John MacArthur, Jr.

No concept is more important to the gurus of modern psychology than self-esteem. According to the self-esteem credo, there are no bad people—only people who think badly of themselves.1

For years, educational experts, psychologists, and a growing number of Christian leaders have championed self-esteem as a panacea for all sorts of human miseries. According to the purveyors of this doctrine, if people feel good about themselves, they will behave better, have fewer emotional problems, and achieve more. People with high self-esteem, we are told, are less likely to commit crimes, act immorally, fail academically, or have problems in their relationships with others.

The Blind Faith of Self-Esteem

Advocates of self-esteem have been remarkably successful in convincing people that self-esteem is the solution to whatever ails anyone. One survey revealed that a majority of people view self-esteem as the single most important motivator for hard work and success. In fact, self-esteem ranked several points higher than a sense of responsibility or fear of failure.2

But does self-esteem really work? Does it, for example, promote higher achievement? There is plenty of evidence to suggest it does not. In a recent study, a standardized math test was given to teenagers from six different nations. Besides the math questions, the test asked the youngsters to respond yes or no to the question, “I am good at mathematics.” American students scored lowest on the math questions, far behind Korean students, who had the top scores. Ironically, more than three-fourths of the Korean students had answered no to the “I am good at math” question. In stark contrast, however, 68 percent of the American students believed their math skills were just fine.3 Our kids may be failing math, but they obviously feel pretty good about how they are doing.

Morally, our culture is in precisely the same boat. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that society is at an all-time moral low. We might expect people’s self-esteem to be suffering as well. But statistics show Americans are feeling better about themselves than ever. In a survey conducted in 1940, 11 percent of women and 20 percent of men agreed with the statement, “I am an important person.” In the 1990s, those figures jumped to 66 percent of women and 62 percent of men.4 Ninety percent of people surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll say their own sense of self-esteem is robust and healthy.5 Incredibly, while the moral fabric of society is unraveling, self-esteem is thriving. All the positive thinking about ourselves seems not to be doing anything to elevate the culture or motivate people to live better lives.

Can it really be that low self-esteem is what is wrong with people today? Does anyone seriously believe that making people feel better about themselves has helped the problems of crime, moral decay, divorce, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, and all the other evils that have dragged society down? Could so much still be wrong in our culture if the assumptions of self-esteem theory were true? Do we really imagine that more self-esteem will finally solve society’s problems? Is there even a shred of evidence that would support such a belief?

Absolutely none. A report in Newsweek suggested that “the case for self-esteem … is a matter less of scientific pedagogy than of faith—faith that positive thoughts can make manifest the inherent goodness in any one.”6 In other words, the notion that self-esteem makes people better is simply a matter of blind religious faith. Not only that, it is a religion that is antithetical to Christianity, because it is predicated on the unbiblical presupposition that people are basically good and need to recognize their own goodness.

The Church and the Self-Esteem Cult

Nevertheless, the most persuasive proponents of self-esteem religion have always included clergymen. Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking” doctrine, which was popular a generation ago, was simply an early self-esteem model. Peale wrote The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952.7 The book opened with these words: “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities!” In the introduction, Peale called the book a “personal-improvement manual … written with the sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life.”8 The book was marketed as motivational therapy, not theology. But in Peale’s estimation the whole system was merely “applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works.”9

Evangelicals, for the most part, were slow to embrace a system that called people to faith in themselves rather than faith in Jesus Christ. Self-esteem as Norman Vincent Peale outlined it was the offspring of theological liberalism married to neo-orthodoxy.

Time has evidently worn away evangelicals’ resistance to such doctrine. Now many of the hottest-selling books in evangelical bookstores promote self-esteem and positive thinking. Even Newsweek has commented on the trend. Noting that self-esteem is considered “religiously correct” nowadays, the magazine observed:

The notion [of self-esteem] may put off anyone old enough to remember when “Christian” as an adjective was often followed by “humility.” But American churches, which once did not shrink from calling their congregants wretches, have moved toward a more congenial view of human nature.… Chastising sinners is considered counterproductive: it makes them feel worse about themselves.10

Psychology and self-esteem theology have fed one another. And as evangelicals become more and more accepting of psychological counseling, they become more and more vulnerable to the dangers posed by self-esteem teaching. As even the Newsweek article suggests, those who are concerned primarily with self-esteem are hardly in a position to deal with human transgressions as sin against God or to inform people already comfortable in self-love and self-righteousness that they are actually sinners in need of spiritual salvation.

