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Nashville, New Orleans, and a Right Understanding of Total Depravity


In the wake of the recent flooding in Nashville, devastation on par with the flooding seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Pastor Jim McClarty observes the great contrast between the two cities and the aftermath, in a positive look at how people are dealing with the terrible flood mess.  As he said, Nashville probably will not get the attention of Hollywood or Katrina-like aid — but that’s actually a good thing.  As he observes,

I’ve seen pictures and video of abandoned grocery stores.  But, the windows are still intact.  I’ve seen businesses and electronic centers closed up.  But, I have not seen any looting.  I have not seen angry mobs busting windows and stealing stuff.  There have been no riots.  There have been no marauding gangs.  There have been no murders.

I’ve heard firsthand reports (from my own brother, no less) of people with boats who worked tirelessly for upwards of 36 straight hours, rescuing their neighbors, their friends, and total strangers, from the rising waters.

This reminds me of comments made by the local pastor soon after Hurricane Katrina, words that bothered me at the time as not quite right, as somehow missing the mark.  Basically, he saw the devastation — and the rampant looting and crime — as evidence of our human fallen nature, our total depravity.  He went on to say that all of us in that situation (New Orleans flooding), and certainly unsaved people, would have done the exact same thing and behaved the same way, because that’s how people behave in catastrophic situations, when the restraints of law and order are removed.  He even mentioned the specifics, that we would all be getting out our guns and shooting at others, as part of acting in our own interest, because we’re all such wicked sinners.

Certainly it is true that sometimes such natural disasters bring out the worst in humankind, as witness New Orleans.  But our history also tells of situations where people come together and help each other out.  I think of the heroic people of Denmark during WWII — not particularly pious Christians, but ordinary citizens who had nothing against their Jewish neighbors and helped them escape Hitler by sending them out in boats to nearby Sweden; now we can add the Nashville flooding incident to the list of many such positive responses to a bad situation.

At the time of the above remarks, I lacked the precise understanding to explain the error. It was more of a recognition that, by God’s grace, not everyone, not even every lost person, thinks like a criminal.  For one thing, not everyone keeps plenty of guns around to act out as the mobs in New Orleans did.  Just because man is sinful does not mean that every person will behave at their very worst in such situations.

Most likely, the local pastor was connecting the post-Katrina events with a common misunderstanding concerning the doctrine of total depravity.  Many people have thought that total depravity refers to outward behavior, that we are as bad as we can be; and on that basis C.S. Lewis even said some clever words in his rejection of the doctrine.  Yet as I’ve learned through good Bible teaching from S. Lewis Johnson, total depravity instead means that all of our faculties are touched by sin — our minds, wills, and emotions — so that we are unable to please God.  To quote S. Lewis Johnson from one of several times that he explained this:

Now it is not total depravity in the sense that we are as bad as we can be.  We are proving that we are not as bad as we can be because tomorrow our society is worse than it is today, as a general rule.  And the chances are that individuals are worse tomorrow than they are today.  So we’re not as bad as we can be.  When we say that man is totally depraved, we mean that all of their faculties are touched by sin: their mind, their wills, their emotions.  Those features that make up their faculties, they’re all twisted and warped by sin.  They’re even capable of certain thoughts that even the world approves of as benevolent thoughts, very good thoughts.  But all parts of them are touched by sin; that’s what total depravity means.

Thank God that we really are not as bad as we can be, as we enjoy God’s common grace to us in this world.  Let us also praise God for the good things coming out of the events in Nashville, that even in the midst of the flooding mess, they’re surviving and helping each other out.  We can recognize that we are sinners saved by God’s grace, without constantly beating ourselves down with pious-sounding words about how we would all act like criminals if our community was flooded — instead holding to a proper and sober view (not too highly or too negatively) of ourselves (Romans 12:3) and what God has given us.

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