So a few months ago I was reading Donald Miller’s blog and he had a post entitled “Are People Basically Good?” The post focused on the doctrinal idea of “Total Depravity,” which is used to summarize what the Bible teaches about the fallen nature of man. To help get at where I think Miller was coming from in the blog post, the idea of Total Depravity is associated strongly with Calvinism through the acronym TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Preservation of the Saints).
Miller questions the idea by saying that he’s “never really trusted people who believed that we were totally depraved.” He later says that a pastor friend of his clarified the idea by saying the term doesn’t mean we “aren’t capable of doing good, but that [we] aren’t capable of redeeming [ourselves],” which I think is true (depending on how you define “doing good”). To end the post Miller asks two questions to his readers: “Ever thought of this? And do you think people can be good?”
So, can people be “good”? The question coming from Donald Miller struck me because I don’t think it is being asked from within the proper framework. It seems to me the question is being asked from a philosophical framework rather than a theological framework. Basically, from my perspective, the philosophical view looks at the question and then looks at mankind or humanity and sees that, yes we can and do achieve “good.” There are examples of man’s goodness everywhere. Miller looks at some of his friends (especially friends who are not Christian) and says, “…they love and care about people, they are moral, they are charitable,” and he concludes that the idea of total depravity doesn’t seem to “jive with reality.”
In my mind the problem with Miller’s assessment is he’s comparing the goodness of his friends with the goodness of himself and other people, rather than God’s goodness and the goodness He requires. If you’re discussing a doctrinal and theological concept (which this is), the discussion should be completely permeated by the view the Bible presents, rather than what we think, feel, or see happening around us. We need to lift our gaze. To sum things up, I believe the Bible depicts fallen mankind as being incapable of “good,” especially when compared against God’s expectations of goodness.
Here are a few of the descriptions of man’s goodness from the Bible:
- “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Isaiah 64:6 (I’ve heard that the phrase “polluted garment” is literally translated “menstrual rags.” If that is not a vivid description of mankind’s “goodness,” I don’t know what is.)
- “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Jeremiah 17:9
- “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
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28
So again, can people be “good”? I think the Bible speaks definitively that we are not “good.” Even as believers our good deeds tend to be tainted by the corruption of our flesh (according to God’s standards, even our thoughts condemn us); the Apostle Paul laments, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” So where does this leave us? I think it is a sad commentary on the state of fallen humanity. The deeds we do are not “good” in the truest sense of the word. Many times (probably most or always) our deeds are tainted by our pride or are done for the wrong reasons, instead of for glorifying God. But the view prepares the canvas for the most beautiful act of grace in history: The act of God becoming man in the flesh, living a truly good life, and sacrificing himself for the salvation of those who believe.
Goodness ultimately must be defined against the goodness and perfection of God. If we look within ourselves it is obvious our “goodness” is a mixed bag of pride, guilt, legalism, culture, and a slew of other reasons rather than the purest reason, to do the will of God for His glory alone.