I do is make it rhyme. I’ll say it again: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen [that is, apprehended and understood], but by its being rejoiced in.”

Biblical Warrant

Now, who cares what Edwards and Warfield say? We care very much about what Paul says and about what Jesus says. So let’s go to Philippians 1. I think those guys are right, because I think they’re Bible-saturated. When you’re Bible-saturated, you intuit a lot of things rightly and you say a lot of things rightly, even when you’re not quoting the Bible. But it’s better to quote the Bible if you’re trying to prove something or show something.

“We prefer broken cisterns over the fountain of living water. That’s the deepest meaning of our wickedness.”

What I want to try to show you from a couple of verses in Philippians 1 is that the reason our depravity is so serious (in that we prefer other created things to God) is not simply that half of God’s purpose is rejected, but that all of it is attacked, because if you don’t delight in him, you don’t glorify him. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.

The Apostle Paul

Here we are in Philippians 1:20–21:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Now, ponder the way the logic works between verses 20–21. Do you see the word for at the beginning of verse 21? Verse 20 says that Paul’s passion is that Christ would be magnified, honored, glorified in his body in two situations: life and death. So this is the main point of verse 20: Oh, that Christ would be made much of in my body when I die and when I live. I want my living to make much of Christ and I want my dying to make much of Christ, because he created the universe for his name to be made much of.

Then Paul gives the ground (or explanation) of how that happens in verse 21: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Now just take the death pair like this: My desire is that in my body Christ would be magnified in my death, for to me to die is gain.

How does that logic work? Christ will be magnified in my body in my death, because in my dying I experience gain. What’s the gain? Philippians 1:23: “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ.” That’s the gain. Let me just paraphrase it, then you see if you’ve got this figured out yet.

My passion is that my body, my life would magnify him, make much of him, glorify him. That’s why he created the world. In my death, I want to die in such a way that from my body will shine the value of Jesus Christ, for (this is the way it’s going to happen) to me to die is gain. Gain, meaning when I die and lose everything the world has to give, I have gained.

How can that be? Death means the loss of everything on the earth. I lose my wife. I’ll lose my body for a season. I lose all the pleasures of sex and food and friends, and I’ll leave everything behind and call it gain. How can that be? The answer is: I prefer Christ. I’m satisfied with Christ. So that’s how he’s magnified in my body when I die, which means Christ is most magnified in me when I’m most satisfied in him.

Jesus Christ

That’s my biblical basis for that statement. Here’s another one (I’ll just give you one more): Matthew 5. You want to see Jesus on this issue? Test and see if you think I’m on the right track here because I’ve got an interpretation here. I can’t prove it. I’ve not seen it in very many commentaries. But I want to try it on you to see if you agree.

Glory and Good Deeds

I’m working backward from Matthew 5:16, because verse 16 says something I want so bad for my life. I just have to figure this out. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” So there, shining off of my good works, is the glory of God in such a way that he’s getting the credit, not me.

How do you do good deeds so that he gets praised and not you? That’s huge. How do you do that? That’s what verse 16 says: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works . . .” And then who gets the glory? God.

Suffering for Good Deeds

How do they do that? How do they get from your good deeds to God’s glory? That’s a huge question for me. I think the answer is in the flow of the texts from verses 11–16. Let me read it, and I’ll show you how I’m understanding how this works. I’m explaining it, I’m trying to learn to live it, and I hope you’ll just try to learn to live it with me. Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad.” Now, stop right there and feel how wildly radical that is.

I mean, he might have said cope or endure or something a little more reasonable, but he said, “you’re being persecuted, you’re being reviled, they’re uttering all kinds of evil against you falsely; rejoice.” Don’t you just love Jesus? I just love him when he talks like this because he’s just over the top. He’s just got to be God or he’s crazy. He’s telling me to rejoice, and then he tells me how I can do that.

“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Now, that does not refer to endless golf in heaven, or 72 virgins, or endless pizza and diet Coke.

