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.
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.