Here one’s theology becomes intensely practical. These are questions that must be settled in the heart before the counselor can offer truly biblical counsel: Does God really want all people to feel good about themselves? Or does He first call sinners to recognize the utter helplessness of their own estate? Of course, the answer is obvious to those who let Scripture speak for itself.

Understanding the Doctrine of Total Depravity

Scripture, of course, teaches from beginning to end that all humanity is totally depraved. Paul says unredeemed people are “dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Apart from salvation, all people walk in worldliness and disobedience (v. 2). We who know and love the Lord once “lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (v. 3). We were “separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12).

In those passages Paul describes the state of unbelievers as estrangement from God. It is that they hate God, not that they are
intimidated by Him. In fact, Paul says, “There is no fear of God” in the unregenerate person (Rom. 3:18). Before our salvation, we were actually God’s enemies (Rom. 5:8, 10). We were “alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). Sinful passions, inflamed by our hatred of God’s law, motivated all our living (Rom. 7:5). We were tainted by sin in every part of our being. We were corrupt, evil, thoroughly sinful.

Theologians refer to this doctrine as total depravity. It does not mean that unbelieving sinners are always as bad as they could be (cf. Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14). It does not mean that the expression of sinful human nature is always lived out to the fullest. It does not mean that unbelievers are incapable of acts of kindness, benevolence, goodwill, or human altruism. It certainly does not mean that non-Christians cannot appreciate goodness, beauty, honesty, decency, or excellence. It does mean that none of this has any merit with God.

Depravity also means that evil has contaminated every aspect of our humanity—our heart, mind, personality, emotions, conscience, motives, and will (cf. Jer. 17:9; John 8:44). Unredeemed sinners are therefore incapable of doing anything to please God (Isa. 64:6). They are incapable of truly loving the God who reveals Himself in Scripture. They are incapable of obedience from the heart, with righteous motives. They are incapable of understanding spiritual truth. They are incapable of genuine faith. And that means they are incapable of pleasing God or truly seeking Him (Heb. 11:1).

Total depravity means sinners have no ability to do spiritual good or to work for their own salvation from sin. They are so completely disinclined to love righteousness, so thoroughly dead in sin, that they are not able to save themselves or even to fit themselves for God’s salvation. Unbelieving humanity has no capacity to desire, understand, believe, or apply spiritual truth: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). In spite of all this, people are proud of themselves! Lack of self-esteem is not the issue.

Because of Adam’s sin, this state of spiritual death called total depravity has passed to all mankind. Another term for this is original sin. Scripture explains it this way: “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned (Rom. 5:12). When, as head of the human race, Adam sinned, the whole race was corrupted. “Through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19). How such a thing could happen has been the subject of much theological discussion for centuries. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to affirm that Scripture clearly teaches that Adam’s sin brought guilt upon the entire race. We were “in Adam” when he sinned, and therefore the guilt of sin and the sentence of death passed upon all of us: “In Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22).

We might be tempted to think, If I’m sinful by birth and never had a morally neutral nature, how can I be held responsible for being a sinner? But our corrupt nature is precisely why our guilt is such a serious matter. Sin flows from the very soul of our being. It is because of our sinful nature that we commit sinful acts: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:21–23). We are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Original sin—including all the corrupt tendencies and sinful passions of the soul—is as deserving of punishment as all our voluntary acts of sin. What is sin, after all, but anomia—“lawlessness” (1 John 3:4)? Or as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Sin is any want of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God” (q. 14). Far from being an excuse, original sin itself is at the heart of why we are guilty. And original sin itself is sufficient grounds for our condemnation before God.

Moreover, original sin with its resulting depravity is the reason we commit voluntary acts of sin. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,

Why is it that man ever chooses to sin? The answer is that man has fallen away from God, and as a result, his whole nature has become perverted and sinful. Man’s whole bias is away from God. By nature he hates God and feels that God is opposed to him. His god is himself, his own abilities and powers, his own desires. He objects to the whole idea of God and the demands which God makes upon him.… Furthermore, man likes and covets the things which God prohibits, and dislikes the things and the kind of life to which God calls him. These are no mere dogmatic statements. They are facts.… They alone explain the moral muddle and the ugliness that characterise life to such an extent today.11

Salvation from original sin is only through the cross of Christ: “As through the one man’s disobedience [Adam’s sin] the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One [Jesus Christ] the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). We are born in sin (Ps. 51:5), and if we are to become children of God and enter God’s kingdom, we must be born again by God’s Spirit (John 3:3–8).

