The Natural Goodness of Man

(Note: This is the first of a series of articles on common contemporary viewpoints which are contrary to orthodox Christianity.)

It is a common saying that “there is some good in everybody.” This common saying has become the slogan of a popular view of human nature which is contrary to the teaching of the Bible and destructive of the orthodox Christian faith. According to this popular view, every person in the world has an inner “better self,” or even, as it is sometimes represented, an inward “divine spark.” It is said that if we can only appeal to this inner “better self” or “divine spark,” we can inspire and lead the person to a good life. Thus, according to this popular notion, human nature is not wholly evil; it is regarded as a mixture, partIy bad and partly good, but at bottom and in its inmost character, it is regarded as good.

This false idea of natural human goodness, or the basic “better self” of the natural man, has given rise to much that is false and unsound in contemporary religious propaganda. It forms the basis of a false evangelism the keynote of which is not “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” but “Be true to your own better seIf.” It gives rise to a false idea of repentance, namely that repentance means to “return to your better self.” It encourages a false hope, namely that cultivating one’s own (supposed) inner goodness can save a person.



A Flattering Notion

The idea of the natural goodness of man is popular because it is Battering to the unconverted person. It tells him that his badness is not really serious, that it is not a complete depravity of his inmost nature, but only a superficial defect. This belief in human goodness, with its inevitable result of denying or minimizing human sinfulness, feeds man’s pride and makes him feel complacently comfortable and secure while still in his lost and sinful condition. Instead of being humbled and abased before God because of his utter sinfulness, the natural man eagerly embraces the popular teaching of natural human goodness, and consequently feels quite well pleased with himself and very confident of his own character and abilities.

An Element of Truth

Like nearly all heresies, the popular fallacy of human goodness contains a certain element of truth which ought to be recognized. It is obvious that people who are not born-again Christians can be spoken of as “good” in a certain limited sense; they have attitudes, and perform actions, which can in a sense be called “good.” A mother’s love for her child; the self-sacrificing spirit which leads a man to risk or even give up his own life to save another person from drowning or from perishing in a burning building; the selfless sense of duty which moves a man to risk or even sacrifice his own life in the defense of his country—these and many other facts are instances of the human goodness which exists by the common grace of God, quite apart from the new birth and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. By God’s common grace—grace not confined to the elect but given to all men in common human sinfulness is restrained, and the unregenerate person is enabled to practice civic and social virtues on the human level, which can in this restricted sense, and yet truly, be called “good.”

This, however, is not goodness in the Christian sense of the word. It always proceeds from a wrong motive. It is true, indeed, that this common “goodness” does not always proceed from a selfish motive; it may proceed from an unselfish or altruistic motive, such as love of country, or devotion to a cause which is greater than self; but it always proceeds from a merely human motive; if not done for love of self it is always done for love of mankind, never for love of God. Also this common human “goodness” always proceeds from a depraved, unpurified heart; it does not come from a heart cleansed and purified by the saving work of the Holy Spirit.

We should freely recognize that there is in all men something that can be called “good” in this lower, limited sense, by reason of God’s common grace which restrains human wickedness and makes natural virtues possible. Harm is done only when this human goodness of common grace is wrongly represented as the real righteousness which God requires of man.

A Serious Error

In the true, Christian sense of “goodness” it is not true that there is some good in everybody. It is not true that every person has “a better self.” The Bible teaches the opposite; it teaches the twin truths of the total depravity and the total inability of the natural man.

Total depravity and total inability are doctrines which are sometimes misunderstood. They do not mean that any man is as bad as he can become, nor that any person in this world is as evil as the reprobate in hell, nor that there is in the unsaved person nothing that can be called “good” in any sense whatever. Total depravity means, first, that in the unsaved sinner there is nothing that is spiritually good and hence pleasing to God; and secondly, it means that not merely a part, but the whole, of man’s nature has been thoroughly corrupted by the inroads of sin. Total inability means that the unsaved sinner is spiritually helpless and cannot take the alI-important first step toward his own salvation, nor originate a love for God in his own heart; being totally helpless, he is wholly dependent on the special grace of God. for all spiritual good.

