With the risk of exposing too much information about myself, I will share with you that a couple of weeks ago I was listening to Waylon Jennings’ and Willie Nelson’s, Don’t Cuss the Fiddle. There were a couple lines in the song that struck me as containing a lot of truth and insight into the human condition.
If we ever get to heaven boys
It ain’t because we ain’t done nothin’ wrong
We’re in this gig together
So let’s settle down and steal each other’s song
In this, the last half of the chorus of Don’t Cuss the Fiddle, I hear the assertion of the Christian theological doctrine of “radical corruption” or “pervasive depravity”. As Presbyterians, we have most often heard it expressed as “total depravity”. In this part of the chorus, Jennings and Nelson, through the excessive use of negatives, state that they won’t obtain blessedness through avoiding wrong doing. The rest of the song gives no sign of their expectations of being able to do anything right either. In this song they see all of us as being in the same mess, “We’re in this gig together”.
The concept of “total depravity” came from the theological exploration of the Biblical concept of original sin by Augustine of Hippo. According to Augustine, original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve, resulted in the Fall of Man. The consequences for Adam and Eve was their removal from their positions of blessedness in the Garden of Eden. This is presented as part of the Garden Story in the third chapter of Genesis. It is here that God pronounced judgement not only upon Adam and Eve but upon their descendants and all of creation as well. Looking at the account of the Fall of Man in Genesis and in the writings of St. Paul, Augustine saw the underpinnings for the concept of “total depravity”.
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—”
Romans 5:12 (ESV)
“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Romans 5:19 (ESV)
In Don’t Cuss the Fiddle, we hear Jennings and Nelson claiming that all of us have done wrong toward one another and that none of us are without blame;
I scandalized my brother
While admitting that he sang some pretty songs
I’d heard that he’d been scandalizing me
And Lord, I knew that that was wrong
What I had called my brother on
Now he had every right to call on me
They clearly proclaim that what is wrong deep within us is common to all;
That picker there’s in trouble boy
Ain’t nothin’ but another side of you
John Calvin would later use “total depravity” to mean that, despite the ability of people to outwardly uphold the law, there remained an inward distortion which makes all human actions displeasing to God, whether or not they are outwardly good or bad.1 He saw this as being true even after regeneration, stating that every human action is mixed with evil.2 This of course was echoing the Old and New Testaments.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:6 (ESV)
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Romans 3:23 (ESV)
Humanity is (we are) in a state of depravity which prevents us from responding to God. Calvin taught that it is necessary for God’s grace to be irresistible in order to reach us. He went on to state that it is impossible for anyone to be saved unless God first extends to them his irresistible grace.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—
Ephesians 2:1–2 (ESV)
In Waylon Jennings’ and Willie Nelson’s, Don’t Cuss the Fiddle there is no resolution offered to the crisis of sin or wrong doing except to accept it and try to suffer through it together. Christianity claims that there is a resolution to sin and that it is the love of God given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity claims that God seeks us out even in our sin and claims our lives, our very souls, as his own. There is Good News for us even in our depravity.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
Ephesians 2:4–5 (ESV)
Yours in Christ,
1 Muller, Richard A. (2012). Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Ebook ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 51.
2 Bouwsma, William J. (1989). John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. Oxford University Press – via Questia. p. 139.