In other words, contrary to what most people think—contrary to the presuppositions of self-esteem doctrine—men and women are not naturally good. Just the opposite is true. We are by nature enemies of God, sinners, lovers of ourselves, and in bondage to our own sin. We are blind, deaf, and dead to spiritual matters, unable even to believe apart from God’s gracious intervention. Yet we are relentlessly proud! In fact, nothing is more illustrative of human wickedness than the desire for self-esteem. And the first step to a proper self-image is a recognition that these things are true.

That is why Jesus commended the tax-gatherer—rather than rebuking him for his low self-esteem—when the man pounded his chest and pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). The man had finally come to the point where he saw himself for what he was, and he was so overcome that his emotion released in acts of self-condemnation. The truth is, his self-image had never been more sound than at that moment. Rid of pride and pretense, he now saw there was nothing he could ever do to earn God’s favor. Instead, he pleaded with God for mercy. And therefore he “went down to his house justified”—exalted by God because he had humbled himself (v. 14). For the first time ever he was in a position to realize true joy, peace with God, and a new sense of self-worth that is granted by God’s grace to those He adopts as His children (Rom. 8:15).

All Have Sinned and Fall Short

Deep in our hearts, we all know something is desperately wrong with us. Our conscience constantly confronts us with our own sinfulness. Try as we might to blame others or seek psychological explanations for how we feel, we cannot escape reality. We cannot ultimately deny our own consciences. We all feel our guilt, and we all know the horrible truth about who we are on the inside.

We feel guilty because we are guilty. Only the cross of Christ can answer sin in a way that frees us from our own shame. Psychology might mask some of the pain of our guilt. Self-esteem might sweep it under the rug for a time. Other things—such as seeking comfort in relationships, or blaming our problems on someone else—might make us feel better, but the relief is only superficial. And it is dangerous. In fact, it often intensifies the guilt, because it adds dishonesty and pride to the sin that originally wounded the con

True guilt has only one cause, and that is sin. Until sin is dealt with, the conscience will fight to accuse. And sin—not low self-esteem—is the very thing the gospel is given to conquer. That is why the apostle Paul began his presentation of the gospel to the Romans with a lengthy discourse about sin. Total depravity is the first gospel truth he introduced, and he spent nearly three full chapters on the subject. Romans 1:18–32 demonstrates the guilt of the pagans. Romans 2:1–16 proves the guilt of the moralist, who violates the very standard by which he judges others. And Romans 2:17–3:8 establishes the guilt of the Jews, who had access to all the benefits of divine grace but as a whole rejected God’s righteousness nonetheless.

Since Romans 1 Paul has argued eloquently, citing evidence from nature, history, sound reason, and conscience to prove the utter sinfulness of all humanity. And in verses 9–20 of chapter 3, he sums it all up. Paul reasons like an attorney giving his final summation. He reviews his arguments like a prosecutor who has made an ironclad case against all humanity. It is a powerful and compelling presentation, replete with a charge, convincing proof, and the inescapable verdict.

The Charge

“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9). Paul’s indictment thus begins with two questions: What then? or, “Is there any need of further testimony?” And, Are we better than they? or, “Can anyone honestly claim to live above the level of human nature I have been describing?”

Not at all,” he answers. Everyone from the most degenerate, perverted sinner (Rom. 1:28–32) to the most rigidly legalistic Jew falls into the same category of total depravity. In other words, the entire human race, without exception, is arraigned in the divine courtroom and charged with being “under sin”—wholly subjugated to the power of sin. All unredeemed people, Paul is saying, are subservient to sin, in thrall to it, taken captive to sin’s authority.

Paul’s Jewish readers would have found this truth every bit as shocking and unbelievable as it must be to those weaned on modern self-esteem doctrine. They believed they were acceptable to God by birth and that only Gentiles were sinners by nature. Jews were, after all, God’s chosen people. The idea that all Jews were sinners was contrary to the beliefs of the Pharisees. They taught that only derelicts, beggars, and Gentiles were born in sin (cf. John 9:34). But Scripture clearly pronounces otherwise. Even David said, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Modern humanity, weaned on self-esteem psychology, also finds it shocking to learn that all of us are by nature sinful and unworthy creatures.

