Ideas About the Nature of Man
By William Wilberforce and Dr. Bob Beltz
Author, Real Christianity
Section One: Faulty Ideas About the True State of Humanity
Having looked at the lack of understanding that exists among most cultural Christians about the importance of authentic faith in general, we now will look more specifically at the faulty ideas most Christians have about the true spiritual state of humanity. This is a topic about which many who read this book might not have given much thought. If that is true in your case, I ask you to pay special attention to what follows. This is a subject of extreme importance. The truth about this subject is at the very heart of all authentic faith.
It is my opinion that the majority of Christians overlook, deny or, at the very least, minimize the problems of what it means to be a fallen human being. They might acknowledge that the world has always been filled with vice and wickedness and that human behavior tends toward the sensual and selfish. They might admit that the result of these facts is that in every age we can find innumerable instances of oppression, cruelty, dishonesty, jealousy and violence. They might also admit that we act this way even when we know better.
These facts are true; we don’t deny them. They are so obvious that it is a mystery why so many still believe in the goodness of human nature. But even though the facts might be acknowledged, the source of the facts is often still denied.
These things are rationalized as small failures or periodic problems. Other explanations are given that fail to get to the heart of the matter. Human pride refuses to face the truth. Even the majority of professing Christians tend to think that the nature of humanity is basically good and is only thrown off course by the power of temptation. They believe that sin and evil are the exception, not the rule.
The Bible paints a much different picture. The language of Scripture is not for the faint of heart. It teaches that man is an apostate creature, fallen from his original innocence, degraded in his nature, depraved in his thinking, prone toward evil, not good, and impacted by sin to the very core of his being. The fact that we don’t want to acknowledge these truths is evidence of their veracity. As Milton said in Paradise Lost:
Into what depth thou seest,
From what height fallen!1
Think about the amazing capabilities of the human mind. We have the power to invent, reason, make judgments, remember the past, make decisions in the present and plan for the future. With the ability to discern, we do not merely understand an object; we can admire it, especially if it reflects something of the beauty of moral excellence. Emotionally, we have the ability to fear and hope, experience joy and sorrow, empathize and love. With the will, we can exercise courage to do hard tasks and exert patience to stay the course. With the power of conscience, we can monitor the thoughts and desires of our hearts and use reason to regulate our passions. We are truly amazing creatures. If aliens from another world observed us, they would be astonished at our ability to use all these faculties to be the best we can be. They would think that our Creator would delight in all the good we would choose to do with these marvelous attributes.
Unfortunately, we all know that this is not the way things are. Take a look at how we actually use these powers. Step back and take a look at the big picture of human history. What do we see? We see that human reason has become confused. Human desires have become twisted. Anger, envy, hatred and revenge rear their ugly heads. We have become slaves to our lower natures and seem unable to do good!
History confirms these tragedies of human nature. Ancient civilizations were not characterized by good. On the contrary, even the most advanced cultures were cloaked in moral darkness. We find superstition, the lack of natural affections, brutal excesses, unfeeling oppression and savage cruelty everywhere we look. Nowhere do we see decency and morality prevail. In the words of Paul, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Rom. 1:24).
If we change our focus from the ancient to the modern, we find the same condition. One historian described America in the following way:
It is a compound of pride, and indolence, and selfishness, and cunning, and cruelty; full of a revenge that nothing could satiate, of a ferocity that nothing could soften; strangers to the most amiable sensibilities of nature. They appear incapable of conjugal affection, or parental fondness, or filial reverence, or social attachments; uniting too with their state of barbarism, many of the vices and weaknesses of polished society. Their horrid treatment of captives taken in war, on whose bodies they feasted, after putting them to death by the most cruel tortures, is so well known, that we may spare the disgusting recital. No commendable qualities relieve this gloomy picture, except fortitude, and perseverance, and zeal for the welfare of their little community, if this last quality, exercised and directed as it was, can be thought deserving of commendation.2
Even in the most civilized of nations we see the truth of the fallen nature of humanity. In some of these nations, Christian influence has set the bar much higher than in what we might consider to be pagan nations. Generally, Christian influence in a nation has improved the character and comforts of society, especially in reference to the poor and the weak, who have always been accorded special attention by those professing Christian faith. This influence has created great blessings for many, even though these same people deny the truth of the Bible and do not accept its authority. But, even in those nations that have been influenced by biblical faith, we see many examples of human depravity.
