People Are Basically Good



“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” [Citation Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, The Definitive Edition, Translated by Susan Massotty (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), 333.] Those are heartbreaking words for a couple of reasons.

They were penned by Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, while she spent two years hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland. She died tragically in a concentration camp soon after, but her writings would go on posthumously to become a widely celebrated bestseller: The Diary of a Young Girl.

It’s staggering to think that in spite of the unimaginable atrocities she must have witnessed and experienced, she still clung to the belief that people are basically good. She even admitted her beliefs were “in spite of” the evidence, not because of it. For her, the alternative was simply too unthinkable. It would seem her beliefs hinged more on hope than conviction.

The other reason Anne Frank’s words are so heartbreaking is because she believed a widespread and popular lie.

Pelagian Origins

The belief that people are basically good is an ancient falsehood going back to the fourth-century AD. It was first propagated, at least in a theological sense, by a British monk called Pelagius. He fervently and persuasively argued against the biblical doctrine of original sin—the belief that all of mankind has been morally corrupted through Adam’s fall.

The Pelagian heresy was defeated at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. But Pelagius’s beliefs have been readily imbibed by most secular cultures and are alive and well in the present day. Atheism and Darwinism may have toned it down by embracing an anthropology of moral neutrality rather than goodness. But their worldview remains essentially Pelagian because they still deny the inherent sinfulness of man.

In that sense, Pelagius still stalks the hallways of government, higher education, and the mainstream media. Most foreign policy disasters are connected to the naïve assumption that people are basically good. Welfare programs flounder because of beneficiaries who prefer to extort the system rather than behave ethically. Psychologists continue to exclude the possibility of a sinful nature from their study of the human experience. Behavioral experts relentlessly try to solve bad behavior with better education. And society at large is now burdened with a younger generation that identifies as victims rather than perpetrators, refusing to be held accountable for its actions.

The realm of parenting has also been poisoned by the belief that people are basically good. Our children should be the greatest empirical proof of original sin. After all, we don’t have to teach them to lie, throw tantrums, or be selfish—they are all born with ready-made expertise in sinning. But like Anne Frank, many parents prefer to believe in the inherent goodness of their kids despite the massive weight of evidence to the contrary. Consequently, appeasement and medication have usurped the role of discipline in far too many families.

We get an even harsher dose of reality when we honestly assess our own lives. God has written His morality upon our hearts and consciences (Romans 2:14–15)—we instinctively know right from wrong. But we live with the natural desire to rebel against what we know is right. Those who choose to deny this truth end up affirming it through their denial anyway.

Clearly then, the Pelagian lie is incredibly pervasive in the world. Churches thus carry an enormous responsibility to repudiate it. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening. The belief that people are basically good is now a thriving heresy in some of the most popular churches in America.

Pelagian Churches

Bethel Church in Redding, California, is a prime example. Pastored by Bill Johnson, Bethel is perhaps the most influential charismatic church in the country. They are most widely known for their Jesus Culture music, testimonies of trips to heaven, gold dust “miracles” pouring out of their ventilation system, and many other bizarre claims and antics. But undergirding these strange recent phenomena is well-worn ancient heresy.

Eric Johnson (the son of Bill Johnson) is one of the pastors on staff at Bethel. In his sermon “The Joy of Consecration,” [1] he argues:

You’re not born evil. It’s amazing how many teachings and theologies start with that thought. Anytime you start with that you will create a controlling, manipulative environment.

Every government, every structure . . . every system fundamentally and theologically must start with the concept and the idea that people are good and they mean to do good. Even if they are not saved, we have to start from that premise.

Like a pope speaking ex cathedra, Eric Johnson usurps the clear teaching of Scripture and insists on redefining it according to his own theological preferences. And just to make himself clear, Johnson explicitly restates his Pelagian worldview later in the sermon:

We have to adjust our theology. We have to adjust our fundamental stance when we look at people. . . . We have to adjust our perspective of people. We have to realize that people are good and they mean to do good.

Johnson’s error is nothing short of catastrophic. In one fell swoop he has made repentance redundant in the lives of his massive audience and completely obliterated the reason for the gospel. His false gospel will damn those who embrace it.

Man Is Totally Depraved

The undeniable truth is that man is totally depraved. That doesn’t mean unregenerate sinners are incapable of doing anything good or noble. But it does mean that sin has permeated every part of their nature, and even the seemingly good things they do are ultimately done with sinful motives.

Keeping one’s head in the proverbial sand is the only way to ignore the doctrine of total depravity. It is the reason we have arguments, assaults, and wars. It’s the reason we need governments, police, and the military. It’s the reason for locks on our doors, walls around our prisons, and armed guards at our borders.

And the wrong things people do aren’t because of ignorance or a lack of education. Sinners deliberately rebel against what they know to be true about God and His righteousness. As the Lord Jesus Himself said,

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19–20)

As far back as Genesis 6—prior to God’s judgment in the Flood—the depravity of man’s sinful heart was obvious. “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

The apostle Paul delivered a powerful reminder to all believers that the primary struggle for unbelievers is never the lack of evidence for God, but their love for every form of defiance against Him.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18–20)

Atheism, Darwinism, hedonism, and victimhood are all excuses for the fact that people love sin, hate God, and refuse to be held accountable for their guilt. And that’s because all people are sinners by nature—a nature passed on to every descendant of Adam after the Fall (Genesis 3). “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). “Through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19).

In his book The Gospel According to Paul, John MacArthur explains the imputation of Adam’s sin to all of his descendants:

All humanity was plunged into this guilty condition because of Adam’s sin. “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). This is the doctrine of original sin, a truth that is expounded by Paul in Romans 5:12–19. . . . We prove our willing complicity in Adam’s rebellion every time we sin. And since no one other than Jesus has ever lived a sinless life, no one is really in a position to doubt the doctrine of original sin, much less deem it unjust. [2]

We need to abandon the lie that people are basically good, and instead embrace the truth that man is totally depraved. Understandably, it is an unsavory subject for most people. And without the gospel, it is only bad news.

But without the bad news, the gospel becomes strange and nonsensical. The cross becomes confusing. And there is no good reason for Christ to die as a sin-bearing substitute. If mankind is basically good, the gospel is an unnecessary farce, and the death of Christ a tragic waste. Choosing to deny the imputation of Adam’s sin demands that you also reject the imputation of our sin to Christ, and the imputation of His righteousness to our account. It cuts you off from the Savior, and any hope of salvation.

Ultimately, the difference between believing the soothing lie of Pelagius or the harsh truth of depravity is the doctrinal divide that separates heaven from hell.

Source: Grace to You | Cameron Beuttel

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