Episode 181 - Are People Basically Good?

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Over the last couple weeks, we've been looking at the results of a survey that Ligonier Ministries did of evangelicals in America, and just Americans in general and some of the interesting findings that they have come up with. For instance, the one we're going to look at this week is that over 52% of people who somehow are classified as evangelicals only believe that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. 52% of people who somehow ended up in the evangelical category believe that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.

We looked at the question last week of if people have multiple ways that they can get to God. Does God accept the worship of people in multiple religions? And before that, we looked at the question of if Jesus is the greatest created being, which evangelicals or those who are classified as evangelicals also affirmed overwhelmingly.

This week's statement, that everyone sins a little but most people are good by nature, does that find biblical support? Why does the question even matter? Why was this a question that Ligonier Ministries saw fit to ask?

Well, because Christianity is a religion that teaches that people are sinners. That's what they do. That's who they are. As a result of that, they need to be saved by grace. What this seems to point out is that there is a distinction between sinful man and God, and the grace that God needs to extend to man in order for him to come to salvation, to not die and be under the just punishment of God for his sins.

But here's the thing: When people start thinking that they're better than they are, that diminishes how grace is perceived to be. It also diminishes the act of what they actually think they owe God in terms of gratitude and worship. When we get sin wrong, we get God wrong. When we get sin wrong, we get grace wrong. We often get the atonement wrong. We start thinking of ourselves as better than we are, instead of as appropriately as we ought to.

So, I want to look at some passages today that speak to man's condition. Is he just basically good by nature, or does he just sin a little, or is he fundamentally different than that? Let's look at Romans 3, starting in verse 10. Paul says, quoting the Old Testament, that

”There's no one righteous. There's not even one. There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. In fact, all have turned away. Together they have become worthless. There's no one who even shows kindness, no, not one. Their throats are open graves. They deceive with their tongues. The poison of asps is under their lips. Their mouths are full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood. Ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes."

That last line, I think, sums up everything that he's kind of been describing from different perspectives above. "There is no fear of God before their eyes." The godly person is the one who fears the Lord. The wise person is the one who fears the Lord. Most people, any person in fact, apart from the work of God in their life, does not fear the Lord. They do not actually do good deeds. They might do things that seem to conform to a moral standard of goodness, but if they are not seeking to worship God and serve God in how they live, they are not doing ultimately good things.

We have to have different categories for what it means for something to be good. There is kind of a general goodness, where someone holds the door for someone, but often even good acts like that have negative components, right? We can't seem to do anything good in our life and not wonder, "Well, how does this make me think?" or "Yeah, I actually am a good person. Didn't you notice this thing I did?" Even if we don't point it out to someone else, we're aware or should be aware of how even the things we try to do, maybe even for God, are tainted with sinful impulses and desires.

But all of that to say, actions and lives not lived for God are not good, and the only way someone ends up living for God is because of God's action in their life. So, no, people are not basically good by nature. In fact, Paul starts out this section saying, "There's no one righteous. No, not one." Jesus, when he is called good, says, "Only God is good." Now, he's not saying he wasn't good or God. He's saying only God is actually good. None of the rest of us are, and that's why the gospel is that man is dead in his sin and needs the righteousness of someone else. Only righteous people have communion with God. That cannot be us naturally on our own, so, no, we're not good by nature. We need the righteousness of someone else. And we'll talk more about that in a minute.

But this passage in Romans 3 does not paint a positive picture of man. It does not paint a positive picture of man by his normal nature either. And neither does Ephesians 2, where Paul says that

”We were dead in our offenses and sins."

We were dead in our sins, not that we weren't sinning. We were spiritually dead and morally incapable of doing actually good things before God. That's not a good nature. That's not even a slightly bad nature. No, you're dead in your offenses and sin. That's all you are doing. That's all that natural man, man not made alive by the power of the spirit, does on his own. That doesn't mean he can't do positive social good. That doesn't mean he can't help his neighbor. But it does mean he can't ultimately be good. He can't desire to do things that are glorifying to God.

Psalm 51 is David reflecting on himself, and he says,

”Surely, I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."

We sin as people because our natures are sinful. We're not sinful because we sin. We sin because we're sinful." As Jesus says, "Out of the heart comes evil and all other sorts of things." It's because of our inward nature that we do evil, that we do bad things, so man is not naturally good. He's not basically good. Jesus says that we do evil things because hearts are evil apart from him.

Isaiah 64:6, speaking of natural man, says,

”We all are like one who is unclean. All our so-called righteous acts are like menstrual rags in your sight."

