“I want so badly to believe people are good, but then their actual behavior is always so disappointing. Like, the other day when I cut someone off accidentally and she flipped me off and screamed at me. It ruined my day. Maybe it’s a problem with my expectations, though. I mean . . . are people really good?”
My friend was wondering something that we most likely all have considered. We wrestle with the goodness of others when we walk through empty parking garages. We question the goodness in ourselves when we are tempted, staring head on at our capacities for darkness. We struggle to find a category for how our non-Christian friends at work can be so kind while our classmates from seminary can be such jerks.
When you consider the breadth of humanity you have experienced, do you believe that humans are inherently good? Or, are we inherently bad? If we are inherently good, then why do we do bad things? If we are inherently bad, then how do we do good things?
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Romans 3: 10-12
Scripture teaches that only God is good. Not only have we all sinned, but there is also no one who seeks God. There is no one righteous. Not even one. Not me, not you, not your gentle, generous Buddhist friend at work. How then, do we account for the goodness experienced with others and that sometimes resides within ourselves?
Common grace for common sinners.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Genesis 1:31
Creation contains goodness because God, who is perfectly good, made an initially very good creation. Non-believers and believers alike can still experience what we call “common grace.” God’s common grace in this fallen world is that while God’s perfect design for this world has been corrupted by our sin, it hasn’t been lost altogether. The common grace of God is actually where your lovely Buddhist friend at work gets her warmth. Her goodness is a reflection of the God who created her, whether she knows him or not. Since God created all people, all people reflect some of his goodness, regardless of whether they have been reconciled to him.
Humanity was good at creation because we were made in his image. He created us to be like him in our nature (Gen 1:26). But after we distrusted God and chose to define what is good and bad for ourselves, we broke our relationship with the One who is perfectly good (Gen 3). We, then, are no longer perfectly good, and neither is creation. But by the common grace of God, good does remain. In spite of sin’s curse, there are still purple morning skies, sunny places to lie down, deep glasses of wine, people who help other people and abiding, life-long marriages. Neither the most mature believer in Christ nor the most loudly scoffing atheist deserves any of these good things. And we need not be forgiven by God to experience them. This is the common grace of God.
Special grace to grow in goodness.
Even though by God’s grace we are not fully evil, we are corrupted by sin in every part of our being. The goodness that we do experience and see in others is not a credit to that particular person, but attributed to the grace of God to unworthy people. Understanding that all goodness comes from our Creator helps us see our helplessness apart from him and our thankfulness for him. We have no leg of righteousness to stand on; we need a Savior.
The great news is, our Creator made a way for the rebellious (you and me) to be reconciled to him. That’s why Jesus, the perfect God-man, sacrificed himself on our behalf. Not only does God make a way back for us, he even gives us the faith we need to believe what he has done (Eph 2:8). He quite literally rescues us (Col 1:13). He brings us life through his Spirit, who transforms us further into his image, from one degree of glory to another, as we seek after him (Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 3:18).
All mankind is able to experience God’s common grace through creation. But believers in Jesus receive God’s salvific grace. This is the mercy by which he redeems, sanctifies and glorifies his people, and causes us to grow in the knowledge and grace of God over time (1 Pet 3:18). By the richness of his grace, we grow in his goodness.
Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.