As I made the point earlier today, the Bible does not refer to all people as being “sinners.” At the heart of this was to make the point that the Scriptures do not speak towards a pessimistic, if not misanthropic, worldview that sees all persons mired in wickedness and evil until they find God. That just simply isn’t Scriptural, but it has been a worldview assumption that the Scriptures have been subjected to. However, if I reject saying that everyone is a “sinner,” do I reject the power of sin in life? Absolutley not. Paul is Romans is incredibly clear about the controlling power of sin. However, instead of reading Paul’s metaphorical language about the power of sin against the backdrop of a total depravity that suggests we are all actively engaging in sinning, I want to suggest a different way to make sense of the language: ability.
I have had heard it a few times that the doctrine of total depravity can also be called the doctrine of total inability. However, the words “depravity” and “inability” do not convey the same thing. The former talks about the moral status of people; suggesting total depravity is to say that people are actively wicked in their life, even if they aren’t as wicked as entirely possible. Total inability, however, implies something different: that we do not have within ourselves the strength and power to reach God’s righteousness that is revealed in Jesus Christ, but that we must be redeemed in order to embody that type of righteousness in our own lives. Rather, than characterizing people’s behaviors, total inability refers more so refers to the way we are not capable of perfectly regulating ourselves to always do God’s will on our own power. Whether it is the most depraved individuals we can think of or a decent person who struggles with always keeping their commitments, they are all alike in one way as different as they are: they are not capable on their own of breaking free from all the sins that have bound them.
When we see Paul talk about “slavery” to sin and righteousness in Romans 6.15-23, Paul does characterize “slavery” in terms of how intensely sinful or righteous a person is. Rather, he construes “slavery” in terms of controlling how one uses one’s members, i.e. the body. Slavery is about self-control of oneself and one’s body and whether one uses it for God’s purposes or not. It is not about being entirely wicked or extremely saintly. The inability to control oneself is at the heart of the struggle of an individual trying to live by Torah in Romans 7: try as hard as they might, their mind can not control all their actions, but they find that sin has power over them than his mind that agrees with God’s Torah does. We don’t see Paul characterize this individual as an intensely wicked person. He characterizes them simply as a person who can not help but covet.
This inability to fully control one self explains the significance of Romans 8.1-17. Because Christ has condemned/made powerless sin in the flesh, then those who have the Spirit are capable of overcoming and putting to death the deeds of the flesh and living by the mindset of the Spirit. The cognitive language here is consistent with the way cognitive language was typically used to refer to self-control in Greco-Roman philosophy, particularly among the Stoics. Paul is developing an account of holy self-control through the power of the Spirit given to us by being united with Christ. Elsewhere in Galatians 5.23, Paul refers to self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
So then, rather than reading Paul against the backdrop of total depravity, perhaps we can read him against the backdrop of the lack of total self-control. One of the theological implications of this is entire sanctification: that if in Christ we are given the ability to overcome all sin in our life, that would mean that we can become entirely sanctified in God’s eyes. That doesn’t mean we necessarily known we are entirely sanctified, but it does mean that we can entirely and fully live our lives in devotion to Jesus. It may take much unlearning and repentance. It may take much prayer and diligence to obey the Spirit in putting to death the deeds of the flesh. It may take readily confessing our sins and receiving God’s ongoing forgiveness along the way. Having this Spirit-enabled self-control doesn’t mean there isn’t still have a spiritual struggle to fight in our lives, but it does mean that those who are in Christ are new creation and are going from being diamonds in the rough to becoming bright shining diamonds with the continued polishing and transformation through the work and leading of the Holy Spirit for God to show off them like the stars in the night sky.