That's maybe a verse that you couldn't read in polite company. Some other translations might say "filthy rags," but what is meant there is how the New English Translation translates this. That's not a pretty picture. That's not a basically good or clean or pure picture of man. No, all of our even so-called righteous acts are filthy before God, apart from him, apart from being credited with his righteousness, which is why we need Jesus.

So, I hope what you're seeing here at each of these points is, as we're talking about the natural state of man, I'm tying this back into our position before God. That's why this issue matters. If we get our position before God wrong, we will not understand the depth of our need for grace and the alien righteousness of Jesus, not our own righteousness because we're not actually righteous, but we need to be credited with the righteousness of God.

That's actually what Isaiah 1:18 is talking about, where God says,

”’Come, let's consider your options,' says the Lord, 'though your sins have stained you like the color red, you can become white like snow. Though they are easy to see as the color scarlet, you can become like white wool.'"

Could there be a difference there that was more stark? No. Red and bloody compared to pure and white. Natural man is not pure and white on his own. He's not basically good. He's not a pink color, if we want to say it in somewhat of a silly way. No, our sins have stained us red, guilty. We have blood on our hands. Our throats are open graves apart from Christ.

However, because of the work of Christ on the cross, we can be credited with the righteousness of Jesus, of God himself, of what he did on Earth, of his passive and active obedience to the law and the will of his father in going to the cross and living under the law perfectly, something we could never do. But we only see that need for Jesus' righteousness when we realize we do not have our own.

No one is going to stand before the throne of God after they die and plead their own righteousness and that be compelling. I have this suspicion, this is not in the bible, that standing before God, you will not even think that is a reasonable idea to plead your own righteousness. You may have that much self-awareness. Now maybe you won't. Who knows? Some people are very full of how good they think they are. But the bible does not paint that picture that man is basically good. The bible shows us that man is dead in his sins, a rebel against God, and as Paul said in Romans chapter 3:18, "There is no fear of God before their eyes." Man's chief sin is worshiping everything else besides God. So, that should drive us to share the gospel with people, to help people understand their state.

That's why we're tackling this topic on an apologetics podcast. This is something that maybe more theological, but remember the gospel is the thing we need to give an answer for. We need to be able to help people understand the gospel correctly. If you understand the age of the earth and where dinosaurs fit in, but can't describe the gospel and defend the gospel, it's all for naught. It's kind of like being a clanging cymbal. Worldview issues don't matter if you can't talk about gospel issues.

When we talk with someone, we need to help them understand who they truly are before God, not so they feel bad about themselves, though I think there is a sorrow that actually leads someone to repentance, but notice, even in that biblical verse I just quoted, there is a sorrow over sin that should lead someone to repentance. You have to understand your state before God. If we appear larger than we are, God appears smaller than he is. When sin is seen to be gross and detestable, like filthy, bloody rags, the grace of God, the purity that is white as snow, is seen to be glorious. We understand we have no goodness of our own to stand on. It's not like, "Well, if I'd done a little better, I may not have needed Jesus" or "I just needed him a little." No. You were totally dependent on the righteousness of God being credited to you when you placed your faith in Christ.

That's the message we have to tell other people. You're not basically good. I'm not basically good. It's not like I'm putting you in a different category than I'm in. No, we all are basically bad people. That's why we do bad things and have bad thoughts and have bad desires and because of that, we need the goodness of someone who was basically good to be credited to us.

The other thing I want to mention just while we're here, and not so much looking at scripture, is this idea that people are basically good by nature does not explain how we have bad societies. If people are basically good, how do you end up with a bunch of basically good people coming together that somehow makes things worse? A bunch of goodness in a room should not lead to the evil coming out, and yet that's what we see. Often the more people that are in power without checks and balances, the worse things are. But if people are basically good, how does that work? That doesn't make sense of what we see in the world.

Some people want to say that society corrupts people. It's society that makes people act badly, but people are basically good. Well, once again, same question: If you get a bunch of basically good people together, how do they suddenly turn bad? There's not much explanatory power there.

But scripture explains why that is. Scripture explains why, when you get a bunch of people together in power, and they don't have checks and balances, why things don't always go well. Because man is sick. His heart is against God. He does not want to conform to the law of God. He wants to live for himself. We even see this expressed in the language of our culture today, where autonomy and the ability to form my own path and live out my truth and according to my standard is even what is being trumpeted and heralded in parades. There could not be a more counter-God notion than that, that we are the ones that set our destinies, that we are the ones that set the standards we must conform to.

That's why man needs to know who he actually is before God. He's not autonomous. He's not basically good. He's totally dependent on the righteousness of Jesus Christ if he hopes to stand and pass before the judgment of God.