I’ve just read a thought-provoking article entitled “Have We Stopped Trying to Make Good People?”, written by syndicated columnist Dennis Prager. It reminded me once again why it is so important to try to be as biblical as possible in our understanding of man, his biggest problem, and the only hope for a solution.
Prager offers in his opening line, “The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?” He says that the question is one addressed by the American Judeo-Christian values that emphasize individual character:
One cannot make a good society if one does not begin with the arduous task of making good individuals. Both Judaism and Christianity begin with the premise that man is not basically good and therefore regard man's nature as the root of cause of evil.
This may sound basic and even obvious, but it is not. In the Western world since the Enlightenment, belief in the inherent goodness of human beings has taken over. This has resulted in an increasing neglect of character development because evil has come to be regarded not as emanating from human nature (which is essentially good) or from morally flawed individuals but from forces outside the individual -- especially material ones. Thus, vast numbers of the best educated in the West have come to believe that "poverty causes crime."
Prager’s assessment about the root of evil is right. A proper understanding of the root cause of evil is essential. The past several decades have seen the collective conscience of the country engage in wholesale blame-shifting. The author is correct to identify this shift as a movement away from Judeo-Christian values. At the heart of the question about the source of all human suffering and evil is the issue of the root nature of man. If we view man as inherently fallen and sinful (as taught in the Bible), then we will view social ills as the result, not the cause, of evil. If, on the other hand, we embrace the pagan notion that man is inherently good, then we are forced to regard social ills as the cause of evil - i.e. people commit crime because they are poor. The former holds the individual responsible; the latter absolves the individual of responsibility and assigns blame to something external.
For example, a Judeo-Christian ethic might view violent crime as an issue of self-control, while a more humanistic ethic would regard it as an issue of gun control. One side sees the individual as the evil element, the other side sees the availability of guns as the evil element. The contrast is stark, and Prager is right to recognize the difference as a matter of the embrace or rejection of a Judeo-Christian worldview.
Where Prager misses the mark, though, is in that opening line: “The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?” There is a logical misstep in believing that man is not basically good, but that man can make good people. If man’s nature is fallen, how is it that he can act upon himself or upon another man to change that? Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil (Jer 13:23).
In the end, Prager’s notion about making good people is as flawed as the humanistic worldview that he assails. He rejects the idea that evil can be dealt with by some kind of external change, i.e. a war on poverty; but his own solution amounts to the same thing, a kind of external change, albeit in the area of individual behavior.
Those of you who were in Sunday School this week will remember Paul Tripp’s excellent illustration, and it certainly applies here. The idea that a focus on individual character development will solve the nation’s problems is akin to the idea of treating a rotten apple tree by nailing red delicious apples to its branches. It may look good for a few days, but eventually the red delicious apples will spoil and the following season the tree will go right back to producing rotten apples.
Teaching an outward morality devoid of an inner devotion to and worship of the One True God will always eventually lead any culture back around to the humanistic idea that man is inherently good. Why is that? Because man’s problem is what is inside of him, not what is outside of him. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer 17:9). If a man’s behavior is changed without any accompanying heart change, his still-fallen heart will eventually deceive him, and his behavior will once again reflect that fallenness. The current state of morality in America does not represent a breakdown in the teaching of outward morality – it is the very result of the teaching of outward morality.
I would present that the most important question a people can ask is “Who will be our God?” The only way that people become good is through the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ transforming the heart. And that only takes place in the lives of those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ’s death and resurrection to save them from that sin. Should we teach morality? Certainly. But unless it is done in concert with the spreading of the gospel, it is a striving after wind. Christ alone makes good people. Man can’t.