David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

What does the rest of the New Testament say about human nature?

In 'The Lost Message of Jesus,' Steve Chalke says:

Jesus believed in original goodness. (page 67)

We have already seen that this is not true - or at least, that it needs a good deal of qualification. But what does the rest of the New Testament say about human nature?

Paul's letter to Romans

The most extended and systematic treatment of human nature is in the opening chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans. Beginning at chapter 1 verse 18, Paul describes first of all the condition of the non-Jewish world. The Jews had the advantage of having received God's Law, and they tended to look down on the rest of the world as being 'Gentile sinners.' At Romans chapter 1 verses 21-23 Paul describes these people like this:

Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

His central point in these verses is that people are sinners because they have rejected the knowledge of God - they could have known God, but they chose not to. In chapter 2, he goes on to say that the same is true of the Jews: they had God's law, but they did not obey it. So his conclusion, in chapter 3, is that we are all equally sinners, whether Jews or non-Jews. In Romans chapter 3 verses 10-18 he uses a string of quotations from the Old Testament to establish his point:

As it is written:
There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.
The poison of vipers is on their lips.
Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Finally, in chapter 3 verse 23, he draws the conclusion that

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

This is a rather blunt contradiction of Steve Chalke's view that we are 'bathed in original goodness.'

Of course, it is always possible that we have misunderstood what Paul is saying here, and that he is really trying to make some completely different point. However, in chapter 5 verse 8 he says:

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

... and in chapter 7 verse 18

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out

(Scholars debate here whether Paul is talking about his experience before he became a Christian, his present experience as a Christian, or some hypothetical condition. However, whichever of these he is talking about, it does not alter the fact that he is clear about having a 'sinful nature.')

Paul's other letters

But perhaps it is just Romans? Maybe Paul had an off day when he wrote Romans?

In Ephesians chapter 2 verse 1, Paul says:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins

And in 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 15, he writes:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst.

(Some scholars debate whether Ephesians or 1 Timothy were written by Paul. This is a serious issue, and there is far more to be said in favour of Paul's authorship than is usually heard. However, for the limited purposes of the point we are setting out to make here, it is not even necessary to accept that Paul is the author of these letters. It would establish our point just as well to say something like 'In the body of letters attributed to Paul, human nature is regarded as sinful.' (In fact, if you were feeling particularly perverse, you could argue that the more different authors were responsible for Romans, Ephesians, 1 Timothy etc, the more people we have contradicting Steve Chalke's argument!))

Other New Testament writers

In Peter's first letter, he says, in chapter 3 verses 18

Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit...

In John's first letter, he says, in chapter 1 verses 8-10

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

This is really quite clear.

Conclusion

We have already seen that Jesus himself saw human beings as being spoiled by sin, and in need of forgiveness, rescue, and being cleaned up. The passages referred to above are enough to show that this understanding is found throughout the New Testament.

Spinning Salvation: 'Beyond the Pale'?

Steve Chalke uses the phrase 'beyond the pale' to describe how the Jewish religious leaders viewed those who did not keep their rules and regulations, and - by implication - how traditional Christians (supposedly) view those outside the Church.

But just what does he mean by this? If it means that we think sinful people are somehow beyond being rescued by God, then followers of Christ have never believed that.

However, Steve Chalke seems to be using it to mean that we are, in our natural state, acceptable to God. Stephen Perks, in an article in Christianity and Society, says:

It seems to me that in the overall context of 'The Lost Message,' this phrase can only reasonably mean that the state in which man finds himself before being reconciled to God in Christ is one that is not hopeless, that man is not totally lost, that there is hope for him because his condition is not all that bad, he is not totally depraved, not lost in the grip of original sin, indeed, as the authors of 'The Lost Message' put it, he is 'bathed in original goodness.'

However, I hope that the range of passages we have looked at above are enough to show that the New Testament does clearly teach that we are sinners; that - left to our own devices - we are beyond hope. It is only because of the undeserved free grace of God that anyone is forgiven.

The choice of the phrase 'beyond the pale' is itself a clever piece of spin-doctoring, because it is a phrase without theological content and without precisely defined meaning. Like Humpty Dumpty in 'Alice Through the Looking Glass,' you can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. ('When I use a word,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'It means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.')

Not only is it a vague phrase, which different people can interpret in different ways: it is also an emotionally loaded phrase (like so much of Steve Chalke's rhetoric). After all, none of us wants to believe that we are 'beyond the pale.' And none of us wants to be accused of saying that anyone else is 'beyond the pale.'

The reality is that, if we give this phrase a clear and consistent meaning, either we are all 'beyond the pale,' because we all need God's grace and forgiveness, or none of us is 'beyond the pale,' because no-one is beyond the reach of God's grace.

More about the 'Lost Message'

For more on this vital subject, visit Pierced for Our Transgressions. Better still, read the book...

Pierced for Our Transgressions

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