Are we good by nature? Are we as human beings righteous from birth? This is a question that has been in the minds of many people throughout history. Scholars and Philosophers have been discussing and debating this very question for centuries. There are some who say that we are righteous from the point of birth and can live, and others say that we do have a sin nature but we are still good by nature. The latter is the more common view. Most people acknowledge that we do mess up but we are still capable of being good. In fact, most professing Christians believe this idea of human nature. However, is this an accurate representation of our nature? If we were to answer this question based on our standards, the answer would be correct. After all, we meet many decent, kind, and respectful people. Not everyone is a murderer, not everyone steals, not everyone cheats, etc. Based on our standards, we are good by nature. However, our standards are futile, because the world is not built on our standards. We simply occupy this world and take care of it, but it is not ran by us, because it was not created by us. This does not mean the world came into existence by accident, it does indeed have a Creator.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
— Genesis 1:1
Since God is the Creator of the Universe and everything in it, it is safe to assume that He created the very standards that we are to live by. So, based on these standards, are we, by nature, righteous beings. To answer this, let us look to the Word of God.
To start off with, it important to acknowledge the state of man upon creation. I think it is explained well in this verse right here.
God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
— Genesis 1:31
When God created everything in the entire universe, He called it all very good, man included. This means that there was no evil, no suffering, no sickness, no pain, no death, none of it. It was without corruption. This is exactly how man was supposed to be. That is until sin entered the narrative. Genesis 3 describes the fall of man and how sin entered the nature of humanity. From this point on, every single human being who has, is, or will ever walk the earth (except Jesus) is plagued by sin. When sin entered the world, death, pain, suffering, all of it also entered. Worst of all, we were eternally separated from God. The Kingdom of God is a holy place and one must be righteous to enter. So since we, in our natural state, cannot enter His kingdom, this means we are not righteous. This passage in Romans I believe perfectly describes our nature.
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 they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
— Romans 3:10-18
Likewise, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states our nature like this.
By this sin our first parents fell from their original righteousness and communion with God. We fell in them, and through this, death came upon all. All became dead in sin and completely defiled in all capabilities and parts of soul and body.
There is not a righteous bone in the bodies of the natural man. Apart from Christ, we are wicked beings with no desire to do what is righteous according to God. We are totally depraved from our very conception (Psalm 51:5). We are all on the path of eternal punishment in hell, and we cannot do anything about it. There is not a single thing we can do to save ourselves and to enter the Kingdom of God back in His presence. But God.
These two words “but God” are two of the best words we find throughout all of scripture and here is why. As I stated before, we are dead in our sins, totally depraved. The only thing we deserve because of our sins is eternal punishment in hell. God would be completely justified in sending all of us to hell because of our sins. However, while He is a God of justice and holiness, He is also a God of mercy. In His mercy, God made a way for us to be redeemed and reunited back in His presence. How was this way made? This way was made through Jesus Christ. The way was made through His death, burial, and resurrection. By His blood, we are regenerated and justified in the sight of God (Romans 3:21-26). Why is this the case? Why did someone need to die in order for us to be justified? Well, as I have explained previously, we are not righteous in any sort of way. The only way for us to be righteous is for us to be made righteous by God. This happens by the shedding of innocent blood and by that blood, we have our sins covered over, and are righteous in His sight. In the old testament, this was done (or rather tried) through the sacrifice of spotless animals, mainly lambs. The reason for this was because these animals were innocent and did not have a sin nature. Leviticus describes the practice like this:
‘Now if anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and becomes guilty, if his sin which he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without defect, for his sin which he has committed. He shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slay the sin offering at the place of the burnt offering. The priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering; and all the rest of its blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar. Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the Lord. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.
— Leviticus 4:27-31 NASB
This was a common practice among the people of Israel to the point where it pretty much became a business as we see later in the gospels. Now of course, the reason why it became such a common thing was because these sacrifices were not sufficient enough to fully justify a person. Once someone made the sacrifice and did the full ritual, they would go right back to sinning and thus starting the process all over again. However, this practice was not designed to be the justifier, rather it was the prerequisite for the ultimate sacrifice that will fully justify one who believes. That sacrifice was the Lamb of God, also known as Jesus Christ.
