I pulled an old novel off my shelf this morning, paging through it for nostalgic purposes. In my college days I discovered the writings of the humorist-novelist Peter De Vries, a renegade Dutch Calvinist. The novel I scanned today, looking for pages I had marked in my teenage years, is The Mackerel Plaza, about a person raised, like De Vries, in the Dutch communities of the Midwest, and now a pastor of a Connecticut congregation, The People’s Liberal Church. I came across one of my favorite little asides in the novel, where the Reverend Mackerel reports a conversation he once had with his strict Calvinist father about sin. Tired of hearing his father lecturing him on the soundness of the doctrine of Total Depravity, the son interrupted: “O, come now, people aren’t all that bad. Take you, for instance. You’re a good sort. In fact I think you’re quite a nice guy.” His father looked at him and said with irritation: “You’re wearing me thin.”
Actually, I identify with both sides of that conversation. I like the son’s humor and the father’s theology. For me, Total Depravity is not so much an abstract doctrine as it is an experienced reality.
Recently I went through some old family photos and saw a picture of myself riding a tricycle in the backyard of the first home that I can remember. I know I could not have been older than four years old at the time—probably closer to three—because we moved away from that home (actually an upstairs apartment) not long after my fourth birthday. My mother planted a small garden plot in that yard, and one day she worked with me to plant some seeds. She showed me how to dig holes and do the planting, and she instructed me about regularly watering the ground. She also helped me to block off that area with sticks and string, so that no one would walk on the planted area. And she warned me: “Do not ever step on this ground where you have planted the seeds, or the plants will not grow!”
One day when I was playing in that yard, I looked to make sure my parents were not watching, and then I stepped over the stretched string, and I deliberately stomped on the ground where I had planted the seeds. I can still remember the spirit of rebellion that motivated me. I was stomping on the ground precisely because I knew it was an act of disobedience. I also remember often lying awake in my bed in the weeks after I did that, fearful that the plants would not grow and worried that my rebellion would be revealed. I even prayed some childish prayers for deliverance, although I do not think they included any elements of confession and repentance—just something like, “God, please, please, make those plants grow!” I was greatly relieved when one day the green shoots suddenly appeared in the place where I had stomped my feet.
I tell that story to say that while I did not go from a wicked lifestyle to a pattern of holy living in my youth, I did need to be redeemed from a rebellious spirit that was grounded in my sinful nature. And it was not a rebellion that was motivated by any particular angry feeling I had toward my parents. It was a spirit of rebellion against authority as such, one that was grounded in a very basic desire simply to do something that was wrong.
I don’t have a dramatic conversion story about being rescued from a horribly wicked lifestyle. But I do have a profound sense that God’s grace has rescued us from a sinful nature that lay deep within me from the very beginning. I wouldn’t launch into a stern theological lecture if some Reverend Mackerel were to say to me: “Take you, for instance, You’re a good sort. In fact I think you’re quite a nice guy.” I would accept the compliment graciously. But only because I know that I am a person who can come off as a fairly “good sort” only by a grace that has to deal constantly with residues of rebellion that still has a home of sorts in my deep places.