Children, Jesus, Superheroes, Depravity, and The Gospel

My reformissionary brother Steve set a small corner of the Internet on fire the other day with this tweet:

This set off a chain of tweets, Facebook messages, and blog posts, from alleged Christians who called him abusive or worse. The most common refrain was that you will somehow psychologically damage a child by teaching them this.

Of course the main problem is that the critics took his tweet to be the sum total of his doctrine, and belief about what we should teach children. Of course we should tell them more! Like, the GOOD news! However, we still need to tell them the bad news.

A scalpel cut hurts, but is absolutely necessary for life-saving surgery.

This got me thinking. In a lot of the responses, there was a denial of original sin, a historic, orthodox, Christian position. The assertion was that children are somehow “innocent” and unstained by the world. That man is morally good or neutral until “stained” by the world. This is semi-Pelagianism (at least), and is heresy (a denial of the core of the Christian faith.)

And then it dawned on me… (submitted for your feedback and commentary…)

If we do not rightly understand our own depravity, Jesus will only ever be at best little more than a superhero who rescues us, the victim, from a bad world.

Super-hero Jesus is worthy of our thanks and admiration and maybe team loyalty, but not our complete and total devotion, our undivided worship, our joy-filled submission to His service such that we could accurately be called “slaves”.

Hero worship is fleeting and ends the moment the hero lets you down. The minute they cease to be your genie, meeting your felt “needs”, at your command, you go in search of another hero.

True Jesus is something else altogether. He is holy. He is the creator and king against whom we have rebelled, who offers a treaty of pardon, peace and fellowship.

Without a firm understanding of our depravity, we will never understand why we do bad things, why other people do bad things. Grace will never be AMAZING without understanding that we were ENEMIES of God when he rescued us. Grace will always be just sort of neat. But not amazing.

Teach people about their depravity, and understand it yourself, or you worship a false Jesus, and thus, a false God, and are in danger of eternal hell.

  • jtheory

    So, for many His tweet triggered wounds of past hurt, being told they were broken, and no hope unless God saved them. Etc. and some responded out of hurt.

    Others, like me, did respond from a more theological disagreement. I am pelagian, yes, and I do think that we are born morally neutral, but that sin is inevitable for social reasons.

    what original sin does is the same thing gnosticism does, create a dichotomy between flesh and spirit that is just not there.

    We are flawed in the same way Adam and Eve were. They disobeyed before the fall, why? Because they weren’t perfect, and yet God called that Very Good. Why? Because it was never about perfection. It was about filling those cracks with love and relationship with God.

    So when a child is born broken they are born exactly as God wants them to be. But in your context this is not a good thing, this is total depravity and God hates it. I.E. God hates them. He has to. He is Holy. He might, might decide to impute the image of Christ onto them, and then love them because they have been crucified into life with Christ, but that’s His choice and He won’t make it for all of them.

    And that is what you and Steve mean by your gospel, which is not what I would mean by teaching about brokenness, and what I disagree with on his tweet.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      Thanks, that’s helpful, well stated and well reasoned.

      And completely outside historic orthodox Christian teaching…

      Interesting comparison between Gnostic dualism and original sin.

      The Bible actually does make a division between flesh and spirit. They wage war against each other. Your interpretation here?

      I agree that the Keswick and Holiness views are false, that we have “two natures”. I disagree with that. But the Bible is pretty clear that we have a flesh that we are to deny.

      Thoughts?

      • jtheory

        is there a difference between simple carnality and sinfulness? I think so. I think that the original Greek speaks better to this than modern translations.

        • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

          There’s not as much distance between Greek and modern translations as many make out. There is a massive gap in people’s understanding of English though :)

          • jtheory

            well we also have to understand that some translations come tainted with Augustinianism and their understanding of Greek as well. He is the father of the gnosticism of original sin, Calvinism, etc. borne out of his Manichean roots. He discredited Pelagius and others who were teaching more of what the ancient church believed (and that nowadays those like the Celtic Church continue to believe) and since he was a master of rhetoric he simply shouted them down, and so his beliefs have become the foundation of a lot of untruth in the church today.

          • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

            I guess that’s one way of looking at history. There is patristic teaching of original sin that predates Augustine.

          • willhouk

            Can you share that teaching?

          • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

            And really? 1500 years of error because of one man’s powerful arguments? I have a little more faith in Holy Spirit’s power and guidance than that…

      • http://theycallmepastorbryan.com theycallmepastorbryan

        You cannot understand the flesh and spirit contrast of the New Testament through 2nd temple Judaism which is a much different terminology that does not go in the dualistic tension you just articulated.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      My guess is that you (and others), like myself, also heard some false idea of salvation “ask Jesus into your heart or you’ll be in hell with the demons!”

      That’s just as problematic.

      • jtheory

        I heard “Jesus Loves Me.” and about hell yes, but I was never taught Believe or Hell. That was meat, and as a child I still needed milk. But as I came to Hell later on it didn’t mesh with my understandings of rehabilitative punishment being true justice, so I questioned it, and those questions led to universal reconciliation eventually.

        • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

          So the Christian theology you were taught didn’t mesh with your personal understanding of the way people and the world work, so you denied Christian teaching in favor of a philosophy that meshed better?

          • jtheory

            I denied one doctrine of hell for another. I see both as Christian answers. I just agree with one more than the other because it also meshes with reality. And have come to see how the Bible can be understood to line up with universal reconciliation with a correct understanding of words etc.

          • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

            So, “Love wins.” etc?

          • jtheory

            And why shouldn’t it? Why is it so important for there to be Wrath as well as love. Why do some have to be simple vessels of wrath and no hope for them, etc. This just seems a reprehensible understanding of God and His Love. Why not let Love be the main motivating factor of anything He does, that including using Hell as a rehabilitative punishment and not an eternal one. It speaks to the image of God stamped on us all, not lost in the Fall as well, that we are the Art of God from the start, and nothing we can do can change that, and that that is where our value is, not based on our sins or lack of them.

            Which I guess we could term “Original Value.” haha.

          • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

            Ya… if only Jesus wouldn’t have spoken of eternal fire…

            If you start with the premise of moral neutrality, then yes, eternal punishment is a HUGE problem.

          • jtheory

            it’s more of a problem if you start with the premise of being glitched like a computer towards evil and nothing you can do about it.

          • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

            Or did God create us “perfectly glitched” just the way He wanted us, for a reason?

            I think we’re about done here. Thanks for your comments.

          • Lt. Doom

            “The wicked are estranged from the womb”, yes? wtf chance did they ever have? You’re OK with the Prince of Peace cooking them?

          • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

            Chance?

      • Captain Doom

        AMEN, Bro! We have to “teach people about their depravity, and understand it ourselves” to avoid Hell! =D

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

    As long as Christians continue to prioritize their doctrinal leanings over the psychological wellbeing of their children, young people will continue to leave the church in droves.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      Yes, that would be horrible.

      However, if they prioritized their child’s immediate feelings of self-worth over the truths of scripture, there is a bigger problem still.

      The reason people are leaving the church in droves I think has more to do with the fact that The Gospel is not preached accurately in most “churches”. You get a particularly awful strain of legalistic/moralistic do-goodism, combined with a failure to examine the specks in our own eyes (which I have a feeling is what you experienced) on the one hand, and liberalism that denies core Christian truths on the other.

      The truth is that we are more sinful that we could ever possibly imagine, but the amazing thing is we are more loved by God than we could ever possibly hope.

  • Andrew Hackman

    Yeah, I saw the tweet, which led me to this post. I left a lifetime of Christianity two years ago. Squabbles like this remind me that it is the best thing I ever did. Everyone is arguing over which slavemaster theology is better…. I say, break those chains and be free.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      Free to do what?

      I agree that slavemaster theology is bad.

  • Mertz

    I think a big part of the problem is word choice. “Brokenness” isn’t a biblical concept. Sin is, original sin and total depravity even (heck, I’m reformed too), but “brokenness”? That’s a downright contemporary idea loaded with emotional and psychological freight. Did a Puritan pastor ever preach on “brokenness”? For a lot of post-evangelicals (many of whom never heard a message of grace), “broken” is a kind of trigger word, bringing up memories of a whole world that was only ever able to say to their childhood selves “there is something fundamentally wrong with you that you ought to condemn in yourself and hate about yourself that only Christ can save you from but even then maybe not”, whether through explicit teaching, practice, or both. It’s amazing how prevalent the gospel of works is within evangelicalism, and how this works-teaching has taken in aspects of (and concepts from) contemporary pop-psychology to make itself more insidious and difficult to excise. We’re all victims of it, to some degree. To be clear, I don’t think McCoy is a proponent of justification by works. I do think his word choice made him its unwitting rhetorical victim.