All right, here we are, verse 12. I’m trying to figure out where this joy comes from, because I’m getting beat up by all this slander, and I don’t like to be slandered. It’s oppressing, it’s discouraging. You lose sleep over it, and I’m supposed to be happy. And he says, “It’s because of your reward in heaven,” and I’m going to argue that it’s God, it’s Jesus.

Suffering in Hope

Someday face to face, no longer through a mirror darkly, we will see him for who he is. And he loves us. He’s there forever; he’s on our side. The greatest person that ever was is now face to face; he’s our reward full and clear. Then without missing a beat, he says that you’re the salt of the earth, you’re the light of the world. Let your light shine and God will get glory. Don’t let any break come into your mind. Can you put it all together?

You, being hated, instead of returning evil for evil, do the most radical thing this world has ever known: love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Rejoice and be glad in that day; count on your reward in heaven. Put your preference, your satisfaction in Jesus. Be salt and light, and people will glorify him.

“All have sinned and exchanged the glory of God.”

Don’t you know that happens? It’s so rare. For a person who is so deeply satisfied in Jesus, Jesus is their all. Christ is all, Paul said, he’s their all. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also; the body they may kill.” He’s your all, so that your joy doesn’t rise and fall merely with the circumstances and being slandered. It’s solid, so that in the midst of this you just keep on doing good deeds. And people are watching this.

Here’s a person that’s being beat up; here’s a person that’s being slandered; here’s a person that has every natural reason to be murmuring and angry and complaining and discouraged. Yet he seems to be above it, riding through it and maintaining a love to do good deeds for others. Where is he getting this satisfaction? It must be God.

Joy Is Your Light

I think that’s the logic of verse 16. I think if you follow it through, then “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” are joy in Christ in the midst of suffering. That’s the salt and the light. Joy, satisfaction, preference, being satisfied, treasuring, valuing Christ so highly that when everything is going against you in this world, you are not collapsed in murmuring. You are steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord with a certain kind of strength and radiance about you that makes people wonder about where it comes from.

Of course, it comes from heaven; it comes from Christ. And they might (God willing) give glory to your Father who is in heaven. So I conclude God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

In other words, the glory that God gets in verse 16 comes from the satisfaction referred to in the joy of verse 12. So those are my two biblical bases (though there are others), one from Philippians 1:20 and one from Matthew 5 to explain why I’m operating with the assumption (which is no longer an assumption, but I hope a biblical conviction) that the reason it is so serious to be depraved (in the sense of preferring anything to God) is that it not only nullifies the second half of God’s boulē, God’s purpose — namely, that we have maximal joy in him — but also the first half, which is that his glory would shine forth and be displayed. Because we are attacking his glory when we are not satisfied in him.

Rotten to the Bone

It might be helpful in drawing to a close to just make a few brief comments about the T of TULIP, Calvinism. What do people like me — Reformed types, Calvinist types — mean by total depravity? I’ll just give you bullets. Four things I mean by saying this depravity I’ve just described as total. What do I mean by that? It can mean all kinds of things.

Diametrically Opposed

First, it means that I’m totally against God even when I’m religious. You can use religion as a form of rebellion. And my warrant for saying this is another part of Romans 3, which you’re all very familiar with. It goes like this: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10–11).

So religion which poses as seeking God isn’t. It’s a means of self-justification. Instead of despairing of ourselves in our depravity and looking away to a substitute, whose righteousness, death, blood, and righteousness are our only hope, we do religious things. Religion becomes part of our rebellion. We are totally against God until God does the miracle of rebirth.

Utterly Pervasive

Second, the meaning of total. Our depravity contaminates the totality of our deeds. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

If you don’t do something to the glory of God, it’s sinful. If you don’t live for the glory of God, everything you do is sinful. So if you build a hospital for AIDS victims in Uganda, and you’re not a believer drawing down strength from Christ and doing it for the glory of Christ, it’s sinful to do that. It should be done, but you’re sinning in doing it because sin has to do with God. You’re preferring philanthropy over God. And the kudos that I get for spending all my money that way, that’s as much idolatry as prostitution.

