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The Taint of Sin

All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
imageThere is none who does good,
There is not even one.

—Romans 3:12


This . . . allegation condemning the character of humanity is a sweeping, significant, grave condemnation: fallen people don’t do anything that is genuinely good. The human character, in its fallen state, is totally depraved. (That’s the common term theologians use to describe this aspect of biblical anthropology.) The point is not that people are as thoroughly evil as they could possibly be. Rather, it means that sin has infected every aspect of the human character—mind, will, passions, flesh, feelings, and motives. Nothing we do is completely free from the taint of sin. That includes our very best deeds of kindness or altruism.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult of all biblical doctrines for people to receive. We naturally want to think of ourselves as fundamentally good, praiseworthy, upright, compassionate, generous, and noble. Furthermore, Scripture does recognize and describe some astonishing examples of human virtue, like the kindness of the good Samaritan, or the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter when she rescued and adopted the infant Moses.

God graciously restrains the full expression of human depravity (Gen. 20:6; 31:7; 1 Sam. 25:26; 2 Thess. 2:7). The restraint of sin and the mitigation of sin’s consequences are expressions of common grace, the benevolent care God extends to all his creation. Quite simply, things are not as bad as they could be in this fallen world because “the Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9).

But again, Scripture also makes abundantly clear that even the best of our good works are not truly good enough to gain any merit with God. “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Even the “good” things we do actually compound our guilt, because our motives are (at best) mixed with selfishness, hypocrisy, pride, a desire for the praise of others, or a host of other evil incentives. In order to portray ourselves or our works as “good,” we have to allow for all kinds of leeway in our definition of what is good—and that exercise in and of itself is a diabolical transgression. Much of contemporary culture goes to the extreme of “call[ing] evil good, and good evil.” They “put darkness for light, and light for darkness . . . bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20). But when we understand that God’s own absolute perfection is the only acceptable standard of good (Matt. 5:48), it’s easy to understand why Scripture says “no one does good, not even one.”

This is the starting point of biblical anthropology: humanity is fallen. The human creature is totally depraved, fundamentally wicked—ignorant, rebellious, wayward, and in and of ourselves worthless. Our character is debauched and defined by our sinfulness.

—John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 41–42.

Posted 2018·06·28 by David Kjos
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Posted in: John MacArthur · The Gospel according to Paul · Total Depravity

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