The Proof

Paul, continuing his courtroom summation, goes on to prove from the Old Testament Scriptures the universality of human depravity:

As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known” (3:10–17).

Notice how Paul underscores the universality of sin. In those few verses, he says “none” or “not even one” six times. No person escapes the accusation. “The Scripture has shut up all men under sin” (Gal. 3:22).

Paul’s argument is constructed in three parts. First he shows how sin corrupts the character: “There is none righteous … there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). Here Paul makes six charges. He says that because of their innate depravity, people are universally evil (“none righteous”); spiritually ignorant (“none who understands”), rebellious (“none who seeks for God”), wayward (“all have turned aside”), spiritually useless (“together they have become useless”), and morally corrupt (“there is none who does good”).

The verse Paul is quoting is Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.” The words at the end of Romans 3:12, “not even one,” are an editorial comment from Paul, added to make the truth inescapable for someone who might otherwise think of himself as an exception to the rule—as is the common attitude of self-justifying sinners.

Notice, Paul does not suggest that some sinners might be prone to think worse of themselves than they ought to. The very opposite is true: “I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). Undue pride is the typical and expected response of sinners. Self-esteem teaching is the expression of that very pride. Making a savage feel good about himself only increases his deadliness.

Again, the utter depravity Paul is describing certainly does not mean that all people play out the expression of their sin to the ultimate degree. There are certainly some people who are good in a relative sense. They may have characteristics of compassion, generosity, kindness, integrity, decency, thoughtfulness, and so on. But even those characteristics are imperfect and sullied with human sin and weakness. No one—“not even one”—comes close to true righteousness. God’s standard, after all, is absolute perfection: “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). In other words, no one who falls short of the touchstone of perfection is acceptable to God! What does that do to self-esteem theology? How does one feel good about oneself when God Himself declares us worthy of wrath?

There is an answer to the dilemma, of course. God justifies the ungodly by faith (Rom. 4:5). Christ’s own perfect righteousness is imputed to our account, so by faith we can stand before God clothed in a perfect righteousness that is not our own (Phil. 3:9). This does not speak of external works that we do. It is a superior righteousness, the totality of Christ’s own righteousness, credited to our account. Christ, on our behalf, has already fulfilled the requirement of being as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. His virtue is assigned to our account, so God regards us as fully righteous.

But we are jumping ahead of the apostle’s carefully arranged evidence. He adds a paraphrase also from Psalm 14: “The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God” (v. 2; cf. 53:3). Ignorance and depravity go hand in hand. But people are not sinful and enemies of God because of their spiritual ignorance; rather they are spiritually ignorant because of their sinfulness and their adversarial disposition toward God. They are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18, emphasis added). In other words, because of their hatred of God and their love for their own sin, they reject the witness of God in creation and the testimony of their conscience (Rom. 1:19–20). This hardens the heart and darkens the mind.

The hard heart and darkened mind refuse to seek for God: “There is none who seeks for God.” That again echoes Psalm 14:2. God invites the seeker and promises that those who seek Him with all their hearts will find Him (Jer. 29:13). Jesus also promised that everyone who seeks Him will find Him (Matt. 7:8). But the sinful heart is inclined away from
God and does not seek Him. Without God’s gracious, sovereign intervention, seeking and drawing sinners to Himself first, no one would seek and be saved. Jesus Himself said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him … (John 6:44).

Rather than seeking God, sinners inevitably go their own way. Still using Psalm 14, Paul cites verse 3: “They have all turned aside”—or as Romans 3:12 has it, “All have turned aside.” This is reminiscent of Isaiah 53:6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” Sinners are naturally wayward. Inherent in human depravity is an inescapable drift away from truth and righteousness. Sinners always lose their way: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).

The taint of sin further renders the sinner “useless” (v. 12)—translating a Greek word used to describe spoiled milk or contaminated food to be thrown out. Unredeemed people are unfit for any spiritual good, useless for righteousness, fit only to be thrown into the fire and burned (John 15:6). Their great need is not self-esteem or positive thinking, but redemption from their prideful sin.

