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Why we aren’t as bad as we could be

We know that bad things happen in the world around us. But we also know that things could be a lot worse than they are. We know that all people sometimes say, do, and think terrible things—including Christians. But we also know that no one is as terrible as they could be. Even the most wicked, most violent, most despicable person we can think of could always be worse. Serial killers are capable of loving their families. Gang members have been known to be kind to their friends or to other members of the gang. Liars don’t always lie. And thieves don’t always steal. None of us is as bad as we could be.

Why is that?

If the apostle Paul is right that no one “is righteous, no, not one,” that “no one does good,” and that all “have become worthless” (Rom. 3:10-12), then it would certainly seem as though this would leave no room for liars not to lie or for thieves not to steal. How can serial killers love their families or gang members do random acts of kindness if “no one does good” and all are “worthless”? What is more, if, as Moses says in Genesis 6:5, “every intention of the thoughts of [mankind’s] heart [is] only evil continually,” then it would seem that no one is capable of doing anything good and that we all are consigned to an existence of wickedness upon wickedness. But this doesn’t comport with our experience, as we have already indicated. What can we say about these things?

It’s all a matter of perspective

First, I would say that these Scripture passages are not teaching us that no one ever does anything good, at least not as that is viewed from our perspective. When Paul says that “no one does good,” he doesn’t mean that no one is capable of doing what you and I (and others around us) would consider to be a good deed. We most assuredly are capable of picking up litter on the side of the road, of giving a generous donation to help find a cure for cancer, or of treating people with kindness and consideration. These are all “good” things, and we see many people doing them every day.

These passages are actually arguing that none of us is capable of doing anything that God would consider to be good. You see, God looks at more than the bare action itself. Picking up litter, funding a cure for cancer, or treating people kindly are all good things to do. God looks at that to be sure. But He also looks at the motives and intentions behind these actions. And what these Scripture passages are maintaining is that no one—in and of themselves—is able to do good actions with the right motives or intentions. We might pick up litter on the side of the road, but we will be doing it for selfish reasons: to make ourselves look good to passers-by or to make us feel better about ourselves or simply because we can’t stand looking at the trash. We might fund cancer research because our spouse is dying from the disease or because we want to be thought well of by others. Any good action—worshiping the Lord, for instance—that is done wrongly, from God’s perspective, is sin. It is “worthless,” spiritually speaking. That is why Isaiah can say that even “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6).

What these passages are really saying, therefore, is that everything we do apart from Christ is “not good” or “worthless” in God’s sight either in terms of what we are doing or in terms of the way or the why  we are doing it. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-5, we are “dead in [our] trespasses and sins” and are, for that reason, “following the course of this world” and “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (i.e., Satan). Although all of us are capable of doing good deeds from time to time, we are incapable of doing them for the right reasons or with the right intentions until and unless God does a recreative work in our hearts to raise us from the dead, spiritually speaking.

God is sovereign

Second, I would say that God restrains sin in all of us—Christian and non-Christian alike. He restrains it by way of the civil magistrate and the laws that they establish. The fact that the U.S. government has declared stealing to be against the law may not deter everyone, but it does keep many of us walking the straight and narrow, at least in regard to our outward behavior. When the punishment for breaking the law is strong enough, it can add an extra layer of deterrence to that provided by the law itself. Let me give an example. Some places in the world, from what I am told, will cut off a person’s hands (and more) if they are caught stealing. In many of these places, vendors feel comfortable leaving jewelry and other valuables sitting out in the open unattended. The punishment in these areas is sufficient to restrain sinful tendencies and to reduce theft practically to zero.

God uses governments to do his bidding and, in this case, that bidding includes stemming the tide of human depravity. Every government is, as Paul says, “instituted by God,” and each one derives its authority exclusively from Him whether they choose to acknowledge this or not. They work as God’s “ministers” for the good of all God’s creatures (Rom. 13:1-7).

Cultural norms and expectations can also help to restrain sin. We see this idea readily reflected in the changing norms of each generation. Smoking is a good example of this. Believe it or not, my grandfather started smoking when he was only 9 years old. That is hard for me to imagine. But it was far more accepted in his day than it is in ours. We know more about the damage smoking causes to our health than they did in my grandfather’s day. That knowledge has altered our expectations in the US. And, as a result, we don’t see many 9-year-olds taking up the habit (and far fewer adults too). These things are part and parcel of God’s providential care for the world and all its inhabitants.

A third way God restrains human depravity is by way of the conscience, which theologians of old referred to as a “deputy judge” placed by God within each person to guide and to convict. Paul refers to this in Romans 2:14-15,

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

It is true that consciences can be uninformed. If we don’t know that something is wrong, it is hard for our consciences to convict us about it. Our consciences can also be seared when we repeatedly ignore what they tell us to do. But, generally speaking, this is yet another way that God restrains human depravity so that none of us is ever as bad as he or she could be.

A fourth way that God governs depravity is by restricting the work of Satan and his army of demons. We see this idea on display in the story of Job. On two occasions near the beginning of the story, Satan presents himself to the Lord and asks for permission to persecute Job (see 1:6ff and 2:1ff). The fact that he must ask for permission tells us that he doesn’t have unlimited power to go where he wants and to do what he wants. He is limited. He is on a leash. He can only go so far before the Lord says, “No, you can’t go any farther.” Although Satan’s mission is to stir up ungodliness in every way possible and in as many people as possible, his mission is constrained to operate within God’s sovereign and overarching mission.

So what?

The fact that God restrains sin in any way at all is a reflection of His lovingkindness for His creatures. Who among us would genuinely want to live in a world where everyone was as bad as they possibly could be? The “anything goes” mentality of the Wild West would have nothing on that kind of wicked world. It would be a free-for-all. Every man, woman, and child would be in it for himself or herself alone. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to be a part of that—or anything even remotely like it. I find it hard enough living in the world we currently have. The lovingkindness of God holds back human depravity, but it also allows enough of it so that we might see our need for Jesus Christ and turn and put our faith in Him. He alone is the solution to sin the world over. And that is the next thing we will consider in our series. 

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