It is very important to note that this was not some plan B God made up on the spot after the fall of man. This was preordained before the foundation of the world, before the creation of the entire universe. In fact, every single aspect of the plan of redemption, including us, was preordained before creation. God predestined those whom He would save and redeem through Jesus Christ.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
— Romans 8:28-30 NASB
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,
— Ephesians 1:3-11 NASB
All of it was preordained by God before creation, which means we ultimately don’t have anything to do with being saved in the first place. Our redemption fully relies on God’s power through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was prophesied in the old testament, the most famous one being in Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 is one of the most important passages of the old testament as it perfectly describes the mission of Jesus Christ. In fact, pastor John MacArthur often describes this chapter as “the first gospel”. It describes Him being scorned and put to death for our sins. Taking on the full wrath of God in our place and ultimately being resurrected. It is simply an amazing chapter. Now even though we know the details of His sacrifice and everything, it doesn’t answer one particular question. Why Him? What made Jesus so special apart from all the rest of us humans? Why is He considered righteous, but not us? Now this is where we get into the nitty gritty of Christianity. This is what separates Christianity from all other religions. This is why Christians are often looked at as complete loons. However, it doesn’t really matter what others think because it is the truth. To answer the question, the reason why Jesus is considered righteous and not us. Why He is special apart from us, is boiled down to this one simple answer. Jesus Christ is God.
While this answer is quite simple, it really throws many people off because they cannot comprehend this truth. The idea of Jesus being God and Him coming down from His glory to sacrifice Himself for the sins of His elect is not fathomable to the natural man. Of course, as scripture says, these things are foolish to natural men.
But 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 Corinthians 2:14
But Shawn, is there actually proof of this or are you just stating an opinion? Well, to answer this question, let us look to scripture. Scripture should always be the primary source we go to in order to find answers to these theological questions. To start off, let us look at the opening to the gospel of John.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
– John 1:1-5 NASB
The Word in this passage is referring to Jesus, and according to John here, Jesus is in fact God. You can also look at these following passages and verses as well (Isaiah 9:6, John 8:58, John 10:27-30, John 20:28, Colossians 2:9, Titus 2:13) and there are many more passages like these throughout scripture. In other words, the Deity of Jesus Christ is not refutable. It is very clear that He is in fact God. Jesus is the second Member of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity consists of The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit. The Westminster Confession of Faith states the Trinity like this,
“In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”
The Trinity is a whole nother topic for another day, but the point is that Jesus is God. Now since He is God, this means He was never created. Meaning that His conception and birth was not Him being created like us, rather Him becoming flesh. When He became flesh, He didn’t lose His Deity. He was not only fully Man, but also fully God. It is very important to establish this because once we understand this concept, we can truly understand why He alone was and is righteous as opposed to us.
The righteousness of Christ is the very key to the concept of justification and the imputed righteousness from Him to us. Without it, none of it would be possible. So far, we have established our depraved nature, the act of sacrificing the innocent to justify the guilty and then the Deity of Christ. Because of Jesus’s unique nature (Him being fully God and fully Man), there are certain things that He instinctively does not and cannot do, and that is of course sin. Now obviously, He was in fact tempted to sin, but because of His nature, He successfully resisted. Throughout His life, He lived perfectly righteous. He was perfectly obedient to the Father in every step of His life.
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
– Hebrews 4:15
There was not a single point in His life He sinned, despite what some would like to claim. There are some who like to brush away this doctrine, but the reality is that if Jesus did indeed sin, we couldn’t be saved. As we have already established, in order for sinners like us to be justified and have our sins cleansed, a spotless innocent Lamb was needed. Jesus being without sin confirmed that He was indeed the Lamb of God sent to be sacrificed for the sins of the elect. This sacrifice is what made it possible for us to be justified and ultimately glorified when we get to heaven.