In the next few verses Paul describes how sin defiles the conversation: “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (3:13–14). One’s true character inevitably becomes apparent in conversation. Scripture is filled with affirmation of this truth:

• “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil” (Matt. 12:34–35).

• “The things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart … ” (Matt. 15:18).

• “The mouth of the righteous flows with wisdom, but the perverted tongue will be cut out. The lips of the righteous bring forth what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverted” (Prov. 10:31–32).

• “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly.… The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:2, 28).

• “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue mutters wickedness” (Isa. 59:2–3).

• “They bend their tongue like their bow; lies and not truth prevail in the land.… Every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. And everyone deceives his neighbor, and does not speak the truth, they have taught their tongue to speak lies … ” (Jer. 9:3–5).

Paul chooses more passages from the psalms to underscore the point:

• “Poison of a viper is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3).

• “There is nothing reliable in what they say; their inward part is destruction itself; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue” (Ps. 5:9).

• “His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; under his tongue is mischief and wickedness” (Ps. 10:7).

Those verses, all written to condemn “the wicked,” Paul applies to everyone. He is making the point that human depravity is universal. All are wicked. Everyone is guilty. No one can claim exemption from the charges Paul levels.

Moreover, he is illustrating how thoroughly sin pervades and permeates every aspect of our humanity. Note how completely sin contaminates the conversation: it defiles the “throat,” corrupts the “tongue,” poisons the “lips,” and pollutes the “mouth.” Evil speech, an expression of the wickedness of the heart, thus defiles every organ it touches as it “proceeds out of the mouth,” defiling the whole person (Matt. 15:11).

Third, Paul quotes several verses to show how sin perverts the conduct: “Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known” (Rom. 3:15–17). Here Paul is quoting a passage from Isaiah. This is significant, because in these verses Isaiah was excoriating Israel for their sins against Jehovah. This was no denunciation of wicked pagans, but an indictment of religious people who believed in God: “Their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; devastation and destruction are in their highways. They do not know the way of peace, and there is no justice in their tracks; they have made their paths crooked; whoever treads on them does not know peace” (Isa. 59:7–8).

The phrase “their feet are swift to shed blood” describes sinful humanity’s penchant for murder. Remember, Jesus taught that hatred is the moral equivalent of murder (Matt. 5:21–22). The seed of hatred ripens and matures, and the fruit it bears is the shedding of blood. Sinners are naturally attracted to hatred and its violent offspring. People are “swift” in their advance toward such acts. We see this very clearly in our own society. An article in Newsweek, for example, recently reported that “a 12-year-old boy turn[ed] without a word and [shot] dead a 7-year-old girl because she ‘dis’ed’ him by standing on his shadow.”12

In some of our larger cities, as many as two hundred murders will occur in a typical week. Drive-by shootings, drunken brawls, gang violence, family strife, and other crimes all contribute to the body count. If lack of self-esteem is the problem of the human heart, why, we must ask, is the murder rate on the rise so dramatically in a society where self-esteem is also growing? The answer is that low self-esteem is not the problem. On the contrary, pride itself is the very problem that leads to all sin, including hate, hostility, and killing. A love for bloodshed festers in the heart of sinful humanity. Remove the moral restraints from society, and the inevitable result will be an escalation of murder and violence—no matter how good people feel about themselves.

“Destruction and misery” further characterize the tendencies of depraved humanity. Again, no one familiar with the trends of modern society can deny the truth of Scripture on this point. The lid is off, and we can see clearly the true nature of the human heart. What else could explain our culture—where people are robbed, beaten, raped, or murdered for no reason other than sheer enjoyment? Wanton destruction is so much a part of society that we have become inured to much of it.

“Gangsta rap”—music that glorifies murder, rape, and drug use—now accounts for many of the hottest-selling albums on the record charts. The lyrics of most gangsta rap are indescribably vile. They mix violence, sexual imagery, and unimaginable profanity in a way that is repulsive and purposely offensive. Worse, they openly incite young people to join gangs, kill policemen, rape women, riot, and commit other acts of wanton destruction. Gangsta rap is big business. These recordings are not sold secretly out of the back of some hoodlum’s car, but marketed openly in retail stores everywhere—with slick ad campaigns designed by executives in companies like Capitol Records. And the prime target for such products are kids younger than eighteen. A whole generation is being indoctrinated with these vices. Destruction and misery are in their path. And woe to those unfortunate enough to cross their path! In recent months several nationally-known rap artists have been charged with violent crimes, including murder and gang rape.

