By Francine Grace Tan, Class of ’19
In a New York Times article, “When the Good Do Bad”, David Brooks writes, “people who knew a mass murderer before he killed usually express complete bafflement that a person who seemed so kind and normal could do something so horrific.” This article illustrates the popular worldview that tells us we are basically good because our nature is good. It is only a few people who are truly capable of acts of evil as a result of their environment, social upbringing, and circumstances. This worldview raises questions regarding good and evil that philosophers, psychologists, and writers have dealt with for years. What is man? Are we innately good or evil? What drives us? What is the reason for us to be good or bad? Jean-Jacques Rousseau holds that humans are naturally and innately good and it is civilization that turns man into a “beast.” Thus, man should seek to restore the conditions of our lost Eden. In contrast to Rousseau’s view, Shakespeare’s Hamlet realizes the evil that inhabits all of humanity and he rebuffs his love interest Ophelia with these words: “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in. We are arrant knaves, all. Believe none of us…”
Well, which view is right? Are we all so evil that there is no hope for humanity or are we intrinsically good? Getting this question right is pertinent because our view of good and evil not only has bearings on our present life, it also determines the trajectory of our eternal life. Having an accurate view of the problem of sin will allow us to see the necessity for salvation from the Lord and the purpose of our lives—to glorify, worship and enjoy Him.
Scripture tells us that all humans are sinners, for “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. There is no fear of God before their eyes…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10-12; Romans 3:23). 1 Kings 8:46 also asserts that “there is no one who does not sin”. We are born sinners and by nature children of wrath (i.e. deserving of eternal condemnation) because everyone is dead in their trespasses and sins (Psalm 51:5; 1 John 1:8; Ephesians 2:1-3). This is not to say that everyone is as evil as they can be, as some people can restrain their behavior while some can be very kind, loving and even self-sacrificial at times. But no one can do any spiritual good that pleases, satisfies and glorifies God (Luke 6:33; 11:13). This is because the good things that one does are tainted by sin—as humans we are utterly incapacitated by our innate sinful nature. Sin corrupts the entire person—infecting the soul, polluting the mind, defiling the conscience, contaminating the affections and poisoning the will. This is the doctrine of total depravity.
As the Westminster Confession states: “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man…is not able by his own strength to convert himself or prepare himself thereunto.” First, sin is not just brokenness or committing a bad deed, it is instead, acting autonomously and usurping the authority of God. A short definition of sin is as such: Sin is any lack of conformity to God’s will in attitude, thought, or action, whether committed actively or passively. The center of all sin is autonomy, which is the replacing of God with oneself. Its products include pride, selfishness, idolatry and lack of peace (MacArthur & Mayhue, 2017). In Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck examines the different Hebrew and Greek words for sin. The list of definitions is sweeping: missing the mark, departure from the right way, wrongness, deviation from the right direction, crossing a set of boundaries, breaking a covenant, apostasy, rebellion, deviant conduct, godless behavior, offense, unfaithfulness, infidelity, betrayal, disobedience, violation, lawlessness, guilt. All of these words serve to further Bavinck’s claim that, “sin is a deviation, a violation of the law in that we do not love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.” In citing 1 John 3:4, he concludes that “Scripture consistently views sin as lawlessness” (3.129-30).
Origin, imputation, and consequences of sin
It is of course the rankest blasphemy to attribute man’s sinful nature to God. Even Scripture declares, “this alone I found, that God made men good but they have sought out many evil devices (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Adam, the father of us all, was created in the image and likeness of God. He was made to fellowship with God, to share in His wisdom, righteousness, truth, power and holiness and more importantly, he was able to sin and able to not sin. Yet this did not continue long in the Garden of Eden. Adam fell due to his lack of conformity to God’s will, and hence, he lost the crown and glory of his creation, plunging himself into the depths of eternal condemnation. Consequently, all of Adam’s descendants are conceived in sin and are born enemies of God. By nature, man is both relationally alienated from God and judicially accountable to him. This is why man is unable to enjoy the fellowship with God for which he was created and instead is required to pay the penalty of death for breaking God’s laws and belittling His glory (MacArthur & Mayhue, 2017). This is because God told Adam, “for in the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When sin came into the world, death came. G. K. Chesterton goes so far to defend this doctrine of original sin as the only part of Christian theology that can be proved because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
Spiritual, Physical and Eternal Death
Sin resulted in all three forms of death–1) spiritual death, 2) physical death and 3) an eternal death. Physical death did not occur immediately after Adam and Eve sinned; spiritual death, however, happened instantly. Spiritual death is the state of spiritual alienation from God and utter estrangement from Him and His kingdom (John 3:5). Due to spiritual death, we are all absolutely unable to free ourselves from slavery to sin and reconcile ourselves to God. Explaining this spiritual death, A.W Pink writes,
“By his first birth man enters this world a sinful creature and he is alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart. When Adam and Eve fell they were banished from Eden and each of their children were born outside of Eden. That sin shuts man out from the holy presence of God”.
