Perhaps second only to what you believe about God, no issue has greater influence on determining your theological views than whether you consider human nature to be morally good or not. A recent study conducted by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research titled The State of Theology found that 52 percent of Evangelicals agree with the following statement: “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” Ligonier and LifeWay concluded that “although evangelicals believe that Jesus died on the cross for their salvation...many do not fully understand the gravity of sin.” So while much of modern secular sensibility seems attracted to the idea that human beings, at their core, are basically good, this belief isn’t peculiar to non-Christians. It has found its way into the Church, as well.
But this confidence in the inherent moral goodness of humankind has its root in original sin.
After Adam and Eve rebelled against God and brought sin into the world, they experienced for the first time both guilt and shame. Because of their guilt, they attempted to hide from God, and due to their shame, they attempted to cover themselves through their own effort. This first sin had devastating effects, not only for Adam and Eve but also for all of their posterity. Guilt, shame, corruption, and eventual death became the norm. In that sense, each one of us is born into this world as a little fallen Adam and Eve. And like Adam and Eve, fallen humankind today attempts to hide and cover from God. But rather than sew fig leaves together, one of the most prevalent ways we attempt to cover our moral shame and guilt is by appealing to our own moral “goodness.” That is, we point to our “basic human goodness” and “good deeds” in an attempt to justify ourselves before God. Often this even becomes a rationalization as to why we don’t need God. “Why do I need God?” the unbeliever asks; “I’m living a good enough life on my own.”
Ironically, then, these “good deeds” performed by fallen human beings, when appealed to as evidence of one’s own goodness or as an excuse to ignore the need for God, are a testimony not to moral virtue and meritorious character but rather to a continued state of rebellion against God. It is an attempt to cover one’s own guilt and shame by the power of the flesh - i.e., our own hard work and self-effort - just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. This is moralism, the attempt to fix and perfect oneself in the power of self, and it is antithetical to the gospel of grace.
This is an important point to grasp. Fallen man’s “good deeds” performed apart from God are, in reality, often self-serving and therefore not “good” at all. They allow unregenerate men and women to continue to hide and cover from God, suppressing the truth of their need for Him while pointing to their works and saying, “Look at all the good things I’ve done. I’m a morally good person.”
At least two things can be said in response to moralism.
First, everyone thinks they are morally good.
If there is one thing I have learned while working in law enforcement for 17 years, it is that most everyone thinks they are “basically good” in terms of morality - murderers, rapists, and child molesters included. Inmates convicted of horrendous crimes still manage to find a way to justify themselves in the sight of God and man. Even among convicted criminals there is a “code among thieves,” a list of do’s and don’ts, even a moral hierarchicalism, by which certain actions are judged more heinous than others and a rationalization of one’s own moralism becomes possible.
The petty thief points to the drug abuser and says, “I’m not like him, I’m basically good.”
The drug abuser points to the kidnapper and says, “I’m not like him, I’m basically good.”
The kidnapper points to the murderer and says, “I’m not like him, I’m basically good.”
The murderer points to the child molester and says, “I’m not like him, I’m basically good.”
Justifying ourselves by pointing to others is easy. But it isn’t criminals alone who are plagued by this mentality. It’s the average law-abiding citizen, as well. And in my experience, this type of moralism even impacts police officers, often at a deeper level. Moralism in general is more perceptible (and can be a greater danger) among those who work in the criminal justice system due to the simple fact that, every day, they are confronted with a corrupt aspect of society that others only see on TV. In the face of daily evil, it is easy for individuals involved in criminal justice to retreat to the state of mind that says, “I’m no criminal, that’s for sure. I’m basically a good person.”
Moralism can be one of the biggest obstacles to the gospel of grace.
Second, goodness isn’t the issue; badness is.
One of the mistakes of moralism is the assumption that good deeds counteract bad deeds. But this mindset misunderstands the concepts of law and justice.
To illustrate this,* imagine I pull you over for running a red light. In an attempt to avoid a ticket, you explain to me, “Sir, you don’t understand. You see, before I ran that red light, I stopped legally for 100 red lights. And after you let me go here, I’m planning on stopping legally for another 100 red lights. You see? My legal stops outweigh my illegal failures to stop. I’m basically a good driver. Therefore, I don’t deserve this ticket.”
Or what about the murderer who appears before a judge and says, “Your honor, I confess. I murdered that man. But you don’t understand. I have literally let hundreds of other people live! You see, your honor? My good deeds outweigh my bad. I’m basically a good person. Therefore, you should allow me to go free.”
We intuitively sense there is something wrong with these excuses. The problem is this:
You cannot make up for breaking the law by keeping the law; keeping the law is what you are supposed to do.
In other words, you don’t get a check in the mail or a get-out-of-jail-free card for being a law-abiding citizen. Obeying the law is the standard you are held to. The issue is not that we keep the law most of the time. The problem is that we break it on occasion. And when we do, we deserve to face the consequences of our actions.
The same goes for God’s law. Goodness is not the issue; badness is. The issue is not that we do what we are supposed to on occasion; the issue is that we have broken God’s law many times over in thought, word, and deed, and we stand before Him as condemned sinners worthy of punishment. In other words, we don’t get rewarded for keeping God’s law; keeping God’s law is what we are supposed to do. And justice requires that we be punished when we don’t.
This is why salvation must be by grace, and why any moralistic, works-oriented salvific system is doomed to failure. Paul says,
For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
You can’t make up for breaking the law by keeping the law. Keeping the law is what you are supposed to do. And when we appear before God, the appropriate attitude before the most holy, most perfect, most wise, most just Creator and Savior will not be a self-righteous moralism. I imagine God would look at us the same way the judge might look at the murderer who said, “Yeah, but I let hundreds of other people live!” and appropriately respond, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). Rather, our attitude should be one of humility, reverence, and gratitude, one that says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Again, Paul says,
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
Christ did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He fulfilled the law in our place and suffered on the cross for our sin, bearing the wrath of God. This is the active and passive obedience of Christ in the atonement. This is the gospel of grace.
*Thanks to Kevin Lewis and Jim Wallace for these illustrations.