Why is it that misery and despair are so characteristic of this modern age, even though humanity has made such remarkable advances in technology, psycho
logy, and medicine? It is because depravity is at the very heart of the human soul. All these problems are so bound up in the human heart that no amount of learning and no measure of self-esteem will ever erase them. As science advances, people only become more sophisticated in their use of evil means. The destruction and misery wrought by human sin does not diminish; it accelerates. The history of this century, filled with world wars, holocausts, serial killers, escalating crime, and bloody revolutions, is graphic proof of that. Depravity is bound up in the human heart.

In other words, “the path of peace” is unknown to sinful humanity (Rom. 3:17). Though we hear much talk these days of “peace, peace,” there is no peace (cf. Jer. 6:14).

Paul sums up the evidence for human depravity: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). There he returns to the psalms for a final quotation. Psalm 36:1 says, “Transgression speaks to the ungodly within his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.” Human sinfulness is a defect of the human heart itself. Evil commands the heart of man. People’s hearts are naturally attuned to wickedness. They have no native fear of God.

Fear of the Lord, of course, is the primary prerequisite to spiritual wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Moses commanded Israel, “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name” (Deut. 6:13). In fact, as Moses summed up the responsibilities of the Israelites, this is what he said: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deut. 10:12–13, emphasis added). We in the New Testament era are likewise commanded to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). We are to “honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17, emphasis added, cf. Rev. 14:7).

“The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom” (Prov. 15:33). “By the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil” (Prov. 16:6). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may avoid the snares of death” (Prov. 14:27).

We do not hear much about fearing God these days. Even many Christians seem to feel the language of fear is somehow too harsh or too negative. How much easier it is to speak of God’s love and infinite mercy. But longsuffering, kindness, and such attributes are not the truths that are missing from most people’s concept of God. The problem is that most people do not think of God as someone to be feared. They do not realize that He hates the proud and punishes evildoers. They presume on His grace. They fear what people think more than they care what God thinks. They seek their own pleasure, unmindful of God’s displeasure. Their conscience is defiled and in danger of vanishing. “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

The fear of God, by the way, is a concept diametrically opposed to the doctrine of self-esteem. How can we encourage fear of the Lord in people and at the same time be obsessed with boosting their self-esteem? Which is the more biblical pursuit? The Scriptures speak for themselves.

The Verdict

Having presented a convincing case for total depravity, Paul makes the verdict clear: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19, kjv, emphasis added).

Here Paul blasted the assumption of those who believed that merely having the law of God somehow made the Jews morally superior to pagan Gentiles. The law carried its own condemnation against those who did not keep it perfectly: “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 27:26; cf. Gal. 3:10). “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). Merely having the law did not make the Jews any better than the rest of humanity.

The Gentiles, on the other hand, were accountable to the law written on their own consciences (Rom. 2:11–15). Both groups are proven in violation of the law they possess. The prosecution rests. There can be no defense. Every mouth must be stopped. The case is closed. Unredeemed humanity is guilty of all charges. There are no grounds for acquittal. The whole world stands guilty before God.

Self-esteem is no solution to human depravity. It aggravates it! The problems of our culture—especially the anguish that wracks individual human hearts—will not be solved by the deception of getting people to think better of themselves. People really are sinful to the core. The guilt and shame we all feel as sinners is legitimate, natural, and even appropriate. It has the beneficial purpose of letting us know the depth of our own sinfulness. We dare not whisk it aside for the faulty teachings of humanistic self-esteem.

I recently read an unusually clear-sighted article dealing with the myth of human goodness from a non-Christian perspective. The author, a Jewish social critic, writes,

To believe that people are basically good after Auschwitz, the Gulag and the other horrors of our century, is a statement of irrational faith, as irrational as any [fanatical] religious belief. Whenever I meet people—especially Jews, victims of the most concentrated evil in history—who persist is believing in the essential goodness of people, I know that I have met people for whom evidence is irrelevant. How many evils would human beings have to commit in order to shake a Jew’s faith in humanity? How many more innocent people have to be murdered and tortured? How many more women need to be raped?13

This article lists five consequences of the people-are-basically-good myth. Notice how they all contribute to the destruction of the conscience:

The first such consequence is, quite logically, the attribution of all evil to causes outside of people. Since people are basically good, the bad that they do must be caused by some external force. Depending on who is doing the blaming, that outside force could be the social environment, economic circumstances, parents, schools, television violence, handguns, racism, the devil, government cutbacks, or even corrupt politicians (as expressed by this frequently heard foolishness: “How can we expect our children to be honest when the government isn’t?”).