The death of Jesus is not to be taken lightly, nor is it for the faint of heart. We see in paintings depicting the crucifixion of Jesus where His body is completely clean, and where it looks like He is simply sleeping with no hint of pain or exhaustion in His face. This is simply not an accurate depiction of His death. The death of Jesus was absolutely brutal from beginning to end. He was beaten up, He was whipped, He was flogged, His head was pierced with a crown of thorns with soldiers beating it into His head. All of this happened before He was on the cross. At the crucifixion, His hands and feet were nailed to the cross. These nails weren’t the size of needles, they were very thick and were designed to inflict excruciating pain. Jesus faced all of this tremendous pain, but none of it compares to what He experienced from the Father, that being His wrath. The ultimate punishment that He faced on the cross was the wrath of God. This was the very wrath that we deserved because of our sins. Yet, Jesus put our sins upon Himself and took on the punishment necessary to satisfy God’s wrath. Despite our depravity and our wickedness, God loved His elect so much that He was willing to do this to His own Son on our behalf. This is something we can never repay. After His death, Jesus was laid to rest in a tomb. However, on the third day, He arose from the grave fulfilling the work that was needed for our redemption. During His crucifixion and death, He took on our sins, and at the same time we also took on something that belonged to Christ. That being His righteousness.
This is where we get to the very heart of our redemption in Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is a place of pure and unbridled holiness. Words cannot truly describe the magnificence of the Kingdom. The reason for this of course is due to the fact that God presides there. God is perfectly holy, just, righteous, loving, and merciful. Because of this, we also need to be righteous to be in His presence. However, as we have established, we are not righteous by nature and thus cannot enter His Kingdom in His presence. In order for us to enter the Kingdom, we must have righteousness imputed onto us. Thankfully, as I have stated previously, this is made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself took on our sins and took on the punishment of our sin. Because of this, once we repent and surrender, the very righteousness of Christ is imputed onto us.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
– 2 Corinthians 5:21
The word impute is usually a legal and financial term and simply means “to designate any action, word, or thing as credited to another person’s account” (source of definition is Got Questions). For example, after Adam and Eve committed the first sins, the very curse of sin was imputed not just to their children, but to the entire human race. The depravity Adam took on was imputed to all of us. Likewise, through His death, burial, and resurrection, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to those who repent and believe, His elect. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin in Chapter 11 Section 4 explains the imputed righteousness like this
“.the mode of reconciliation, that Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us, undoubtedly understands by reconciliation nothing else than justification. Nor, indeed, could it be said, as he elsewhere does, that we are made righteous “by the obedience” of Christ (Rom 5:19), were it not that we are deemed righteous in the sight of God in Him, and not in ourselves.”
Upon this imputation of righteousness, we are then fully justified by God. The word justified simply means that we are declared righteous in the sight of God. So obviously imputation and justification work together and cannot and should not be separated. This means, as stated by John Calvin, that we are fully reconciled with God for all eternity. After being separated from God due to imputed sin, we are reunited with Him due to imputed righteousness. (Note, Romans 3:21-7:25, I think, provides a good illustration of this)
How absolutely wonderful is this? I don’t think words can fully describe just how wonderful this truly is. The doctrine of imputation and justification, is the most fundamental key doctrine to all of Christianity in terms of salvation. The foundation of salvation for us lays on this very doctrine. Unfortunately, this doctrine is kind of brushed aside in many churches today. The reason for this is due to the fact that the doctrine is related closely to sin, and sin is a very taboo thing to talk about in many modern (mostly American) churches today. The church today has been sucked into the idea that they need to appeal to the world in order to grow their numbers. One of the ways to do this is to make people feel good, and talking about sin does not make people feel good. This is unfortunate because sin is what makes this doctrine central to christianity. As we have already established, after the fall of man due to the sin of Adam and Eve, we were eternally separated from God. Man was created to be in union with God, and our purpose is to worship Him with every aspect of our lives. However, the imputed sin we have made this impossible for us to do apart from Christ. The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 provides the perfect illustration of us and God. He lives however he wants and happily lives in sin. However, he eventually sees the misery of this life and makes his way back home. Even before he enters the town, his father embraces him with a hug and kiss and throws a big celebration for him returning home. Now of course, we don’t freely return to the Father, it only happens by the Holy Spirit drawing us to the Father. Nonetheless, this story beautifully describes our relationship with God and Him wanting us to return to Him and Him being joyful when we do. It is so beautiful that the Creator of the entire universe loves His elect so much that He would do all of this to redeem us and bring us back to Him. Like I said, this is the central key point of the Gospel. Without it, the Gospel would lose its power.
