Is the world full of mostly good people with good intentions who sometimes make mistakes? While the world’s answer is yes, the Biblical answer contradicts this. The Biblical description of man’s condition is that we are fallen and depraved in totality, and that even our “love”, “good works”, and “good intentions” are a product of our rebellion against a holy God. Because God is holy, his appropriate response to man’s rebellious condition is judgement. We call this doctrine “the depravity of man”. We should not overlook, avoid, or excuse the Biblical truths summarized in this doctrine; instead, we should examine the doctrine and ourselves, and allow God’s word to lead us deeper into repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
When beginning with man’s fallen condition, the logical place to start is at the beginning. In the book of Genesis we see the beginning of all things. By his Word, God creates day and night (Gen 1:3), sky (Gen 1:8), earth (Gen 1:10), plants (Gen 1:12), stars, the moon and the sun (Gen 1:14-18), sea creatures (Gen 1:21), birds (Gen 1:22), animals (Gen 1:25), and, finally, human beings (Gen 1:26-28,Gen 2:19-24). God says that it is was good (Gen 1:4, Gen 1:10, Gen 1:18, Gen 1:21, Gen 1:25).
The man and woman are created perfect, good, and sinless; they are like God (Gen 1:26). God made them to be stewards of His creation (Gen 1:28-31). God is present with them, (Gen 3:8) and “it is very good” (Gen 1:31). There is no pain or hurt; there is only perfect peace. But before long mankind is convinced by the serpent to distrust God’s Word, the command that “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Satan says, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Ge 3:4–5). Instead of having dominion over “every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:18) and instead of obeying and trusting God as infinitely valuable, worthy, and desirable and worshiping Him alone, the man and woman neglect their God-assigned task and instead turn to creation for pleasure, desire, and worth.
Although they were already like God, they were deceived into thinking that was not sufficient for them. They began to doubt God’s word, his promises, and his character, believing that He was holding something back from them. So instead of bringing glory to God they disobey Him and their eyes are opened. They are filled with guilt and shame, and they hide from God. They once enjoyed walking in God’s presence when they were spiritually alive, but because of their sin they are separated from him. They are kicked out of the Garden, and the entrance is guarded and blocked so that they may never re-enter (Gen 3:23). Adam was made in the likeness of God himself, but now his children will be made in the likeness of Man, inheriting their father’s fallen condition (Gen 5:3).
The New Testament goes on to explain this idea further. Speaking of Adam, the apostle Paul says:
“…Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…many died through one man’s trespass…as one trespass led to condemnation for all men…as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:12-19)
Additionally, in 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul says that mankind is “in Adam”: “for as in Adam, all die”. Adam was the head of creation, and therefore represented all mankind. When he fell, all of mankind fell. The new nature of man is imputed fallibility. Continuing back in Genesis, we see that this is true in the narrative.
Immediately after Adam’s sin we see that the story does not get better, but worse. Humanity is displaying its fallen condition. Sin is like a disease that can not be cured. Cain murders his brother Abel (4:8), violence and murder fill the earth and the “wickedness of man was great in the earth…every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5, italics added). This is the state of man in his fallen condition. The beautiful way that God created man originally to be, that He was able to declare “very good” in the the opening of Genesis, is now ruined.1
The result for this universal wickedness is a devastating flood, which wiped out all human life except Noah and his family. God was going to “restart”, but would man revert back to his pre-fall state? Almost immediately after the flood resides, we see the same phrase repeated: “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21). So “the condition of humanity after the cataclysmic judgement remains the same as it was before”.2 God starts afresh, but the results are the same. As Dr. Peter Gentry observes,
“Noah is presented in the narrative as a new Adam. The blessing and commission given to Noah is the same as the one given to Adam (Gen 9:1, 1:28). In this way the narrator portrays Noah as a new Adam…Noah is recommissioned with all of the ordinates given at creation to Adam and Eve and their Family…Like the first Adam, the second Adam is also a disobedient son whose sin results in shameful nakedness”.3
Why does the narrator of Genesis repeat that the “wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”? The narrator emphasizing the fallen condition of man, starting with Adam and continuing up to and through Noah. The fallen nature resides not only in his actions, but in the very thoughts and intentions of his heart. The human heart is where we “feel, reason, and make decisions and plans”4. It is the center of our being. Therefore the depravity of sin has gone deep into the very nature of man, into his core. Man’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations are corrupt, evil, depraved, wicked. Man’s behavior is exclusively and solely, without any exception, without any interruption, again and again, wicked, bad, immoral, depraved. This fallen condition comes not just as a result of his actions, but it is “from his youth”, from his beginning, because of his very nature: “in Adam”.
The rest of Genesis depicts murder (4:8), polygamy (4:19), war (14:2), incest (19:33), rape (34:2), sex slaves (22:24), theft (31:19), idolatry (31:19), prostitution (38:15), and adultery (38:19). As the Genesis narrative shows, things are no longer “very good” as they were in the garden of Eden. Though “God made man upright…they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). As the apostle Paul would later say, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). Nothing good dwells in the flesh, nothing—without exception.
