By Chuck Griffin
One night in my college dorm room I was awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. For some reason my roommate also was awake. Out of the darkness, he asked me, “Chuck, do you think people are basically good or basically evil?”
Remember, I was maybe 20 at the time. My non-pastoral, non-theological answer was, “For crying out loud, Derek, I’m trying to sleep.” Derek has always been persistent, though.
“No, really,” he said. “What do you think? Are we good, or are we bad?”
I drew on the distant memory of a Sunday school lesson and said I suppose people are basically bad—that’s why we need Jesus. Derek seemed unsatisfied, though. He’s always been the kind of guy who looks for good in people.
Judging from our text today, Paul would agree with my answer. Or more accurately, I was in agreement with his, my subconscious vaguely remembering these or similar verses. Making it a satisfactory answer for genuinely curious people takes a little work, though.
“All have turned away,” Paul wrote. “All have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”
And it’s not just Paul’s opinion. Most of what he writes is a collection of quotes from the Old Testament, the result of his years of Jewish theological training. He quotes from six different psalms and the 56th chapter of Isaiah to make his point.
Every time I hit one of Paul’s discussions of sin, I think of some of the really powerful sermons in history, the kind designed to crush listeners so they would run to the altar, weeping. There is Jonathan Edwards, of course, with that famous sermon many of us were required to read in high school or college, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Remember this part?
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.Jonathan Edwards, 1741
One man in attendance at this sermon wrote, “The hearers groaned and shrieked convulsively; and their outcries of distress once drowned the preacher’s voice, and compelled him to make a long pause.” I wonder what it would take to get such a reaction today.
Our own John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch when it came to fiery sermons, either. In “Original Sin,” Wesley takes the account of the depravity of people in Noah’s day and considers whether modern people are any different.
In 21st century language, Wesley says we’re not only bad, we are so spiritually broken from birth that we cannot sense how bad we are.
I think this somber message is much more difficult to preach than it was just a few decades ago. As a people, we are becoming more humanist in our thinking every day. By that, I mean there is this undercurrent of thought where people assume the best aspects of being human can eventually overcome the worst aspects.
I have trouble seeing how humanism is actually achieving much, though. The modern world seems able to collapse into a heap of evil rather quickly.
Humanist thinkers also become comfortable with a relative kind of morality, a line of thinking not particularly useful for people seeking a relationship with a perfectly holy God. Moral relativism makes possible thoughts like, “Well, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m better than the creeps I have known and read about.” Jesus has a parable along those lines.
Well preached, this topic should go to a very positive place, however. Relating to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ opens us to a healing power we could never find through human means. God intended us to be good, God still wants us to be good, and God has provided a way to goodness.
We begin with belief, and the Holy Spirit guides us from there.
Lord, it is helpful to consider our sins and brokenness. In repenting and following Christ, may we become sources of your goodness in a hurting world. Amen.