When the true nature of man is revealed in situations where Christian influence once held sway, depravity becomes even more obvious. The laws and conscience of such societies have been designed to restrain these forces of human nature. When these laws are removed or violated, we see the most hideous and atrocious crimes perpetrated shamelessly and in broad daylight.
When you consider the biblical teaching concerning superior morality and obedience to the teachings of Christ combined with the truth that one day we will give account for our actions, it is a marvel that we have made so little progress in virtue. We still exhibit the characteristics attributed to less-informed societies; i.e., prosperity hardens the heart, unlimited power is always abused, bad habits develop naturally, while virtue, if obtained at all, is slow, hard work. Even moralists rarely practice what they preach. It seems the rule that people are more willing to suffer the negative consequences of vice than take advantage of the blessings of living a life of Christian obedience.
If we seek more evidence of the fallen nature of humanity, we need look no further than our own children. Even parents with the strongest Christian principles can testify how baffling it is to attempt to correct our children when they rebel against us in attitude and action.
Another example of the most twisted variety is how we can take the truth of the Bible and use it for the most hideous purposes. Christ gets vilified when those who bear His name use it as an excuse for cruelty or persecution. We must be careful to distinguish twisted zeal from true Christian commitment. History provides too many examples of people who called themselves Christians but were in fact devoid of the love and kindness of Christ. It is as if a healing medicine had become a deadly poison. How tragic that those of us who identify ourselves as followers of Jesus, who have the benefit of the revelation of God’s Word, who have been exposed to the truth of the very nature of God, who profess that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), who acknowledge His provision and blessing in our lives, and who have accepted the forgiveness provided by the death of Christ on the cross, continually forget His authority over our lives and become cold and uncaring about Him in our hearts.3
Maybe the best testimony concerning depravity comes from those whose commitment to Christ is wholehearted. They can testify how difficult it is to fight against their fallen nature as they attempt to live lives of obedience. They will tell you that by observing their own lives and the way their minds work, they have discovered how corrupt the human heart really is. Every day this conviction grows. They will tell you of how poorly they are able to live out their convictions, how selfish their desires are, and how feeble and halfhearted are their attempts to do the right thing. They will acknowledge and confess that the biblical teaching about the two conflicting natures has proven true in their experience. In the words of Paul, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom. 7:18). As someone has said, even the spirituality we do possess is corrupted by our nature. We have nothing to brag about. On the contrary, God must always give us grace to bear with our faults and mercy to forgive our sins.
This is the true spiritual condition of humanity. The nuances of particulars and intensity might be different in each individual case, but the underlying principles remain true. Whether ancient times or modern, human history is a record of human depravity. This is the humbling truth.
When we examine the amazing capabilities humans possess and then compare it to what we have done with them, we have a hard time explaining the contrast. It is hard to find rational explanations. The only explanation seems to be that since humanity lost its relationship with God, something has become fundamentally and fatally flawed with every person born on this planet. As a result, even though we have the ability to say no to the lower appetite, it has become strong enough to overpower the inclination to do right.
This tendency has created a resistance in our fallen nature to know the truth about God. We don’t want to know that there is a God who places moral restraints and ethical expectations on us. The more we sin, the more fixed this reality becomes. We have been locked in handcuffs of wickedness that keep us from doing good and seeking God. The deeper we sink into this folly, the less we understand of the truth and the harder the heart becomes in its ability to respond to God. Our thinking and faulty consciences are so distorted that they add to the problem by creating delusions of righteousness. Instead of being sick about the true state of our being, we actually think everything is fine with us.
This is the way sin works. It is true that there are greater and lesser degrees of distortion found among people. Some are obviously living in bondage. Others give the appearance that they have overcome such problems. But the fact remains that even if it is not apparent in a person’s outward behavior, this is the true state of all our hearts.