Unlike today’s progressive, Enlightenment-influenced culture, which sees society as continuous improving itself in every way, we see in Genesis that things are instead worsening. Humanity is corrupt, and there is no one who seeks God. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10–12). Elsewhere it is said, “no one is righteous” (Psalm 143:2), as well as “for there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46). Every human being, apart from Jesus Christ, who has ever lived or ever will live has “sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and because of this sin nature all mankind is incapable of spiritual life. Paul, speaking to the church of Ephesus about the gospel, comments on the nature of man before conversion.
“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— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1–3)
He says something similar to Titus,
“We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).
Writing to the Corinthians, he says, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ). A heart that is on its own could never turn to God, know God, love God, understand his gospel, or choose him. How could someone who is evil, dead to sin, blinded, and unable to understand the things of God ever have saving faith? Our nature is to only do what is right in our own eyes (Judges 17:6). Our mind is hostile to God, and in our flesh we cannot please him (Romans 8:7-8). “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
But are there not a lot of loving people who do good works? We see philanthropists, volunteers, and “good Samaritans” lending helping hands. We see people giving change to the homeless on the street and donating their old clothes to thrift stores, convinced that they are doing good and perhaps making up the difference for things they have done wrong. But the Bible tells us that “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), which means that “all virtue is depraved if it is not from a heart of love to the heavenly father”.5 God is not interested primarily in our external behavior, but rather in our transformed heart which manifests itself in external behavior. The difference may seem subtle, but it is gravely important. Someone who appears to have the right external behavior but who does not have the heart transformation that comes with being “born again” (John 3:7) is in eternal danger and is in equal rebellion as the man who is externally lawless. It does not matter what one does in regards to their good works; If it is not done by faith, then it is sin. This means that even those who live their whole lives as philanthropists, who accomplish great things for others, are dead in their sins if they do not do these actions in faith of God’s work to save them on the cross completely apart from their actions.
Righteous deeds apart from a transformed heart “are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:5–7). The English Bible is not as explicit in its meaning here as the Hebrew. In the Hebrew, “polluted garment”, עִדָּה (ʿid·dā(h)6 בֶּגֶד (bě·ḡěḏ)7, is literally referring to the garment used for a woman’s menstrual period, which in the Old Testament law was considered ceremonial unclean. To translate in to modern english, their “good works” are like bloody tampons. This is an offensive and shocking thing for God to say to Israel. Although their external behavior appeared obedient through the offering of sacrifices, their heart was not in it. Again God says,
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” (Amos 5:21–23)
God is not pleased with this kind of behavior nor impressed; it only makes them more unclean and guilty of sin.
Jesus says something similar to the Pharisees. A Pharisee was someone who devoted themselves to living in strict observance of the Old Testament law of Moses. They were so strict that they created rules outside of the law so that they would not even come close to breaking the law. A Pharisee was someone who had the whole Pentateuch memorized. They tithed, gave alms, and prayed, but this is what Jesus says about them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27) .Their inward nature was not transformed, and so their outer nature was hypocritical and ultimately useless.
Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Almost everyone in the world considers themselves to be loving, but if they do not know Jesus Christ then they do not know what it is to love. The Bible teaches that love can only be produced as the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:23). One cannot understand love apart from God because God is love; he shows his love most clearly in the propitiating work of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:7-10). So without God’s grace a man cannot truly love, since God is the author and giver of love.
Because our works are stained by sin and depravity, we cannot earn our way to God. No set of morals will make us okay, since moralism only makes us more unclean and cursed (Galatians 3:10). To deny this and say that we do not have sin only makes us liars (1 John 1:7). Instead of earning our way to God, the Bible teaches that all mankind is deserving of God’s holy and just wrath. By nature we “are children of wrath… like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3-4). When God gives us what we deserve, our “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) .God is just, and therefore his punishments fit the crime. Since no one seeks and chooses God, then it is only fair that no one will get God but instead be separated from him eternally.
Mankind deserves to “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), to be separated from Christ, cursed and sent into the eternal fire (Matthew 25:41), to be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15), and to have “soul and body destroyed in hell” (Matt 10:28). These are bleak and disturbing images, but they are reality if we depend on ourselves instead of the redeeming work of Christ.
We mankind are not as impressive as we would like to think. We are not just “good people” who sometimes make mistakes. We are rebels against a great and holy king who has been nothing but good to us. We are adulterers to a faithful and loving husband. We are idolaters who do not seek God. As we saw in Genesis, the ultimate answer to the nature of sin and man’s fallen condition is not a restart, but a new heart. It is only this new heart that allows us to obey God, and only God’s grace that can train us in godliness and help us to live upright lives (Titus 2:11-14).
The grim reality is that Man, in his fallen condition, is neither “a good person” nor does he have “good heart”. The bible not only does not teach this but contradicts it entirely. As Christians we should abandon the terminology of “good people” or a “good heart” altogether, since it does not reflect the true Biblical reality of man’s need.8 We are far more wicked, hard hearted, stubborn, and sinful then we give our self credit for. Although these statements are not always purposefully a contradiction to Scripture, but said in a well-meaning manner, perhaps something more appropriate could be said and communicated. Perhaps “nice” or “friendly person” would be a truer statement than “good person/heart”. These statements can only confuse the world about the truth of the depth of sin, the reality of God’s judgement upon that sin, and the need for Salvation and forgiveness through repentance and faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.