Biblical Christianity’s most scandalous contention is probably that good, decent people are evil. Apart from God’s mercy, they are bound for eternal condemnation. Such a suggestion outrages the non-Christian world: How dare we suggest they are not good people? And even in Christian circles, incredulity and scorn often confront anyone who suggests that some among us who live good, decent Christian lifestyles are not true believers and, in the end, will be eternally condemned: God does not condemn good people, does He?
No, He doesn’t condemn good people; only evil. But biblical Christianity asserts that every last one of us is fundamentally evil and worthy of eternal condemnation. The good, decent, fun, principled Christian is fundamentally evil no matter how many virtues he manifests; he is a natural-born enemy of truth and goodness; he is a natural-born enemy of God. Without this understanding, it is impossible to have a clear, undistorted understanding of biblical Christianity. Our view of the cross, sanctification, and even justification and salvation will be distorted. To truly understand what it means to be a Christian, every believer must come face to face with the fact and nature of his inherent wickedness.
A critical distinction needs to be made, however. When the Bible claims that we are hopelessly sinful, it is not denying the reality of our inherent “goodness” in another sense. We are wonderful creatures made by God to have all kinds of virtues. Not only are we physically, intellectually, and creatively talented, but we have certain “moral” virtues built in to us as well. We can be wonderfully loyal, caring, thoughtful, compassionate, principled, merciful, humane . . . the list goes on. The moral perversion of human nature is not manifest in the absence of these moral virtues; it is manifest in the fragility of these moral virtues. Our perversion lies in the fact that we do not always act in the above ways. Sometimes we are cruel rather than merciful, inhuman rather than humane, dishonest rather than honest, selfish and grasping rather than kind and caring. When people think of themselves as “good people,” they are thinking of the good things they know they are capable of; but when the biblical authors describe people as sinners, they are thinking of the morally perverse things they know people are capable of. From God’s point of view, our moral failures define us; from our point of view, our moral successes define us. We applaud ourselves for the good things we sometimes do; God condemns us for our frequent failure to do the good things we should. Who has the right perspective?
God does, of course. God is not impressed with our being capable of good things. Why should He be? When a human being manifests goodness, he is simply being what God made a human being to be. But when a human being acts evilly, that event is noteworthy because it is a distortion. The person is acting in a way contrary to everything God intended a human being to be. The person is broken; something has gone wrong.
There is nothing particularly noteworthy about a widget machine making widgets. Even if the machine is wonderful and its very existence a marvel, the fact that it makes widgets is of no particular note. It would, however, be noteworthy if a widget machine didn’t make-or failed to make-widgets. We would see that the machine was broken. This is the Creator’s perspective on our humanity. Because we are marvelous creatures made to reflect God’s own character and moral goodness, our being broken is noteworthy. All too often, this creature who was intended to manifest the goodness of God is evil, wicked, perverse, and profoundly un-God-like. My brokenness, therefore, more profoundly defines who I am than my potential for God-like behavior. My goodness should be taken for granted; but it isn’t. My tendency to fail at goodness is so strong that I can never count on goodness winning out. In other words, as marvelous as it is that I can be compassionate, kind, principled, honest, pure, and so forth, the fact that I am not always these things is truly noteworthy. Why do I not always do what is right and good? Because I am broken; because I am a sinner.
But there is perhaps an even more fundamental aspect of human sinfulness than our moral brokenness: our hostility toward our Creator and toward everything that He is, values, and represents. This fundamental aspect of human sinfulness is our rebelliousness against God. (The New Testament does not typically describe our hostility to God in terms of “rebellion,” but it is nevertheless an apt phrase to capture the New Testament concept.) Even in our decency, our shows of kindness toward others, our moments of integrity, our most gloriously “good” moments, it is entirely possible that in our innermost beings, we are restless, seething cauldrons of hostility toward God. We hate, resent, and mistrust Him from the core of our being.