Second, physical death occurred to all of creation because Adam and Eve were barred from the tree of life, which represent the blessing of eternal life that God would give to them, and their descendants, if they were to pass the test of obedience. But after the fall, God stationed cherubim to guard the tree of life because if Adam and Eve ate it, they would live forever in a sinful state and sin-cursed universe (Genesis 3:24). God declared to Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Third, eternal death awaits those who physically die while being spiritually dead and John refers to this as “the second death” (Revelation 20:6-15). Eternal death is another word for hell and it refers to the separation from God for eternity. “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Revelation 21:8). It is a place of fire and torment, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only those who have accepted Christ as their savior will escape eternal death because genuine acceptance of Christ is an outward sign that the Holy Spirit has made them spiritually alive on the inside. As Revelation 20:6 states, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power”.
Now, Adam was not the originator of sin, as 1 John 3:8 says that the devil sinned from the beginning. The devil instituted, inaugurated and launched sin by rebelling against God. Adam, who succumbed to the devil’s temptation to be like God, knowing good and evil, introduced sin into humanity. Because Adam fell, he imputed his sins to all of the human race and thus we enter the world with a fallen nature. Therefore, we are no longer able to not sin. This is imputed sin—that through the disobedience of one man, sin, death and condemnation came into the world. So, not only does our sinful nature enslave us to sin, but the original guilt and condemnation that is rooted in our connection with Adam also alienates us from God.
Moreover, the depravity of man’s heart remains the same to this day; it is not evolving into a better nature. Of this unchanging depravity, Calvin writes,
“Let men therefore acknowledge that since they are born of Adam, they are depraved creatures and therefore can conceive only sinful thoughts until they are transformed by Christ… God is not to be blamed for this. The origin of this disease stems from the defection of the first man, because of whom the order of the creation was subverted. Although all rush to do evil acts, no one is forced into this except by the direct inclination of their own hearts. When they sin, they do so because they want to sin.”
Hope, however, is not lost. Although “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, which came upon all men, since all have sinned, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). In other words, God charged the sins of all those who would believe to Christ’s account, laid the burden of the guilt of our sins, and caused Him to pay full the penalty for sin. That bitter cup of wrath was yours and mine to drink! Our whole redemption rests on the same principle—just as Adam’s sin is imputed to us because we are his descendants and he stood us a representative for all mankind, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who believe in His saving work upon the Holy Spirit’s work of spiritual regeneration. The imputation of Adam’s sin unto humanity also means that salvation and the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone is not simply a Western doctrine because Christ is the universal remedy for the universal damage caused by the first human being, Adam.
Grace becomes so much sweeter
While it is a solemn and unpalatable doctrine, we must have an accurate view of ourselves and of God. We are completely incapable and powerless to save our own souls from the wrath of God. The conviction of sin, however, is not defeating because of the imputed righteousness through Christ. In fact, the more we see sin, the more we can understand our need for Christ and the more we will love Him. When Jesus talks about the immoral woman in Luke 7:47a, He says, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” During His time on earth, Jesus did not sugarcoat the reality and weight of sin because being convicted of our sin and mourning over sin is absolutely necessary to understand the need for the crucifixion of Christ. If we cannot stand to hear about sin or be confronted of our sin, then we crave our own glory over God’s glory and we idolize ourselves rather than come to terms with the need for a God-centered redemption. And if we continue to seek for our own glory instead of God’s, then we will receive the eternal condemnation we deserve.
Echoing theologian J.M Stifler, “it cannot be said too often that a false theology finds its source in inadequate views of depravity”. It is the total depravity of our nature that necessitates the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the Cross. We were dead in our trespasses and Christ came to give us life. Therefore, I implore you to search the truth revealed in Scripture and investigate the event on the Cross for yourself. As the apostle Paul said,
“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Discover the truth—the treasure of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God and the truth will set you free.
“Sin, a little thing? Is it not a poison? Do not the little foxes spoil the grapes? Doth not the tiny coral insect build a rock which wrecks a navy? Do not little strokes fell lofty oaks? Will not continual droppings wear away stones? Sin, a little thing? It girded the Redeemer’s head with thorns, and pierced his heart! It made him suffer anguish, bitterness, and woe. Could you weigh the least sin in the scales of eternity, you would fly from it as from a serpent, and abhor the least appearance of evil. Look upon all sin as that which crucified the Saviour, and you will see it to be exceeding sinful”—Charles Spurgeon
Bavinck, H. Reformed dogmatics.
Calvin, J., & White, R. The Institutes of the Christian religion.
MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. Biblical doctrine.
Pink, A. The Total Depravity of Man. Monergism.com. Retrieved 25 September 2017, from https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/depravity_nook.html