This reality is so pervasive that the only explanation for it must rest in some defect in the human condition. This imperfection would appear to be the only explanation that adequately can account for the facts. This is not mere speculation but a demonstrable reality validated in much the same way as Sir Isaac Newton proved his scientific theories through experimentation and observation of the facts. It is the only theory of human nature that fits all the evidence.
At this point, it becomes necessary to turn from pure reason and observation to see what the Bible says about this situation. The Bible resounds with overwhelming statements about the fallen nature of man. On nearly every page of the book we find validation for this doctrine. We read texts such as, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21, KJV). “What is man, that he could be pure, or one born of woman, that he could be righteous?” (Job 15:14). Romans chapter 3 says that all have sinned and gone astray. There is not one righteous person. We could go on and on: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). Like Paul, we should cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). No wonder the Bible says that a complete change of nature is required if we are to live the way God intended us to live.
Section Two: Faulty Ideas About Evil
As if the picture the Bible paints of the natural state of fallen man is not bad enough, we also need to take into account how demonic activity is at work in the fallen human heart. In the Bible, Satan is called “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). This is one area that immediately distinguishes cultural Christianity from authentic biblical faith. In a nation that claims to believe in the Bible, the doctrine of the existence and activity of the devil is almost universally denied. Some of what the Bible teaches, even if not affirmed, is often tolerated. But the issue of evil personified is another story. It is treated like an old fairy tale. We are given the impression that it is a subject any educated man has ceased to believe; like a superstition that belongs with stories about ghosts, witches and other phantoms that are remnants of a less-enlightened time. It is true that this is a teaching of the Bible that has been horribly distorted. Some wrongly believe that the portrayal of Satan and his minions as ghastly beasts with horns and tails comes from the Bible. Excesses among believers, attributed to these agents, become ammunition to further discredit their reality.
Consequently, this is a subject people either ignore or ridicule. This seems inconsistent considering we acknowledge the reality of wicked men, twisted in their thinking and actions, who often successfully lure their fellow humans into sin and evil. Why then does it seem incredulous that there might exist spiritual beings of like propensities that tempt men to sin? It is only a presupposition of materialists that such beings cannot exist that keeps them from seeing the inconsistency of their position. They simply do not believe what the Bible teaches on this subject.
For those who do believe, this is a serious matter. It makes us realize what a battle we are engaged in. We are flawed within and tempted from without. What hope do we have? When we first read what the Bible says about God, it only makes our condition seem all the more hopeless. We are told that we can’t hide anything from God. He knows what we do, and He even knows what we think. He knows what is in our hearts. He sees the inner darkness.
Add to this the things the Bible says about God’s judgment and the lessons of His vengeance inflicted upon Israel. From Sodom and Gomorrah to Nineveh and Babylon, we see God judge man’s sin. Even though we know something of the goodness of God, the examples we read must surely cause us some measure of apprehension about our own failure to live according to the instructions God has given. What will we do with passages such as these:
But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you—when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me. Since they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:24-29).
It is an understatement to observe that this is very serious language. Not that the Bible needs affirmation, but the world around us demonstrates that there is a kind of sowing and reaping that affirms the destructive nature of ignoring the things the Bible teaches. Sin has consequences. We see those consequences all around us.
If all this is true, what can we do? Is there any hope? Is judgment our only destiny? Gratefully, there is hope. When we come to grips with the true state of our condition, we are ready to fully appreciate what God has done to rescue us from ourselves. It is imperative that we take seriously our true condition as fallen human beings. Without this understanding and acknowledgment, we will not have an adequate foundation on which to build an authentic faith. This is not theological babble; it is a practical issue. When we do not take our problem seriously, we do not seek the solution God offers with the measure of sincerity and intensity that our true condition requires. If we don’t understand how seriously ill we are, we don’t pursue the remedy with the required diligence. If we are slightly ill, we take an aspirin. If we are dying, we passionately pursue a cure. The cure is not forced on us; it is offered to us.4
It is a great advantage to understand how defective we actually are. It helps us shake off false security and nominal spirituality. Only an unwillingness to be open and honest can keep us from the conclusion that both reason and experience tell us that what the Bible says about us is true. We are without excuse if we remain in denial.
