Are People Basically Good?

This morning, I want to ask a couple of questions. What do you think is the condition of every person? What is our nature? What is the most basic truth of our own existence? Our answer to these questions is going to determine the way that we see and treat others and it reveals much about our belief in God.

Psychologists who have informed the most prevalent ideas today, like Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), popularized the idea that people are basically good and that culture is the responsible agent for the evils that people commit. They, along with many others in our society, believe that we are self-actualized and that our greatest satisfaction is by the meeting of our own needs. This is almost universally the way that people see their own lives even if it might be described in different terms. In our belief statement at The Church at Sunsites, we make this profession:

WE BELIEVE that all persons are sinners by nature and, therefore are under condemnation and that they remain in that condition until God saves and regenerates them. That salvation is the result of faith in Christ, given by the Holy Spirit, and always is evidenced by the repentance of their sins and confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Acts 8:15-17; Ephesians 2:1-3, 8, 9; Romans 3:23 and 5:8; Titus 3:5)

WE BELIEVE all true believers, who have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior, and follow His Word, the Bible alone and no other gospel, consisting of all of the redeemed of all the ages, are considered a part of His body, of which Christ is the head; and as the Bible says, are a part of His Church, “from every tribe, and tongue, and nation,” and find unity in the basic, irrefutable, Biblical beliefs. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Ephesians 4:15-16)

What is the truth about human nature and about our condition? Are we basically good, or are we sinners by nature? How does the truth inform and move us in our thoughts and actions?

Ephesians 2:1-10

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.

Our incomplete state (v. 1-3)

Paul wrote this letter to the saints (1:1). So, this letter is specifically written to those who have been chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world according to the kind intention of the Father’s will and to the praise of the glory of the Father’s grace, which He freely bestowed on us in Christ (1:4-6). It is written to people who already have a relationship with Christ. Those who are in Christ are called saints only because they have been chosen in Christ Jesus, not by any work or piety of their own.

This is very important as we read anything in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. What it means is this. Those who are in Christ, who are called saints, are entirely insufficient to dwell in the glory of God. The only reason any saint can be called a saint is that he or she is in Christ. It is not because of our moral achievement, our ministry performance, or our ability to do anything at all. When we arrive at our text in chapter 2, Paul, addressing the saints, writes,

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.

When we read the first section of this passage, we notice two things. First, the saints were once dead in their trespasses. Second, the saints were once by nature children of wrath. What does it mean that we are dead in our trespasses? In Genesis 3, God gave people instruction. The consequence of failing to abide in God’s glory alone was death because God is the source of life (Romans 3:23). People sinned against God and were dead in their trespass or sin. The same is true for every person. Every person has sinned against God and is dead in that sin (Romans 6:23).

Why have we trespassed? Paul writes that the saints were dead in their trespasses in which they walked according to the ways of this world and according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We have trespassed against God because sin is the way of the world and there is a spirit who has been given authority to work in the disobedient. We trespassed because we lived in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts.

“But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15).

We sin against God because we follow our own desires rather than His. This is what evil is according to the Bible. Evil is to act according to our own worldly desires rather than according to the will of God alone.

What does it mean that we were children of wrath by nature? It simply means that by our nature in the order of creation, we are under the wrath of God, bent toward trying to accomplish our own wills, slaves to our desires and preferences and expectations. Our nature is unrighteous. We don’t have to try very hard to see this truth made evident in our own lives or in the world. People are, quite literally, Hell-bent on doing what they want to do and thinking what they want to think. R. C. Sproul said it this way, “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” We are children of wrath by nature.

In the 1960s-70a, Stanley Milgram conducted a psychological experiment. In this experiment, he instructed the participants (teachers) to ask a series of questions. If the interviewee said the wrong word or did not respond, the teacher was to administer a shock. Each consecutive shock was to increase in voltage. The interviewees were not really being shocked, but the participants were led to believe that they were, complete with pre-recorded reactions ending with screams and finally vocal silence with light thumping (like the interviewee was dying…). In this study:

    • 60-65% of participants progressed all the way to 450-volt shocks.
    • This number was increased to 93% when the teacher read the words and someone else induced the shock.
    • Without a supervisor, the number was decreased to 33%
    • When only females were used, the number increased to 77%

When Jerry Burger repeated this experiment in 2009, the results were essentially the same. Not even having a model reject the command in front of the next participant swayed the results.

The idea that people are basically good led Abraham Maslow to develop a formula for basic human needs and to help people find meaning. The formula became known as Maslow’s Triangle. It is essentially a form of existentialism. People find their own meaning after their basic material needs are met. The truth of the human condition means that we have a need much more basic than even that of physical sustenance. We need some sort of righteousness. We need to be completed. I have seen people be provided for physically, but remain lost in the same vicious cycle of poverty and drug use and alcohol abuse. The idea that people are not depraved is an invention of evil people trying to justify their deeds. The Bible, basic observation, and scientific experimentation all show that people are likely unrighteous in their essential nature, meaning that given the opportunity and the apparent justification, we will commit morally evil acts and see them as righteous. Given the opportunity and apparent justification, people will put others down, wrongfully criticize others, hurt others, damage others’ self-esteem, and even kill others by manipulation or by outright action. While most religion in the world declares that we somehow determine our own destiny, both the Bible and science are clear. We are depraved by nature and in our initial state.

maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s Triangle
The truth of depravity effectively flips this list upside down and changes “Self-actualization” to “Regeneration,” and “Esteem” to “Sanctification.” No wonder people are so unfulfilled no matter how much they have. We’ve been misled by popular psychology.

Our complete state (v. 4-6)

The good news is that this isn’t the full picture of who we are or what our Creator is doing.

