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New Horizons

Total Depravity

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

I cannot express my horror at learning about the bus accident that involved several Rutherford athletes last week, nor my relief in hearing that all lives were miraculously spared. I am sure that the trauma over the campus will not lift for a while, especially as the campus awaits news about the extent of the survivors' critical injuries. No doubt this has provoked discussions in the classroom and in the dormitories.

You are not alone. Other small colleges have experienced damaging wildfires or deadly flooding. The episode brought to mind the grief I experienced during my sophomore year at Rutherford when a classmate died of leukemia. He was a model student—why did God strike him down in the prime of his youth? What did he or his family do to deserve this? Meeting his family at the funeral made the grieving only harder—why did God allow this to happen?

Tragedies like these should prompt humble reflection on God's higher ways, as your chaplain has apparently suggested. The trend in Christian ethics today, regrettably, is to talk about God's lower ways. There seems to be a growth industry of books, Christian and pseudo-Christian, that construct a diminutive doctrine of God in the light of human suffering. You may have heard that "bad things happen to good people," which suggests a God who is either not good enough or not powerful enough to stop such calamities. Whatever fleeting comfort these imaginations may bring to our finite minds, they do not describe the God who is revealed in Scripture, nor one who commands our worship and respect. Surely such a benign and limited God is reassuring in that he is not severe and will not bite. But a God who cannot demand perfection or punish for imperfection is also one who lacks the power to control all things, including our salvation.

I would encourage you to consider the response of our Lord to the calamity of the fall of the tower of Siloam in Luke 13. The eighteen who died there were not "worse sinners" than others. He did not explore the question of their depravity because he simply assumed it. The ultimate question is not "Why?" as many Christians may ask. Nor is it "Why not?" as some Calvinists may pose, often less than tactfully, in emphasizing sinful mankind's just desserts. The real question in the face of these horrors is "Why not me?" In other words, these are occasions to reflect on our own sin and the punishment that it deserves. The fate that we all share, in our common inheritance from Adam, is that we are all going to die. The "sense" that we must get from these senseless tragedies is that our demise is inevitable.

The ubiquity of human sinfulness means that catastrophes do not involve the loss of "innocent lives." The so-called innocent bystander caught in the cross fire of a gangland shooting is innocent before the law, but he remains guilty before God. As you have sensed by now, a Christian college will not quarantine you from sin and its effects—or from the wrath of God, for that matter. The wrath of God may be a lost concept in our culture. Remember from your catechism: every sin deserves the wrath and curse of God, both in this life and in the life to come.

One of my favorite Rutherford professors, Dr. Gottfried, used to claim that nothing could shock him, because whatever the bad news, he could always respond, "My doctrine of sin accounts for that." Now there was a rock-ribbed Calvinist! He understood the Fall and its effects. Dr. Gottfried knew what our Confession of Faith teaches, that if "we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil" (6.4), we should expect to see more suffering and even more horror than we do. But he did not end his counsel there. I also learned from him to consider that we have hope for a real life to come in which there will be no more tears, pain, suffering, and death.

Please do not read this as a recipe for simple answers to tough questions. In the midst of a calamity, to talk about the life to come can sound like pie in the sky. This world was created to be good, it is real, and our sufferings and pain are not fictions to be overlooked. They are real consequences of the way things are not supposed to be. And you and your friends are right to mourn the loss of health and life. The book of Job was not mistakenly included in the Bible. At the same time, we cannot forget that God is controlling all things for his own glory and even for our benefit. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that because of God's providence, "we can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and confident in the future" (Q. 28).


Uncle Glen

P.S. It was not by design, but you may have noticed that I have addressed the so-called five points of Calvinism in my recent correspondence, although in reverse order, generating the rather ungainly acronym of PILUT. If I have applied these teachings in unexpected contexts, it should remind us that these are not abstract principles of our religion, but practical truths that will yield much comfort and hope in the Christian life, both in college and beyond.

"Uncle Glen" Roberts is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2009.

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