From Tabula Rasa to Tabula Gratia
What it means to be more than forgiven.
“For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. But you desire honesty from the womb, teaching me wisdom even there.” — Psalm 51:5-6 (NLT)
In his treatise, On the Soul, the Greek philosopher Aristotle articulates the concept of the human person as a blank slate, describing a newborn human as an “un-scribed tablet.” The Latin form of this phrase is tabula rasa, or blank slate, which teaches that human behavior is not primarily influenced by something broken internally, but by external environmental forces. In other words, each person is born with a blank hard drive that becomes coded by our life experiences and perceptions.
Using the image of a white piece of paper, 17th century English Philosopher, John Locke, popularized the concept of tabula rasa for the English-speaking world. His ideas would shape and fuel the major philosophical movement of the next century that we call the Enlightenment. Locke is just another example of the adage, there is nothing new under the sun, as old heresies simply repeat themselves with new clothes.
King David would consider the philosophical concept of tabula rasa to be very bad theology. He knew better, confessing he was born, not with a blank moral slate, but with an inborn disposition toward sin.
“For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5, NLT).
He didn’t have to be taught how to lie, cheat, and steal. It came quite naturally. The same thing is true for you and me.
We don’t become sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.
A propensity to reject God’s wisdom is our original nature. It is not something that happened to us after birth.
We are talking about the doctrine of “original sin,” which does not refer to the first sin as much as it describes the original human condition. Like David, I am born a sinner in need of grace.
I wonder why so many people react to such a statement with horror and hostility? Maybe it is hard to imagine that an adorable baby can be bent toward moral corruption.
While we want to believe that we are basically good, the evidence does not support such an optimistic thesis. Yet, if there is a doctrine that needs no proof-texting, it is the doctrine of the inherent sinfulness of mankind.
If people were basically good, there would be no need for God to sacrifice his Son for sinners. If that were the case, he might be incarnate as a moral teacher but not a blood-covered Savior. The cross itself tells me a lot about my condition.
The apostle Paul addresses this issue in Ephesians 2:1-5.
2 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Verses 1-3 introduce us to very bad news. As spiritually dead sinners, we have gratified the desires of the flesh and are objects of judgment before the law of God. This is not just true of some notorious sinners but for everyone.
Then verse 4 comes to the rescue with “but,” a word that signals one thing was true but now a new reality has taken its place. If we were natural-born sinners, by the power of the Spirit awakening us to our need for mercy, we become super- naturally, grace-born believers. “He made us alive... even when we were dead.”
But why? Was there something in me that warranted God’s kindness? No. Something better.
The ground for saving sinners like me is not my good works but the good works of Jesus and the motivation is not my love for God but “his great love” for me.
As Paul says a bit later in Ephesians 2:8,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
I am not a Tabula Rasa but was born a sinner. Every day my flesh confirms that status. Jesus was born without sin and confirmed that status with his entire life. But in the gospel, something staggering is revealed. Paul speaks of it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
A popular worship song puts this almost too good to be true gospel into lyrics:
He became sin, who knew no sin
That we might become His righteousness He humbled himself and carried the cross Love so amazing, love so amazing.
Jesus Messiah, name above all names
The rescue for sinners, the ransom from Heaven
Blessed redeemer, Emmanuel Jesus Messiah, Lord of all.1
“He became sin, who knew no sin that I might become His righteousness.”
I’m not just forgiven. I am declared as righteous in the eyes of the Father as Jesus is righteous in his sight.
This means that just as I was not a blank slate at birth, I am not a blank slate in the new birth, either. Instead of a record covered with sin, it is covered with perfect righteousness! The gospel does not give me a tabula rasa, it gives me a tabula gratia—a tablet of grace, covered with the merits of Jesus
What might happen if you dwelt on that gospel reality today? Let’s give it a try and find out.
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Chris Tomlin, Jesus Messiah.