by Jeremiah Johnson
You’ve likely heard someone assert that, in spite of the wickedness we see on display in the world around us, people are basically good.
Politicians, psychologists, and, sadly, religious leaders have reinforced that notion, assuming that because we’re not all as bad as we could be, there must be some built-in element of goodness and self-control in every person. The notion serves as a reassuring blanket of humanism, covering all but the most violent, perverse outliers who don’t conform to accepted behavioral norms. In fact, the assumption of man’s inherent goodness helps distance polite society from those on the lunatic fringe, and makes the rest of us look better by comparison.
However, the truth, as we saw last time, is that we all inherit the same, in-born bent toward sin and corruption. But is there, as some teach, an untainted spark of the divine in each person, balancing out our sin nature and the effects of original sin?
Here’s how John MacArthur responded to the notion of innate human goodness:
False belief systems always seem to downplay human depravity. Some even deny it altogether, insisting that people are fundamentally good. This is a tendency of nearly all quasi-Christian heresies, humanistic philosophies, and secular worldviews. Apostles of those religions and philosophies seem to think describing human nature in upbeat and optimistic terms somehow makes their viewpoint nobler. That fact alone perfectly epitomizes the blind illogic that goes hand in hand with unbelief and false religion. After all, humanity’s moral dilemma should be patently obvious to anyone who seriously considers the problem of evil. As G.K. Chesterton famously remarked, original sin is the one point of Christian theology that easily can be proved empirically.
The fallenness of the human race is a profound, destructive, and universal predicament—inexplicable by any merely naturalistic rationale, but undeniably obvious. Wherever you find humanity, you see ample evidence that the entire race is held captive under sin’s corrupting influence.
The sin nature born into us all is far more than an isolated stain. Scripture says unrepentant men and women are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). There is no pristine spark of the divine, no hidden chamber of unaffected goodness. As John explains, the destructive and dominating nature of man’s depravity is total.
Sin is a cruel tyrant. It is the most devastating and degenerating power ever to afflict the human race, such that the entire creation “groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:22). It corrupts the entire person—infecting the soul, polluting the mind, defiling the conscience, contaminating the affections, and poisoning the will. It is the life-destroying, soul-condemning cancer that festers and grows in every unredeemed human heart like an incurable gangrene.
You can see why the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t sit well with humanistic audiences. As a counterpoint, they’ll trot out various examples of benevolence and kindness. How could we deny man’s innate goodness in the face of charitable millionaires, self-sacrificing volunteers, and faithful recyclers?
But as John MacArthur explains, the term total depravity does not mean that unbelieving sinners are always as bad as they could be (cf. Luke 6:33; Romans 2:14). It does not mean that the expression of sinful human nature is always lived out to the fullest. It does not mean that unbelievers are incapable of acts of kindness, benevolence, goodwill, or human altruism. It certainly does not mean that non‑Christians cannot appreciate goodness, beauty, honesty, decency, or excellence. It doesmean that none of this has any merit with God. . . .
Total depravity means sinners have no ability to do spiritual good or work for their own salvation from sin. They are so completely disinclined to love righteousness, so thoroughly dead in sin, that they are not able to save themselves or even to fit themselves for God’s salvation. Unbelieving humanity has no capacity to desire, understand, believe, or apply spiritual truth: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Unrepentant man is not waging an internal war between good and evil. He is utterly incapacitated by his innate sin nature. Even the good things he does are tainted by sinful motivations and self-interest. And nothing about him merits God’s favor, grace, or attention. He is totally depraved.
And in spite of our comprehensive corruption, the Lord has provided a way of salvation.