How can we say that man has inherent dignity (the image of God) and yet at the same time he is a terrible sinner—worthless (total depravity)? Isn’t he either the former or the latter? The answer to this false dilemma is simply “yes.” We are both. Man is far above all other creatures (Ps. 8:5); he is “wonderful” (Ps. 139:14) and “beautiful” (Prov. 20:29). No other creature has the honor of being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). But he has also fallen very far.
I was sitting in a college history class many years ago. My professor asked for a show of hands: “How many of you believe man is basically good?” Most people raised their hands. “How many of you believe man is basically bad?” Two or three people raised their hands, including me. I looked around somewhat perplexed; my Calvinist upbringing put me at odds with almost everyone. Yet when I look back, something was wrong.
More recently, a young man who attended a Bible study I was leading asked me a question. During one study, I mentioned that God considered human beings valuable enough to save; otherwise, He wouldn’t have sent His Son to die for people. I said we have inherent dignity; there’s a worthwhileness about us. This young man came up to me after the study, confused. He quoted Romans 3:12:
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.
He respectfully asked how I could say that humans are worthwhile if the Bible tells us we’re worthless. I was thrown off guard, because I could see how I appeared to be directly contradicting Scripture. A plain, surface-level reading of Romans 3:12 led him to believe that men and women are worthless. God saved dirty rags (Isa. 64:6), trash (1 Sam. 2:8), worms (Job 25:6; Ps. 22:6). Who are we to think of ourselves as worthwhile at all?
I realized in reflecting afterward that I had found myself caught on the horns of a false dilemma, but to understand the dilemma, we need to think about our historical context.
It’s our inheritance as Protestants to think of ourselves as sinners, incapable of willing spiritual good. This was the underlying logic of Martin Luther’s despair as he went through the repetitious cycle of the Roman Catholic sacramental system. He realized he would never measure up; he would never stop sinning in this life; his sin went so deep that he could never confess or do enough to merit salvation. He had a sober understanding of who he was before God, and this led him to be awed by the grace made apparent in the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17). He realized that God’s saving righteousness was Jesus Christ, and God stoops to save sinners. Therefore, when we throw ourselves on the mercy of God exhibited in the infinite grace freely given to us in our Lord Jesus Christ, then we experience the joy of salvation—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It’s no wonder that Protestants sing “Amazing Grace” with gusto.
Luther, however, lived in an age permeated by Christian thought. Protestants and Roman Catholics didn’t argue that we were made in the image of God. That was a given; the question was: How far did we fall? Did we simply lose a certain grace that was divinely imparted to us so that we now stand in a somewhat neutral position before God (as Roman Catholic doctrine asserts)? Or did we fall so far that now we’re unable to will true spiritual good apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (as classical Protestantism asserts)?