Chapter 9: On the Goodness of Man

Our Faith
by Emil Brunner

Chapter 9: On the Goodness of Man

Is man good? Whoever reads this question will wonder how such a question is possible, for men are different. There are good and bad, there are very bad and less bad, very good and less good men. Experience proves the truth of this observation again and again. There are quite selfish men who ask for nothing but their own profit, shysters in business, tyrants in the house, men with an interest only in what is to their advantage. And there are others r/ho give themselves freely, often making astounding sacrifices, thinking ever and only of others, desiring nothing but to serve others and to do good. A person who fails to see this difference is blind to reality. Between the two extremes of good and evil there are as many variations in men as there are between the red and the blue of a rainbow. One can indeed say that there is no wholly bad man — each has somewhere some good in him -- like that atrocious Chinese bandit leader, who relentlessly slaughtered thousands, but nevertheless played heartily with children as though he were himself an innocent child. And one is also compelled to say, there is no one wholly good -- there is a flaw in each person of which one must say, there he fails. But most people are in between, a little more inclined to good, or a little more inclined to evil, according to their natures.

This view of the matter is quite correct, it is indeed necessary. But the Bible speaks differently. "There is none that doeth good, no, not one." "For all have sinned." In that passage Paul does not imply that even the best have somewhere some little evil flaw. On the other hand, "all" means that fundamentally all are in the same condition, namely bad. For "a sinner" does not signify that there is something bad in him, as a splendid apple may have a little bad speck that can be removed with a twist of the paring knife, so that you can scarcely see that anything has been cut out. No, by a sinner the Bible means "bad at heart," infected with evil at the core. "All are sinners" does not mean then that even the best are not quite saints. It means rather that the difference between so-called good and so-called bad no longer comes into consideration.

How is this view to be reconciled with what we first characterized as correct? That is not hard to say. We have spoken of what holds true among men, and there it is true so far as human affairs go. But before God the matter is otherwise. It is not as though God did not see the distinction between good and evil. How should He, who sees all things, fail to see that! It is not at all immaterial to Him whether a pupil takes pains with his writing, or whether he scribbles. How then could it be a matter of indifference to Him whether one belongs to the good sort or the bad? That it is a matter of concern to God, the Bible proclaims loudly enough. But on that level and within that sphere where Paul writes "all have sinned" these "good and bad" considerations have really no significance. Let me clarify this assertion by an analogy.

Two men board a train. One of them perhaps does something sensible, the other something stupid upon entering the coach. But as they look out, both notice that they have taken the wrong train and are going in the wrong direction. That one man was reasonable and the other stupid is a difference between these two men; it is a difference, however, which has no significance in relation to the fact that both, whatever their individual differences, are going in the wrong direction! This is what the Bible means by the word sin, the total perverse direction of our life, the tendency away from God. In this train all men are traveling, says the Apostle. He himself, one of the most blameless, according to human opinion almost a saint, says of himself quite clearly, "O wretched man that I am, the evil which I would not, that I do; the good that I would, I do not."

To simplify matters, let us speak of you and me, instead of all men. So far as I am concerned I find that what the Apostle says of himself applies absolutely to me too. How is it with you? Would you like to contradict the Apostle and say, "My dear man, I don't understand you, you have disappointed me. I at least am no wretched man who wants to do good and does evil instead." Can you say that -- not before men, but before God?

Sin is a depravity which has laid hold on us all. It is a radical perversion from God, disloyalty to the Creator who has given us so much and remains so loyal, an insulting alienation from Him, in which all of us, without exception, have shared. I emphasize the "shared." For is it not true that we are all connected with one another by hidden roots, like the runners of a strawberry patch, all of whose plants have developed from the one parent stock? We are not only connected with each other in our life-root but our connection is precisely evil. There is a kind of common "sin fluid" that flows through the whole root system, and yet each individual knows it to be his own guilt. Explain this guilt as I will -- as inheritance, bad education, etc. -- it is finally my own fault. I know that I am involved in the evil of others, and at the same time I implicate them in my own evil. As far back as I can remember, I recall that I have had a bad conscience before God. And still I know, just when I think of God -- it is my guilt. One cannot explain this, evil, sin, is forever inexplicable. What one can explain is not really evil; for what we explain we make ourselves superior to, we become master of.

Am I then in sin? Is this really so? How do we know for certain? Not every one knows it. Most people know only what we first mentioned, that there are good and bad people, and of course they count themselves for the most part among the good or even the better class. But what we said about sin we do not apprehend for ourselves. We do not perceive it until God casts His light like a dazzling beam into our dismal gloom. We know what sin truly is because and since Jesus Christ died for man's sin. It is as though a great boulder lay across the road. That isn't so big, one thinks, and tries to push it to one side of the road, but it won't budge, it is too heavy. Then a strong man comes along; it is too heavy even for him. And then a horse is brought and even the horse drags it away only with the greatest effort. We measure the weight of the boulder by the effort and power required to remove it. So, too, is it with sin. It is not until we see how much it cost God to remove the stone between us and Him, that we understand how great was the weight of sin's guilt. Christ shows us how completely the whole movement of life is in the wrong direction. It is primarily he, in whom God addresses us the most earnestly, who shows us our condition. Not until then do we lose the courage to say that man is good. Then, and then only are we ready to hear the message of forgiveness and salvation.