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens…

There are two obvious questions that arise. First, what does it mean that God makes us alive with Christ? Our initial state, our total and essential nature, is depraved or unrighteous. Thus, we are under condemnation with no hope. Even though we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive in the Messiah (that’s Jesus Christ). There is nothing a dead person can do to live. What this means is that we were corpses without life, having no ability to speak or to call on the name of Christ or to become righteous. We would always think and act and speak like corpses. We could not change our minds or by some lifeless act call on life to come and animate us. The circumstances were dire. But God, who is rich in mercy made us alive because He loved us. That is the Gospel! We were incomplete, created but not established in Christ. Now we are being completed in Christ for our good and for God’s glory alone. All of this is by grace alone and only because the Father loves those He calls His own. God isn’t merely converting people to religious practice or theological understanding. God isn’t merely making people in danger safe. God isn’t merely feeding the hungry. God is making dead people alive for His own glory. We are saved by grace, raised with Christ, and seated in the heavens!

What does it mean that we are seated with Him in the heavenly places? This is present-tense, so we know that it is not a physical seating with Christ in the heavenly places. It is also unlikely that Paul is referring to some sort of drug-induced hallucination or chemical high. Christ assumed His eternal throne. Christ is king eternal. If we are seated with Him, this means that we get to experience now the benefits of His kingdom and service to His holy name- satisfaction and sanctification and self-denial and grace upon grace upon grace.

God’s purpose in establishing His people (v. 7-10)

In Christ, we are completed. We are clothed in His righteousness and, by His will, brought to dwell in the glory of the Father. We are brought out of slavery to our own desires and unrighteousness to Christ. We no longer think like children (1 Corinthians 13:11), we are no longer swayed by every wind of doctrine or teaching (Ephesians 4:14), we are being made mature, as measured by Christ’s own stature (Ephesians 4:13). We are quite literally being completed, growing up. As we grow up, we turn from self to Christ. God created even our physical adolescence to be a clear picture of this process. There is a reason Jesus said,

“If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).

Why? What is the purpose? What is the goal? What is God’s end-game?

so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.


God does this work so that He might reveal things about Himself. We see this truth again, explicitly stated in the Scriptures. Our salvation, our being made into complete creatures, isn’t somehow about us experiencing eternal bliss or about us having all of our greatest dreams come true or about us being provided for or about us at all. God is completing His people so that He might display the immeasurable riches of His own grace through His own kindness to us, kindness that we experience in Christ Jesus.

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast.

That is why salvation is not of ourselves. We remember the truth presented in this text. Our will and our desire causes us to sin. This truth is universal. If we try to somehow make coming to Christ or choosing God about our will or our desires, we have tried to remove the power of the Gospel and we have mocked God’s purpose for doing things the way that He does them. The reason salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and not whatsoever from human works or by human will or desire is so that no one can boast. Glory belongs to God alone, and He is seeking His own glory through the exaltation of the Son in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

We are essentially unrighteous. God is the one making us into complete creatures clothed in the righteousness of Christ alone.

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.


We are His workmanship, not the product of our own labor. As we are being made into complete creatures, we get to walk in the good works that God prepared ahead of time. We don’t even get credit for the good works we do. Those were provided by God according to His own mercy and grace alone for His glory alone. God has a very real purpose for our total and essential depravity. That purpose is the same purpose He has for creating in the first place and for designing a creature in His image- that He alone be glorified, that we have no reason to boast of ourselves, and that we have every reason to abide in His glory alone.

WE BELIEVE that all persons are sinners by nature and, therefore are under condemnation and that they remain in that condition until God saves and regenerates them. That salvation is the result of faith in Christ, given by the Holy Spirit, and always is evidenced by the repentance of their sins and confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Acts 8:15-17; Ephesians 2:1-3, 8, 9; Romans 3:23 and 5:8; Titus 3:5)

WE BELIEVE all true believers, who have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior, and follow His Word, the Bible alone and no other gospel, consisting of all of the redeemed of all the ages, are considered a part of His body, of which Christ is the head; and as the Bible says, are a part of His Church, “from every tribe, and tongue, and nation,” and find unity in the basic, irrefutable, Biblical beliefs. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Ephesians 4:15-16)

When we notice this amazing truth about total and essential human depravity, we are drawn to think about others in a certain way and act toward others in a certain way. The declared word of God gives us the spectacles through which we see the whole world. The doctrines of grace, which come explicitly from Scripture, produce grace in us and through us. This morning, I desperately want to continue to call us to absolute grace in all things. If we really believe that in Christ alone is our salvation, if we believe that all people are totally and essentially depraved, if we believe that people are saved and established and given a place of service in God’s kingdom by grace alone; then we must concede that others, no matter who they are, are not required to win our approval. Our care for them and favor towards them is not dependent on anything they do or do not do. It certainly is not dependent on their opinion of who we are. When I find that my preferences or my expectations are causing me to think ill of someone or complain about someone, then I have shown, in that moment, not to really believe that all things are worked together by grace alone. I know also that I am in desperate need of grace. So, I have this message for my church family and for those who read the blog- when I look at you, I am not looking for insufficiencies to point out and I am not looking for you to meet my expectations of who you should be. Bad expectations only create disappointment anyway. Living according to the grace of God is so simple. God’s grace, when we realize it, draws us to be a people of grace because we have experienced such an abounding grace. Life is less burdensome because we are not always trying to get our way, meet our preferences, or get people to meet our own expectations. Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:28). We surrender. We become more concerned with being for others than with trying to have others be for us. How can anyone who really knows Jesus operate in any other way? We are created in Christ Jesus for the good works prepared by the Father beforehand. This is what that means and the immeasurable riches of God’s grace are on display through His own kindness!

“I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

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