Thinking Biblically About Man

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath showed it unto them; for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood  by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse: because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.” Romans 1:18-23

“What is man?” The question is crucial to an understanding of life and the world. Philosophies attempting to explain what it means to be human are “a dime a dozen.” Plato suggested that man is “a being in search of meaning.” Paschal said that man is “a reed, but a thinking reed.” Mark Twain apologized for man by suggesting that God made man at the end of the week when the Deity was tired. Charles Darwin suggested that man is nothing more than a highly developed animal. Freud taught that man is an underdeveloped and spoiled child and therefore, not responsible for his actions. Karl Marx defined man as an economic factor, and Nietzche summarized the essence of humanity in the claim that man was “a useless passion.”

            But what is man? Is the Humanist correct to say that man is “the measure of all things,” the “master of his fate and the captain of his soul?” Was Carl Rogers correct when he insisted that man has all the answers to life prepackaged in himself because “man at the core of his being is essentially good”? Is man just an animal that stands up straight, as the scientist suggests, or is he simply genus homo sapiens as the anthropologist says?

            In the final analysis, there are only two views of human nature. The first is the view that man is the product of evolution from a lower order of animal life and that his history is a flattering story of human progress and development. The second is the view that man began, not as a lower animal, but as God’s image-bearer and that his history is a tragic story of decline and decay.  One is the story of ascent to divinity, the other of descent to depravity.

The Need for A Biblical Anthropology

            All of these worldly philosophies teach a doctrine of man and many operate on the presupposition that man is basically good. Does it matter what a person believes about the nature of man? Yes, for at least three reasons.

First, the doctrine of man is basic to the doctrine of salvation. In fact, the essential gospel message is expressed in terms of two men – the “first Adam” and the “second Adam” (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49; Heb. 2:6-9; Ps. 8:4-8).  All history can be explained in terms of these two representative, or public, figures. The hymnwriter expressed it poignantly:

“O loving wisdom of our God, when all was sin and shame;

A second Adam, to the fight, and to the conflict came.”

Second, the doctrine of man is fundamental to ethics. What a person believes inevitably affects how a person behaves. Ideas have consequences. Wrong thinking leads to wrong living. If one believes that man is a cosmic accident or a grown-up germ, he will inevitably adopt a perspective of life that pursues pleasure as the chief good, for life to him has no meaning or significance. Likewise, the popular notion of human potential ¾ of an inherent principle of deity in man ¾ produces a self-absorbed approach to life. Didn’t the serpent’s lie “Ye shall be as gods” stimulate Adam and Eve to declare their independence from God?

Third, the doctrine of man is systemically related to pastoral ministry. A Biblical understanding of human behavior must, of necessity, begin with a Biblical view of man’s nature, both prior and subsequent to the Fall.  An individual’s whole approach to problem solving will be determined by the view of man that he holds. The doctrine of man will necessarily affect both the ideas and the methods by which pastors minister to the people in their congregations.

Origins – Start Here

What is the appropriate place to start in the study of man? Was the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope correct to say, “The proper study of mankind is man”?  Are the human sciences right to study man from the vantage point of external observation? Are the arts justified to study man subjectively?  The answer to all of these questions is “no”.

The proper study of mankind is not man – it is God. The most basic and fundamental verse to an understanding of human nature is Genesis 1:1:  “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” What do I mean? It is only in terms of God’s existence and initiative to create that man as a created and morally accountable being can be appropriately understood.  Man’s nature, purpose, significance, and behavior can be properly assessed and analyzed only in terms of Genesis 1. In fact, it is precisely at this point that Biblical and secular thinking about man divide.  Every theory of secular anthropology grows from the soil of an evolutionary concept of origins.  Darwinism, in both its primitive and its more sophisticated form, is back of the whole theory that man is an animal – an idea that is popularly accepted as indisputable fact in modern culture. Such a theory necessarily affects the whole gamut of sciences, from theology to sociology to psychology.  The biothecial debate concerning such issues as human cloning and euthanasia — the classification of homosexuality and alcoholism as genetic predispositions – the social and moral conflict concerning abortion and racial hatred – and the popular trend to think of depression, anxiety, grief, and anger as essentially biological problems that should be treated with chemicals – all of these current cultural issues are systemically related to a view of man that rejects the Genesis account of origins.

