Calvin, The Nature of Man, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: Part Two

“And at once I knew I was not magnificent.”

This line from Bon Iver’s song Holocene is one of the most poignant verses sung on arguably the most brilliant album of 2011.[1]  With these words, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver’s frontman) articulates a revelation that every young person sooner or later encounters: that in this world and in their own heart, all is not okay In Part 1 of this series, I looked at man as created in the image of God, but almost immediately after man’s magisterial advent, man’s nature is befallen by a tragic blow.  As young people grow older, they are awakened to their nature, what Calvin describes as being “overwhelmed by an unavoidable calamity from which only God’s mercy can deliver them.[2]  Therefore, as youth workers, we have the twofold task of tenderly shepherding them through this tumultuous time and giving them the theological and Biblical framework to understand their own sin and the consequences of sin in the world.

In the Tree of Life, as the early adolescent Jack (the central character) begins to experiment with sin (dishonoring of parents, envy of his younger brother, lying) he reflects on his spiral of sin, “What have I started?  What have I done? … How do I get back?” I can vividly recall this moment in life, where my eyes had been opened to the undercurrent of sin that reigned within me and often overpowered my fleeting desire for good.  Soon after, Jack’s guilt drives him to further revolt by lusting after a female neighbor and stealing her nightgown, vandalizing a shed by breaking its windows with rocks, and the destruction of creation by strapping a toad to a bottle rocket.  It is a pitch-perfect representation of how a young person’s heart grows steadily more calloused to sin as they justify individual acts of sin as “no big deal.” Jack’s rebellion culminates in convincing his younger brother (named R.L.) to trust him by asking him to place his finger upon the open barrel of his BB gun. Then Jack pulls the trigger.  R.L. brother winces in pain, cowering in utter disbelief of his brother’s cruelty, and then retreats into the woods. Jack horrors at this nature rising up within him, “What I want to do, I can’t do.  I do what I hate.”  Malick borrows this line from Paul (Rom 7:19) to express the groans of a young person’s realization that they are powerless to sin.  Young followers of Jesus must be taught that sin is not merely actions to be avoided or a temporary malady to overcome through willpower.  Instead, it severely distorts all that we are and do.[3]  Augustine succinctly describes that before the fall, Adam was posse paccare (“able to sin”) and posses non paccare (“able not to sin”).  After the fall, all men are born as non posse non peccare (“not able not to sin”). [4] [5] 

The truth of our utter enslavement to sin (Jn 8:34, Gal 4:8-9, Rm 6) flies in the face of our culture’s insistence upon individual autonomy and the indefatigable freedom of the will.  My experience of teaching this crucial doctrine to youth has been that it takes tender convincing and continual exposure to help them understand the grave extent of the fall.  Additionally, I believe that our under-emphasis of the depravity of man is one of the primary reasons that 1 in 4 American evangelical youth believe that all people will be saved, 26% believe it doesn’t matter what religion you believe because they all teach the same lesson, and 2 in 5 believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.[6]  In short, if we don’t know the extent of the fall, we won’t comprehend the absolute necessity of Christ.  As youth workers, we often stress the saving love of Christ without explaining the depth of what we are actually being saved from.  

As youth experience their own enslavement to sin, we must walk alongside them as they process their own personal blend of fallenness.  It is easy for them to begin to believe that sinning is just “part of life,” a natural step in growing up.  This is evidenced by the ‘coming of age’ movies which are often just commentaries on learning to be more comfortable with your sin. But Calvin reminds us that although mankind’s created state is severely broken, God’s name must never be written upon our faults by declaring humanity to be “viscous by nature”, but rather they “have degenerated from their original condition.”[7]  Furthermore, if we focus solely on the depravity of man in our teaching, it is possible for a young person to begin to despair of life.  Therefore, we need to teach them to hold the depravity of man and the image of God in tension.  After the fall, mankind did not fully surrender the image of God (Gen 9:6), though it has become grossly distorted.  In this sense, Bon Iver was right that we are not magnificent.  Yet, God’s likeness in us has not been fully extinguished.  And this abiding imago dei is what gives all young people ineradicable worth.  Through these two doctrines, young people can begin to fathom the greatness of humans as well as the great evil within humans.  In short, man is a glorious ruin.[8]  

In conclusion, here are five applications with regards to depravity and the image of God:

1.     Recognizing one’s own depravity frees youth from the slavery of self-justification (Gn 3:12, 1 Sm 15:21) and what Calvin describes as the unquenchable need for flattery and blind self-love.[9]  Once liberated from a need to justify their sin, a young person can soberly assess the greatness of his sin and the insurmountable chasm fixed between himself and God, which often kindles zeal for the intervention God’s grace. 

2.     Moreover, for the young Christian, knowledge of her helplessness in her sin ought to give her an understanding of her absolute dependence upon God for her all stages of the Christian life: salvation, sanctification, glorification, etc.  As Cyprian exclaims, “we ought to glory in nothing, because nothing is ours.”[10]

3.     Furthermore, a rightly applied grasp of depravity should lead to cultivation of an attribute which too often has been scant among the people of God: humility.  Augustine speaks of the priority that humility must take in the life of the believer: “if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility.’”[11] 

4.     Because sin permeates all aspects of humanity[12] (mind, body, soul, emotions, etc), young people need to be reminded that they cannot blindly trust their feelings and initial thoughts on a matter.  As Thomas Cranmer so aptly held: what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. For youth this is particularly applicable to lust and dating, but it is also helpful when talking about forgiving people, loving people we don’t like, etc.

5.     Finally, a healthy grasp of their own depravity will allow them to never to be wholly surprised by the sin of others, and therefore will allow them to extend grace to those who sin against them, inside and outside the church.



[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2.3.2

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2.1.9

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 247.

[5] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 151.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 253.

[8] Richard Winter, “The Glory and Ruin of Man,” Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work, ed. Lane T. Dennis (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1986), 90.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 242-243.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 266.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 268-269.

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2.1.9.

Dan Wolf is the Youth Director at Church of the Apostles in Columbia, SC.

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