Blind to God

Third, there is a total inability to submit to God and prefer him. There are many texts, but 1 Corinthians 2 is one of the clearest. Romans 8:7 would be another one. But here’s 1 Corinthians 2:14 (the “natural person” is the person who’s preferring anything over God): “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

He’s not able. When you are preferring things so much, you can’t prefer God. There’s an inability — a moral inability — and you are totally unable to save yourself.

Condemned by Nature

Fourth (and last), we are totally deserving of hell. Let me give you just a sentence that explains why that might be. Consider this. An unalterable bias toward good does not destroy the praiseworthiness of doing good or being that way. An unalterable bias toward good does not destroy praiseworthiness. God is unalterably biased toward doing good. He can only do good. And I would ask you: Is he praiseworthy for that? He is.

Therefore, an unalterable bias of heart to prefer bad is blameworthy. And the fact that it is unalterably biased by virtue of the intensity with which it prefers anything but God does not eliminate its blameworthiness, but increases its blameworthiness. So that when I use words like unable, I mean he is so much in love with his sin he cannot save himself. The cannot there does not get him off the hook. He is totally deserving of punishment.

Why You Should Preach Depravity

Now, those are my four meanings for total depravity. I close by a very brief word to pastors as to why you should preach these things. Should you preach total depravity?

Joel Osteen, pastor of the biggest church down in Texas, the biggest church in America was interviewed not too long ago and asked why he doesn’t preach on sin. He admitted that he doesn’t and said that his people don’t need that; it doesn’t make them feel good. It doesn’t help them to succeed. You can probably find that interview online. So should you follow that council, or should you preach about your people’s and your own sinfulness? Here are the reasons you should. I’ll just say them, and we’ll be done.

First, it’s in the Bible, and very prevalent. And whatever is in Scripture is profitable for the man of God to know and to teach.

Second, a right diagnosis leads to write cures. If people don’t know that their problem is that they prefer everything or anything to God, they’ll give a quick fix to it. They’ll start reading their Bible, they’ll start going to church, they’ll get out of bed with their girlfriend. They’ll clean up their act; it’s all they know to do if you tell them they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing it. But they don’t know that their diagnosis is so much deeper than that.

“Depravity is finding satisfaction in the glory of the created thing above the glory of God.”

Third, it makes the grace of God appear more amazing and more cherished. The reason people are not stunned by the grace of God and their own salvation is that they’ve never felt how inveterately sinful they are every day, because they’ve not been taught well about what sin is. They’ve grown up in Christian homes. They’ve never committed adultery. They’ve never stolen anything. They’ve never killed anybody. They’re scratching their heads saying, “When have I sinned last? I can’t remember when I sinned last.” And we’ve all been there.

Everybody says, “Let’s have just five or ten minutes of a time of confession.” And you’re thinking, Let’s see. . . . Listen, if you caught on to what I said three seconds ago, you’ll know you were sinning. Did you love him? Did you prefer him in proportion to his worth, his infinite worth? Do you see how precious the cross becomes for John Piper? I lay my head down every night after ten thousand sins. Everything I do, I must repent of. I love the cross.

Fourth, it humbles me and helps me fight my pride. That was implicit, I suppose in number three.

Fifth, it frees me from the need to deceive myself and put up fronts. Don’t you want an authentic church? Don’t you just hate hypocrisy? Don’t you want reality in your church, nobody putting up any fronts at all? Well, if you analyze people to the core and show them how utterly depraved they are, and the whole church is believing how bad they are, and then you relieve them, you give them relief, they don’t have to put up anything anymore. You’ve just laid them totally bare. An authentic church can happen.

Sixth, it preserves us from many doctrinal errors and false philosophies of life. It is amazing how the ballast of the weight of human depravity well-understood, well-considered, well-grieved for, and well-forgiven in the bottom of the boat of your life and your church keeps it from tipping over and taking water on from all the waves of bad doctrine that crash against it. It’s just incredible how a solid, deep, right understanding of how bad I am guards me from a lot of stupid things that are blowing in the wind.

Seventh, It keeps God at the center of all my life, it preserves a radical God-saturation.