Most people do not think of themselves as innately evil. The probable reason they think this way is because they don’t believe they are guilty of heinous sins, which are generally regarded as much worse than other sins. However, God regards all sins as evil, because every sin is a violation of one or both of the two Great Commandments that provide the underlying basis for all the other moral commandments found in the Bible. These two Commandments are found in Matthew 22:37-40, in which Jesus Christ quotes from the Old Testament, stating,
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
The Bible also indicates that no one except God is truly righteous, because every human has an inherent disposition to sin, which infers that every person is innately evil. Although this includes infants and young children, it is not likely that they will be held accountable by God for their actions until they have attained sufficient understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Likewise, God is unlikely to hold accountable people who have deficient mental ability and, as a result, lack sufficient understanding of what is right and what is wrong.
Before we continue, we need to define the terms innately, evil, wickedness, sin, and righteous. Webster’s Dictionary defines these terms as follows:
- Innately refers to “existing naturally rather than acquired.”
- Evil means “morally bad or wrong; wicked; depraved.”
- Wickedness is synonymous with evil.
- Sin is “an offense against God, religion, or good morals.”
- The Sinful is defined as “full of or characterized by sin; wicked; immoral.”
- Righteous pertains to “acting in a just, upright manner; doing what is right; virtuous.”
Probably the scripture that most clearly indicates that every person is innately sinful is James 1:14-15, which states, [Each person] “is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”
This passage indicates that the inclination of people to sin is a result of their inability to keep themselves from trying to satisfy their innate human desires in unrighteous ways. As a result, most sins by humans are a result of their internal human nature, rather than a result of their being tempted by an external influence, such as Satan. [For a discussion of Satan’s ability to tempt people, click on our article entitled “Who Is Satan and Is He Omnipresent?”]
Now, we will consider several verses of scripture that indicate all humans are evil, although these verses do not specifically indicate that this trait is innate.
Genesis 6:5 says, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Genesis 8:21b states, “Then the LORD said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.’”
Romans 3:10 asserts, “There is none righteous, no, not one.”
And, Romans 3:23 declares, “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
It may be argued that Genesis 6:5 is applicable to only the people living at that time, excluding Noah (Genesis 6:9b) and, perhaps, his immediate family. However, there is no valid reason for making a similar argument with regard to the other three scripture passages we have cited. These other three passages make it clear that humans are evil (unrighteous, sinful). However, as previously inferred, we do not believe this includes anyone who lacks sufficient understanding of what is right and what is wrong.
In contrast with the preceding verses of scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testament contain numerous references to “the righteous” with regard to human beings. Among the Old Testament men that the Bible specifically indicates were righteous were Abraham (Genesis 15:6 and Acts 4:3); Job (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3); and David (Romans 4:6). Other Old Testament references to “the righteous” include Genesis 18:23-26; 20:4; Exodus 23:7-8; Numbers 23:10; and there are many additional references throughout the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Ezekiel. New Testament references to “the righteous” include Matthew 9:13; 13:43; 25:37, 46; James 5:16; and 1 Peter 3:12; 4:18.
This raises the question: How can people who are inherently evil become righteous? The answer if found in Romans 5:19, which states, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” In other words, the sin of Adam, the first man, resulted in the inheritance of a sinful nature by every person born subsequently, whereas every person who genuinely trusts in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation is regarded as righteous by God, even though their inherently sinful human nature causes them to continue to sin.
Now, let’s consider Proverbs 8:13a, which declares, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” Therefore, if a person truly fears God (i.e., regards God with sincere reverence) and genuinely loves Him, that person will desire to refrain from doing things that the Bible regards as evil (i.e., sinful). Nevertheless, because of their innate evil nature, no ordinary human will always successfully avoid sinning. However, as a person matures in their relationship with God, the frequency of their sins should diminish.
Even the men mentioned in the Bible who demonstrated a strong faith in God and whom most people would regard as righteous were not completely sinless. For example, years after the conversion of the Apostle Paul to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he continued to struggle with – and yield to – temptations to sin. This is evidenced by Paul’s statement in Romans 7:19: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” (Note that the preceding verses in the same chapter indicate that Paul uses the term evil in this verse of scripture in reference to his struggles with sin.)
[For a brief discussion of whether or not any Christian can live a sinless life, see the appendix that follows.]
Although most people probably don’t think of themselves as evil, the Bible indicates that God regards everyone (excluding the previously mentioned special exceptions) as evil until they trust in Jesus Christ to forgive their sins and give them eternal salvation. Every person who genuinely trusts in Jesus Christ is regarded as righteous by God, despite the fact that have an innately evil nature that causes them to continue to sin, albeit less frequently as they mature in their relationship with God.
[For further discussion about whom God will hold accountable for their sins, click on “Does God Make Exceptions for People Who Don’t Have Opportunity to Trust in Christ?”]
Can Christians Live a Sinless Life?
Understandably, people who are not Christians and, therefore, are not sanctified, cannot live a sinless life, but what about Christians who are sanctified? Shouldn’t they be able to live a sinless life?
First John 3:9 declares, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” Does this scripture imply that Christians can live a sinless life?
In his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason L. Archer states on page 428, “[A] present infinitive in Greek implies continual or repeated action. . . . For this reason some of the more recent translations bring out the true emphasis by rendering it ‘he cannot go on sinning (NIV).’”
Likewise, on page 539 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, Geisler and Howe assert,
John nowhere claims that believers are without sin or never commit a sin. First John 3:9 is in the present continuous tense and should be translated, “Whoever is born of God does not continually practice sin.” Conversely, if a person habitually practices sin, he is not born of God. . . . Both a believer and an unbeliever can fall into the same sin, but a believer cannot stay in it and feel comfortable.
First John 3:9 also seems to suggest that, because of our new relationship with God after we become a Christian, we should have the ability to keep from continually committing the same sins. This does not mean a Christian has the ability to not commit any more sins.