    Teach your children that they are sinful, sure, and loved so much that Someone overcame their sin and died for them to be able to taste the life eternal. But teaching them they’re “broken” seems to risk hurting them without pointing them to Christ. Sin connects to guilt connects to repentance connects to grace and redemption. Brokenness connects to other things—self-hatred and morbid introspection among them, and to call people “alleged Christians” for reacting to what might have been a serious trigger word for these associations is at best insensitive, and at worst, downright callous.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      I could go there with you.

  • Graeson

    I think that concern in actively teaching our children their “brokenness” is that they will lose a sense of their goodness aswell. Total depravity isn’t that we are 100% bad, its that everything we do is innevitabilely tainted by sin in some degree. God doesn’t make trash. Children should have a sense of how precious and LOVEABLE that they really are. “Self esteem” might seem “worldly” but we really are “beautifully and wonderfully made”.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      Trade “lovable” with “loved” and i’m right there with you.

      The truth is that we are more sinful that we could ever possibly imagine, but the amazing thing is we are more loved by God than we could ever possibly hope.

      I have three beautiful and wonderful, sinful little girls who are thriving by God’s grace under the full-orbedness of my explanation to them and demonstration to them that they are loved EVEN IN SPITE OF their lack of deservedness.

      We as parents, have a duty to model God’s love to our children. It actually comes quite easily.

      We as Christians have a duty to model this love to one another as well. That’s hard. But wonderful to see.

  • BWF

    You’re taking a huge leap by assuming that people disagreeing with the tweet did so because they don’t believe that original sin exists. Many of us just oppose that tweet for reasons of poor rhetoric.

    • Graeson

      Good point.

    • Me

      Oh Goodness, yes! I know i’m a sinner and everyone sins…….what that tweet brought back are memories of not ever being good enough, not only to God, but to my parents. And the yardstick that my parents had was always just high. I knew they loved me, but since i was never good enough, this teaching provided the fuel for me to think they never liked me. And for this I suffer to this day. This guys leaps and assumptions are sad. He never heard what we the victims are saying. And how like the world to blame the victim for what the abuser has done. And even like Steve said, Not to blame everyone for what ONE has done. He could have been different and tried to hear us out. Hear me, validate my feelings and then a discourse can be had.

      • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

        I am terribly sorry that you’re parents treated you that way. How ungodly and un Christlike!

  • http://theycallmepastorbryan.com theycallmepastorbryan

    Hi Matt, it seems in what you’ve wrote that you view Total Depravity as a central orthodox doctrine of the church. You’ll be surprised if you go back and look at the creeds, which were summaries of belief that none of them include anything about total depravity. Christ as savior, yes. But how one defines Total Depravity no. There are a number of faithful alternative articulations of the state of humanity that the church has made that do not go the route of your fear of Pelagianism. Eastern Orthodoxy, Arminian theology and others all have a different tact that both recognizes the effect of sin without the need to constantly tell people how broken they are.

    But while this is a theological issue, I think you misread what’s at the center of the responses to Steve’s tweet. You can respond with theological answers all you want, but these responses are based out of emotion and experience. If our theology tells us to ignore our souls, or to dismiss an experience a number of people are sharing because they are borderline heretics, we’ve already missed the point. This is using religion to divide and not to heal. So your response sounds as one telling people their experiences which have been quite painful don’t matter. It seems that you believe that you’re pretty set on believing you’ve got the right theological approach here already, and I’m not gonna try to sell you on another approach, but I strongly urge you to at least listen to these stories before just dismissing them. At the least you might learn something about how to avoid being damaging in your articulation of your theology, and that’s part of Christ’s calling to any of us – to move more towards his work of reconciliation and farther away from our natural propensity to make things harder for others.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      Fair enough. If you knew me you’d know my intention was not to be crassly dismissive of people’s lives. I serve in a pastoral role as well. I understand weeping with those who weep.

      That’s hard to communicate on a blog post.

      One other thing too, however, this communication is a two-way street.

      I’ve been repeatedly flabbergasted that people take a TWEET as the sum total of a person’s opinion on a subject. They should know better. Seriously.

      What Steve stated was 100% true, though I might agree with a previous comment that word choice could have been better.