Sin has corrupted, not a part, but the whole of man’s nature. Indeed, the inmost self, which the Bible calls “the heart,” is actually the source from which sin proceeds to infect the outward conduct, the thoughts, words and deeds of a person. Our Savior taught this truth when he said, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mk. 7:21–23). ]t is precisely this inmost self or “heart” that is affirmed by Scripture to be “deceitful above all things” and “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). Instead of man”s “inmost self” being really good, the Bible affirms it to be precisely the fountainhead of evil in the human personality.

All true evangelism must therefore frankly proclaim that in the natural man there is no ground for hope. He must be commanded to despair of his own “goodness.” He must come to recognize that his once-boasted righteousness is only filthy rags in the sight of the holy God (Isa. 64:6). He must be told to repent, not by returning to his own “better self,” but by turning away from his own sinful self to God. He must be assured with emphasis mat salvation cannot come by cultivation of his own supposed inner goodness, but only by the supernatural work of me Holy Spirit in his soul.

Some Scripture Statements

In addition to the Scripture texts already cited, we may note Romans 7:18, “In me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.” Here the word “flesh” does not mean the body; as usually in Paul’s writings, it means human nature apart from the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration. In the case of the Christian, this word “flesh” means the old nature, which still remains in him even after he is born again. In the case of the person who is not born again, it means his whole and sale nature. In it, there “dwelleth no good thing.” Similarly in Galatians 5:19–21, the seventeen “works of the flesh” which are enumerated are not essentially works of the body but works of the sinful nature; they are the unregenerate heart of man translated into outward conduct.

In Psalm 51:5 we read, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” From this and similar Scriptures we know that this condition of total depravity is not acquired, but innate; we are born that way. Our condition, as we come into being, is a condition of original sin, which includes not only guilt before God but also total depravity and total inability:

Statements of the Reformed Standards

Our Reformed doctrinal standards emphatically teach the same doctrine of human sinfulness mat we have found in the Word of God. “By this sin they (our first parents) fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation” (Confession of Faith, VI. 2, 3). Similarly, the Larger Catechism speaks of the corruption of man’s nature, “whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually” (L.C. 25). (See also, Canons of Dort, 111 and IV, Article 3; H Heidelberg Catechism, question 8; Belgic Confession, Article 14). Like the Bible itself, our doctrinal standards are distinctly pessimistic about the natural man; they present a very dark and unpleasant picture of the spiritual state of me unconverted sinner. But it is a true picture.

“Ye Must Be Born Again”

The person who is not in Christ is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). If men were only sick with sin, there might be some hope of appealing to the “better self” and winning them to the good life by persuading them to be true to their own “inmost self.” But it is not so. Men are not sick but dead in sin. And in the face of death only a miracle can avail; only the almighty power of God can give life and hope.

Accordingly, we find that the Bible represents regeneration, or the new birth, as absolutely necessary if human beings are to be saved and restored to communion with God. Thus our Lord said to Nicodemus, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7); “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). If the popular notion of natural human goodness were true, we would not need to be born again. We could nurture the remaining spark of goodness in our own inner character and gradually be· come perfect by a natural process of growth. But the Bible tells us we must be born again. There must be a radical change in our soul wrought by the almighty power of God the Holy Spirit. The person who is really in Christ is “a new creature;” there has been such a radical supernatural change in his life that “old things are passed away” and “all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Accordingly we must realize that the current popular notion of the natural goodness of man is absolutely contrary to the teaching of the Bible about human sinfulness. The popular notion is not derived from the Bible, but from sinful human vanity, human philosophy and an evolutionary idea of the origin and development of the human race. We should realize its falsity, and reject it frankly.

Johannes G. Vos is the pastor of the Covenanter (Reformed Presbyterian Church, Clay Center, Kansas.