People are therefore not responsible for the evil they commit. It’s not my fault that I mug old women, or that I cheat much of the time—something (chosen from the previous list) made me do it.

A second terrible consequence is the denial of evil. If good is natural, then bad must be unnatural, or “sick.” Moral categories have been replaced by psychological ones. There is no longer good and evil, only “normal” and “sick.”

Third, neither parents nor schools take the need to teach children goodness seriously—why teach what comes naturally? Only those who recognize that people are not basically good recognize the need to teach goodness.

Fourth, since much of society believes that evil comes from outside of people, it has ceased trying to change people’s values and concentrates instead on changing outside forces. People commit crimes? It is not values and character development that we need to be concerned with; we need to change the socioeconomic environment that “produces” rapists and murderers. Irresponsible men impregnate irresponsible women? It is not better values they need, but better sex education and better access to condoms and abortions.

Fifth, and most destructive of all, those who
believe that people are basically good conclude that people do not need to feel accountable of their behavior to God and to a religion, only to themselves.14

That author, oddly enough, denies human depravity as well as human goodness. He believes people are neither good nor bad but choose their way in life. (At the outset of his article, however, he quotes Genesis 8:21: “The intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”)

Despite this inconsistency in the author’s position, the article shows very clearly the dangers of the myth of human goodness.

The Church must safeguard sound doctrine by recovering the doctrine of human depravity. As J. C. Ryle wrote nearly a century ago,

A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to that vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age. It is vain to shut our eyes to the fact that there is a vast quantity of so-called Christianity nowadays which you cannot declare positively unsound, but which, nevertheless, is not full measure, good weight and sixteen ounces to the pound. It is a Christianity in which there is undeniably “something about Christ and something about grace and something about faith and something about repentance and something about holiness,” but it is not the real “thing as it is” in the Bible. Things are out of place and out of proportion. As old Latimer would have said, it is a kind of “mingle-mangle,” and does no good. It neither exercises influence on daily conduct, nor comforts in life, nor gives peace in death; and those who hold it often wake too late to find that they have got nothing solid under their feet. Now I believe that the likeliest way to cure and mend this defective kind of religion is to bring forward more prominently the old scriptural truth about the sinfulness of sin.15

You may be asking, on the other hand, Does God want us to wallow in shame and self-condemnation permanently? Not at all. God offers freedom from sin and shame through faith in Jesus Christ. If we are willing to acknowledge our sinfulness and seek His grace, He will wonderfully deliver us from our sin and all its effects. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:1–2). The liberation from sin those verses describe is the only basis on which we can really feel good about ourselves.

1 1. Adapted and abridged from The Vanishing Conscience (Dallas: Word, 1994).

2 2. Jerry Adler et al., “Hey I’m Terrific,” Newsweek 17 February 1992: 50.

3 3. Charles Krauthammer, “Education: Doing Bad and Feeling Good,” Time 5 February 1990: 70.

4 4. Cheryl Russell, “Predictions for the Baby Boom,” The Boomer Report 15 September 1993: 4.

5 5. Adler et al., “Terrific,” 50.

6 6. Adler, et al., “Terrific,” 50.

7 7. Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1952).

8 8. Ibid., viii.

9 9. Ibid., ix.

10 10. Adler et al., “Terrific,” 50.

11 11. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Plight of Man and the Power of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1945), 87.

12 12. George F. Will, “A Trickle-Down Culture,” Newsweek 13 December 1993: 84.

13 13. Dennis Prager, “The Belief that People Are Basically Good,” Ultimate Issues (January–March 1990); 15.

14 14. Prager, “People Are Basically Good,” 15.

15 15. J. C. Ryle, Holiness (1879; reprint, Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1991), 9–10.

John MacArthur, F., Jr, Wayne A. Mack and Master’s College, Introduction to Biblical Counseling : Basic Guide to the Principles and Practice of Counseling, Electronic ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1997, c1994), 98.

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.