      100% true, but not 100% complete, however.

      Maybe I should have simply said, “come on, people, this is Twitter.”

  • Mark Burns

    There is absolutely no such thing as “sin”. It is a phantom; it is a fabrication of our own minds, propagated through society.

    People do good and bad, but we are not judged by any higher standard, seen or unseen, than we impose upon ourselves.

    Telling children that they are broken and need to be saved from themselves is horribly damaging psychologically and worthy of criticism.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      The truth is that we are more sinful that we could ever possibly imagine, but the amazing thing is we are more loved by God than we could ever possibly hope.

      I have three beautiful and wonderful, sinful little girls who are thriving by God’s grace under the full-orbedness of my explanation to them and demonstration to them that they are loved EVEN IN SPITE OF their lack of deservedness.

      We as parents, have a duty to model God’s love to our children. It actually comes quite easily.

      We as Christians have a duty to model this love to one another as well. That’s hard.

      If you have no god that you are accountable to, then why bother commenting on this?

  • Adam Heffelfinger

    Your prioritization of being right over being in community here is absolutely breathtaking.

    “I think we’re about done here.” ??

    You’re arguing over a closely held doctrinal issue, and I get that, but it’s important to recognize that disagreements over this issue exist that remain well, well within orthodoxy. For that matter, disagreements that fall outside of orthodoxy are themselves still not grounds for being dismissed out of hand.

    I think it’s important that you examine the fact that many of the original protestations to Steve’s tweet came from people who had LEFT THE FAITH as a result of being greatly injured by those who had expressed similar sentiments. Regardless of whether that’s all of Steve’s theology, or all of their injurer’s theology, that sentiment caused them sufficient harm that they abandoned Christ entirely.

    It seems to me now, that in this conversation, you’re prioritizing being correct on an issue that is not central to Christian orthodoxy, and your right to simply DISMISS those who don’t hold it over the very salvation of those who might disagree with it as a direct result of having been gravely injured by it.

    I’m not a scholar of church history, but from the little Christian education I’ve had, I seem to recall that those who have claimed to hold a monopoly on the entirety of correct biblical truth seldom actually have.
    OR more simply.
    Check yourself.

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      I appreciate the warning, but something to realize is that Pelagianism has been held to be outside the faith for 1500 years by all branches of The Church. The argument has been settled for a long time.

      Because it still is being held does not mean that the issue is still open.

      I engaged as long as I deemed wise. Was not being dismissive, was guarding my time. I have no obligation to continue a conversation when the other side shows no sign of wanting to learn from one another.

  • Eatabagov Dix

    And this to you, is love? This is what Jesus would have done?

    • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

      Sorry. I’m not sure what you are referring to. The post itself? Publicly replying with an opinion publicly made comments?

  • http://www.mattheerema.com Matt Heerema

    And WOW! Someone linked this post somewhere.

    Since the responses are largely off point (not answering the question of our sinfulness), and since I have limited time to respond, I am closing down this thread. Doubtless this will be taken as a sign of arrogance or belligerence, and I simply urge you have some charity in your judgement. I have a full time job, no personal contact with any of you (which is required for proper engagement on this issue), and a family to attend to on a national holiday.

    I want to say a few things in parting, however:

    Pelagianism and universalism of any sort are no where to be found in the scriptures, no matter which language you know or which patristics you read. If you think you have found it, you are buying a millenia old deception and are in danger of wandering from the faith.

    The truth is that we are more sinful that we could ever possibly imagine, but the amazing thing is we are more loved by God than we could ever possibly hope.

    I have three beautiful and wonderful, sinful little girls who are thriving by God’s grace under the fullness of the scripture’s teaching of sinfulness, depravity, and God’s grace, mercy, and LOVE. They are thriving under my teaching and my modeling to them of unconditional. Check that, CONTRAconditional love and affection and pleasure in them, simply because they are my children. This is God’s stance toward His children as well.

    We as parents, have a duty to model God’s love to our children. It actually comes quite easily.

    We as Christians have a duty to model this love to one another as well. That’s hard.

    It seems to me that many of those who were “driven away from the church by this teaching” were actually driven away by a different teaching. One which is as equally heretical as univerisalism: A moralistic legalistic “pharisaism” that says you will never measure up like I do.

    No one ever measures up to God. That’s why He is God. He condescends to us, because He loves us.

    Be well. Believe The Gospel.

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