Not only should we agree with this intellectually, but we must also feel the truth experientially. When we see around us the tragedy of not taking this truth seriously and when we experience within ourselves the veracity of the truth, we will be positioned to move forward in our spiritual progress. We also will have a different attitude toward those who more obviously struggle in areas where we might only secretly have a problem. Day by day, an awareness of our condition will help us grow spiritually.
Section Three: Objections to These Facts
With all that has been said, we still have not faced our biggest problem: Pride does not like to be humbled. When faced with the facts, the proud man attempts to rationalize these things by blaming them on God. After all, the reasoning goes, who created us? The proud man thinks this approach somehow excuses him from the guilt of sin. He thinks that God will not hold him accountable by standards he, by nature, claims he cannot keep. This circular and illogical reasoning makes no sense.
If we explore this reasoning when nonbelievers apply it, we have another story. Even if we show them the flaw in their thinking, it still does not mean that they will be open to the message of the Bible. If we can simply engage these men and women in honest dialogue, we might have a better chance of communicating using the solid arguments in favor of Christian faith that even the most intellectual of skeptics have affirmed. If we can demonstrate adequately the case for Christianity, then the previous mental gymnastics play a small part in their objections.
Start with the basics before you attempt to explain the unfathomable mind of God. It is my opinion that this is the best way to approach those who do not believe. Of course, it is important to remember that I am addressing these pages to those who claim to already embrace Christian faith. For those who acknowledge the goodness and justice of God as well as the fallen nature of man, the latter is never an adequate excuse to explain human sin. We are accountable, not excusable.
The Bible specifically states that sin cannot be blamed on how God made us. “When tempted, no one should say ‘God is tempting me’” (Jas. 1:13). God wants us to come to terms with our sin and embrace the solution He has provided that can save us from judgment.
When we excuse our behavior and do it in the name of theology, we effectively set the stage for disaster. We are all accountable: Our fallen nature is no excuse. We are responsible: God is not to blame. We stand guilty and deserving judgment. Any other teaching dilutes and refutes the true significance of the cross of Christ. When you put it together, it looks like this: Our natural condition is weak and fallen and our temptations are numerous; God is infinitely holy, yet He offers forgiveness, grace and enabling power to those who get honest with Him and are willing to repent.
This might not be easy to understand. What in life is? The mysteries of the universe should be enough to remind us of our limitations and create humility within us. Is it any wonder that we can’t totally understand the infinite God? And even though some things about the Christian faith are hard to understand, the basic truths are plain and obvious. Some things God has revealed; others remain mysteries. Let’s focus on what we do know, not on what we can’t understand.
For those of us who have come to know that life is training us for eternity, we have a hard time understanding the person who continues to be consumed by trivial and arrogant curiosity while ignoring the good news of all Jesus Christ has to offer. It is like coming before a judge in the courtroom on a charge you are obviously guilty of committing and then, when the judge offers a way of avoiding punishment, turning around and attempting to blame the judge for what happened. That would be absurd! When we think all this through, we come to appreciate what John Milton wrote:
What better can we do, than prostrate fall
Before him reverent; and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears
Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek?5
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Excerpted from Real Christianity, by William Wilberforce, Revised by Bob Beltz, © 2007. Published by Regal Books. Used with permission.
1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 1, lines 91-92.
2. Wilberforce is here quoting William Robertson’s History of America. It should be remembered that the British were not fond of America at this point in time. In 1797, the year of publication of Wilberforce’s book, George Washington was finishing his second term as president and King George III was still on the throne of England. Wilberforce himself had opposed England’s opposition against the colonies and was friends with many Americans, including Benjamin Franklin.
3. Wilberforce is here referring to instances in history where great evil has been done in the name of Christ. He may have been thinking of such events as the massacre of innocent women and children during the Crusades or the evil of the Inquisition, where many innocent victims were cruelly tortured and put to death in the name of Christ.
4. Wilberforce italicizes these words in the original manuscript.
5. Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 10, lines 1086-92.
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