I say “it is entirely possible” that we are such seething cauldrons because it is possible that we are not as well. The fundamental difference between the true believer and the non-believer (whether a confessing Christian or not) is this: whereas both the true believer and the non-believer remain morally broken and perverse to the end of this age, the true believer is being sanctified by God while the non-believer is not; and the essence of God’s sanctification of the believer is to transform his heart of rebellion, hate, and hostility toward God into a heart of love for God and all that He values and represents. This fundamental difference between human beings allows the Bible to describe some as righteous and others as sinners. Whereas all humans are evil, some are evil and persist in their rebellion against God while some are evil but have ceased their rebellion and long to be delivered from their perverseness and evil. The former receive the labels “sinner” and “ungodly.” The latter are labeled “righteous.”
But a question remains. If all people-believer and non-believer-are morally flawed and broken, and if a rebel against God can bury his rebelliousness beneath an exterior of kindness, compassion, decency, honesty, and general “goodness,” then how could it ever be evident that he is, in fact, an evil enemy of God?
Typically, one never sees the inside of a bone. The marrow at its core is concealed by a not-easily-penetrated outer casing of calcified bone. The bone, therefore, is an apt analogy to the spiritual state of a human being. Our true spiritual state is like the marrow of a bone- invisible and inaccessible-encased securely in an exterior goodness which seems impossible to see beneath.
First-century soldiers used an incredible weapon: a large, heavy, sharp double-edged sword. The combined weight and sharpness of this sword was so great that a soldier could slice right through the bones of his enemy, severing his limbs. Confronted with such an instrument, bone marrow is no longer inaccessible, invisible, and unknowable. Such a sword could slice a bone open and leave the marrow inside exposed to our view.
Hebrews 4:11-13, a familiar but largely misunderstood passage, says that just as a double-edged sword can slice open a bone and leave its marrow exposed, so the logos of God can slice open a human being and leave his innermost being exposed. Apart from this logos of God, one’s innermost being will not be seen or known.
What is this logos of God to which the author of Hebrews refers? Although space prevents a full discussion of this question, I can state my conclusion. The author of Hebrews is referring to God’s promise, and especially to the specific promise at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel: the promise of mercy due to Jesus’ death on the cross and, following from that, the promise of eternal life in the coming kingdom of God and all that that entails.
A familiar translation of Hebrews 4:11-13 reads as follows:
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word (logos) of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (RSV)
Most traditional understandings of this text see it as advancing a particular view of the power and authority of the Bible. But they are mistaken. If we consider this text carefully in its context, it becomes clear that it concerns the ability of the promise of the Gospel message to sort out and make manifest the innermost beliefs, commitments, desires, passions, and values which drive a person. My own translation would render Hebrews 4:11-13 something like this:
Therefore, we need to be diligent to enter into this rest lest some from among you-following the same pattern as the Israelites mentioned in Psalm 95-might fall in ruin as a result of your failure to be persuaded of God’s promise. The promise of God is real, dynamic, and effective. Specifically, being sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates so deep as to divide one’s spirit from one’s soul even as-with a double-edged sword-one can penetrate the bone and expose the marrow from the joint. It is capable of discerning the commitments and preoccupations of one’s heart. Consequently, no creature is hidden from Him. Everyone is naked and left exposed to the sight of Him from whom we have this promise.
What is the author of Hebrews saying? How does this promise of God lay bare the innermost being of a man? It does because a man’s reaction to God’s promise will reveal the spiritual status of his innermost being. Is he fundamentally a rebel, an enemy who hates God and everything He stands for? Then he will have no regard for God’s promise. In the first place, the substance of God’s promise will have no appeal to him. Life in the coming kingdom of God is not interesting-indeed, it is ultimately repulsive-to one who is fundamentally an enemy of everything the kingdom is about: righteousness, truth, goodness, and submission to the creatorhood of God. Furthermore, even if a sinner could want what the Gospel promises, he could never bring himself to believe that God’s promise was true and trustworthy. So, out of one motive or another, the one who is deep-down a sinner will not and cannot bring himself to believe the true and authentic Gospel. Preach him the Gospel and you lay him bare as if you had cut him open with a sword. A response of hostile unbelief (or of stubborn insistence on believing a gospel of his own making rather than the true apostolic Gospel) will make clear and absolutely manifest the fundamental hostility to God within his soul.