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North Side Notes

Are people basically good? (WCF 6.1-4)

Posted by Kyle Edwards on

This is part of an ongoing series on the Westminster Confession of Faith, HTC's confessional statement of faith. 

Os Guinness notes that the great 20th century poet W. H. Auden was once an unlikely candidate for becoming a Christian. He was a "an atheist, a left-wing socialist, a homosexual and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War" (Fool's Talk, p. 131). But then he had some formative experiences that changed him dramatically. Here's how Guinness describes one of these:

The second and deeper experience came in New York two months after he had written the poem 'September 1, 1939.' He was in a cinema in Yorkville on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which unbeknown to him was still largely a German-speaking area. Eager to follow news of the course of the war, he went to see Sieg in Poland, a documentary of the Nazi invasion and conquest of Poland. S. S. Storm Troopers were bayoneting women and children, and members of the audience cried out in support of their fellow-countrymen, 'Kill them! Kill them!'

Auden was horrified. His philosophy of life at the time was a broad mix of liberal-socialist-democratic opinions, following his earlier intellectual odyssey through the dogmas of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. But one thread had always linked his successive convictions - a belief in the natural goodness of humankind. Whether the solutions to the world's problems lay in politics, education or psychology, he believed that once the problems were addressed, the world would be happy because humanity was good.

Suddenly, however, as Auden watched the S. S. savagery and heard the brutal response of the audience, he knew he had been wrong. With everything in him he knew intuitively and beyond any doubt that he was encountering absolute evil and that it must be judged and condemned absolutely. There had to be a reason why Hitler was 'utterly wrong." 

Auden didn't become a Christian yet, but his conviction in the essential goodness of humanity was gone for good.

Christianity doesn't entertain such notions. That's not the whole story, of course. People are created in God's image, and that image is not totally destroyed. People - Christian or otherwise - are certainly capable of selfless, loving, courageous deeds for other people. 

Yet despite what we are on our best days we still are fallen, broken. Even the atheist philosopher Luc Ferry, formerly France's Minister of Education, admits that the human capacity for cruelty towards each other is unexplainable in his belief system. 

The Bible, on the other hand, does have an explanation. It teaches that we are sinners because of a historical, "original" sin - Adam's and Eve's disobedience in the garden when they ate from the forbidden tree. Here's how chapter 6, sections 1-4, describe it. I'll put these all together and then make a couple of comments. 

Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory.

By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

To put that more simply, Adam sinned. The guilt and consequences of that sin were then "imputed" to us. It was put in your account.

The Confession doesn't say how it was imputed; this is a matter of tremendous debate. But that it was imputed seems to be pretty clear from Romans 5:12: "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (see verses 12 through 21 for the full argument, which is one of the most complex in Paul's writing). 

Regardless of how it happened, this original sin now means that each and every person is born a guilty sinner predisposed to commit actual sins. These sins range from the most banal (like wasting a day away playing video games) to the most hideous (like shouting "Kill them!"). But that's what we are. Sinners. 

Tags: evil, goodness, sin