What separates us from every other religion is this very doctrine. Every other religion in this world requires the person to work for and earn salvation and in order to obtain righteousness. You must do good works, and just try to be a generally “good person” in order to earn your spot in the Kingdom. Now we as christians look at that and wonder why people would want that because we know that it does not bring any assurance. This is true of course. We can try to do as much good work as possible, but it ultimately doesn’t do anything. As Jesus said in Matthew:
Many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
– Matthew 7:22-23
The reason why people easily buy into this idea that we can earn salvation on the basis of your works is because it feeds their pride. In our pride, we want to do everything ourselves and earn things for ourselves, which is why works based religion is seemingly popular. This is why sharing the Gospel is so important (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15). The Gospel is a message of hope for sinners who will believe. Those who truly repent and believe are saved for all eternity. Yes, it crushes pride, but it brings something so much more meaningful and far more lasting. On top of that, not only do we have nothing to do with being saved, but we cannot lose it either (John 10:27-30, Romans 8:38-39). None of this would be possible without the imputed righteousness and justification.
So, how exactly do we apply this daily? This can be difficult to answer given how complex this doctrine can be. However, I think one key way to apply this is to embrace something that this doctrine brings, and that is humility.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 5:3
Humility is one of the key character traits of the christain. As Jesus said in Matthew, we are to be “poor in spirit”. A person cannot be christian and be prideful at the same time, it just doesn’t work. This something that God has been really teaching me recently. Not just with studying this very doctrine, but learning and studying reformed theology as a whole. It can be easy to be prideful in the fact you have all of this knowledge. However, just like with good works, head knowledge gets you nowhere without true genuine faith. I have come to realize in this journey that I have been on that it is not me learning this stuff through my own will in wanting to learn. In reality, it is God revealing this stuff to me. This perspective changed a lot of things for me, and brought on true humility. Going back to the doctrine at hand, given that the righteousness that we as christians have is not our own, should make us humble. The only thing we have that is our own is sin. We have nothing to be prideful about, which is why christianity and pride cannot mix. Humility is one the virtues of our faith, and we should strive to live it. We won’t be perfect of course because we are at a constant battle with our flesh and pride is naturally part of our flesh. However, we definitely should strive to live it out, which becomes easier overtime with sanctification. Sanctification is a whole nother topic, but it is very important in concerning this topic.
In conclusion, this doctrine must be embraced by all christians, because without it, we wouldn’t have christianity. I know doctrine is considered unpopular and legalistic in today’s age, but nonetheless we must know this stuff. Now look, this essay really doesn’t even scratch the surface of this doctrine. This doctrine, like a lot of doctrines, has so much to it that we in our finite minds cannot fully understand it, as we cannot fully understand God. However, I do hope that I explained it well enough that the normal christian can understand it on a basic level at least. As the late reformed theologian R.C Sproul once said, “Every Christian is a theologian”. This doesn’t mean all christians must go to seminaries, but it does mean that we are all theologians in the sense that we should know the scriptures. Knowing the bible is very important for all christians. As my pastor at the church I attend said in a recent sermon, “men like William Tendale didn’t do all of that work translating the bible and then get burned at the stake for us to just leave it sitting on our shelves collecting dust”. We must know the scriptures because it is the divinely inspired word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). To officially end off, I want to make this one point that is very vital for us to know. While the work that Christ did on the cross was to redeem us from our sins, it was not done for our glory. Everything that God has done that helps us was all for His glory. So this is another application that we should live out on top of humility. As christians, we are to live our lives for the glory of God alone (1 Corinthians 10:31). Every single aspect of salvation from election, to regeneration, to adoption, to justification, to sanctification, and to glorification. The glory of all of it goes to God and God alone. This is important for us to know because living for ourselves is simply not compatible with christianity. Everything must be done for Him alone. Praise be to God for all eternity.