Do Calvinists Have Too Low a View of Themselves?
Perhaps. It is virtually impossible to have too low a view of ourselves by ourselves. We, all of us who are human, do indeed bear the image of God. Even that, however, is ultimately extrinsic to us. The imago, we need to understand isn’t essential to us in a sense, but is added to us. By ourselves, apart from His grace, we are but dust and rebellion. In His grace, however, He has imposed upon us, stamped upon us, His image. We humans thus have worth, dignity and value, though these are ultimately from without rather than within.
In affirming the total depravity of all men we still affirm that we could always be worse. Total depravity speaks to two lines of our wickedness. First, it affirms the breadth of our sin. There is no part of us untouched by sin. The ravages of the fall are not contained within our wills, and sealed off from our minds. All that we are is depraved. Second, this sin nature leaves us totally unable, in ourselves, to will any good, including the good of repenting and believing. Left to ourselves we will never embrace the work of Christ. Where total depravity stops short is in this—we affirm total depravity in denying utter depravity. We could be worse. The restraining hand of God’s common grace leaves us less wicked than we might otherwise be.
We who believe, of course, came to believe because God the Holy Spirit came to us, unbidden, removed our hearts of stone and gave us new life, a heart of flesh. Out of that prior change we repent and believe, trusting in the finished work of Christ for us. And we are, from there forward, indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is about the business of helping us to grow in grace and wisdom. Is this the place where we Calvinists have too low a view of ourselves?
I would suggest not. First, we can lose sight of the good news, that not only are our sins forgiven, but we are being cleansed from all unrighteousness (James 1:9). We are getting better, which is a wonder and a delight not to be overlooked or diminished. But it is vital even in celebrating our growth in grace, even in affirming the synergistic nature of our sanctification, that we not lose sight of the power of all of this. It starts in the Alpha and ends in the Omega—every good and perfect gift. Second, our improvement needs to be put in perspective. From one vantage point it is shocking and amazing, something to be deeply celebrated. We are made new. It is the spiritual equivalent of landing a man on the moon—awe-inspiring, world changing. But from the eternal vantage point, all our growth is but a few faltering baby steps. We may have landed on the moon but the distance between where we are and where we have to go is the gap between the moon and the sun, of a solar system in a distant galaxy.
We who are called saints, who have been adopted of the Father and loved with an everlasting love, who have been and are being remade have much to give thanks for. We in turn, despite all this, have much to repent for. But in all we have much to rejoice over, for He who has begun a good work in us will carry it through to the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).