For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing (Romans 7:18)
In Romans chapter 7, the apostle Paul is describing his state, not as he was before his conversion, nor even as a convinced follower of Christ, but as an advanced believer. “Wretched man that I am!” he wrote.
By this he did not mean that he was forever wallowing in guilt. The Christian life is one of joy, freedom and confidence. Yet the theologians use the phrase ‘Total Depravity’ to describe the human condition. They do not mean that humanity is as bad as it is possible to be, for noble acts of kindness and unselfishness can be found in people everywhere, however pagan. The term means, rather, that there is no part of us that is not affected by the original Fall, recorded in Genesis chapter 3.
It is not possible to exaggerate what the Fall has done to the human race. It had no part whatever in Marxist thinking of old, and indeed its effects have been underestimated by many in Christian circles. In typical Anglican under-statement, the nineteenth century bishop of Ely described it as no more than “a most deplorable change!” Yet, from the Fall onwards we were like a jelly mould that has been dented. From then on every jelly bears the mark of that dent. “The most remarkable thing about wrongdoing,” wrote Stephen Neill, “is that it is universal.”
The experience of the apostle Paul is duplicated throughout history. The further believers advance in godliness, the greater their knowledge of themselves as sinners ‘very far gone from original righteousness’ (Article 9 of the Church of England). Humankind, at base, is not to be trusted.
And yet, the buffeted new believer can be comforted. As former slave-trader John Newton declared when he became a Christian, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I hope to be, I am not what I wish to be – but by the grace of God I am not what I was!”