Creationist Ken Ham is correct when he says that abortion, racism, pornography, homosexuality, and family disintegration are not the real problem, but symptoms of such. The cause of the moral chaos in contemporary culture is the wide-scale acceptance of an evolutionary theory of origins (see Figure 2). While Darwin was postulating his new view of man’s origin, the Enlightenment theologians were busy crafting a new view of man with respect to man’s relationship to God. When the tares they had sown began to germinate, many “Christians” lost confidence in the integrity of God’s word. They worked feverishly to reconcile historical Christianity with new knowledge. “Science” assumed ultimate authority in the circles of scholarship and those whose faith had been shaken proceeded apace to uproot the wheat of Biblical teaching that didn’t square with these advances.  Now, at this, the end of the twentieth century, the rejection of the Genesis account of creation within scholastic circles has trickled down to the culture at large.

The Biblical picture of man is a tragic one. Because of sin, man is actively opposed to his Creator. It is not, however, an overt antagonism – at least initially – but a more subtle and covert rebellion. Everyone, for instance, does not naturally profess atheism in a blatant and unabashed way. How, then, does man express his antipathy toward God? He strikes at the foundation of his existence and denies the Biblical record of “creation.”  Why does he attack the principle of “creation” instead of the Person of the Creator? Because he knows that if, in fact, he exists by special creation, then he is morally responsible to the Creator. But if he can convince himself that he is the product of blind chance, then he can enthrone himself as “god” and rid himself of the shackles of ethical restraint.  This is precisely the picture of Romans 1:18-32. It is impossible to understand human nature unless one grasps the significance of man’s origin and subsequent fall in sin and the affect that these factors have on his relationship to God.

Deciphering the truth about man, therefore, must start with the very first verse of the Bible. It is only in light of man’s origin (Gen. 1-2) and fall in sin (Gen. 3) that we can understand the rest of human history, both on a macro and a micro level.  “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” It is only in terms of the fact that God is God and that man is fallen that we can make sense of murder and bloodshed (Gen. 4), death (Gen. 5), judgment (Gen. 6-9), rebellion against God and relational chaos in the human family (Gen. 11). Indeed, it is only by understanding the origin and fall of man that the message of the gospel with its emphasis on the “woman’s seed”, the perfect Man, assumes inestimable relevance (Gen. 3:15). Start here, then – knowing God in order to know man.  From here, we proceed to construct a Biblical view of man, emphasizing three basic thoughts:  (1) Human Nature; (2) Man’s Fallenness in Adam; (3) Humanity Realized in Second Adam.

Created in God’s Image – Human Nature

            Why are people as they are? Was John Locke, the British empiricist and author of Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), correct to say that people are born into the world tabula rasa, i.e. a blank tablet to be inscribed by experience?  Does sensory observation alone determine the way a person thinks and lives? Is man the product of external influences, like the home in which he was reared, or the socio-economic environment in which he lives? Or was Rene Descartes, the “father” of Rationalism, correct to argue that man is programmed in advance and that the principle of logic, or reason, is universal in all human beings? Does man think and live as he does because of a rational principle intrinsic to his being?  In simple terms, the difference between these two philosophical systems can be expressed by the popular question, “Are people as they are by virtue of nurture or nature?” Does man derive knowledge externally or does he possess a certain innate knowledge?

            Which was correct? Well, neither — and both. Neither is correct in the sense that both empiricism and rationalism begin with man instead of God in an attempt to arrive at truth. Both philosophical systems exalt human reason above Divine revelation. On the contrary, both systems contain elements of truth. People do indeed learn empirically, as Locke argued. The world in which we live does in fact exercise an influence on us as human beings. But, it is also true that human beings are born into the world with a certain innate, or instinctive, knowledge.  It is this knowledge that enables a person to do distinctively human things. Let me illustrate.

            Let’s say that a couple brought their new baby home from the hospital on the same day that they purchased a puppy. Both lived in the house and slept in the same room, the baby sleeping in a crib and the puppy on a cushion. Both ate the same food, the baby eating straight from the jar and the puppy from the leftovers. Both were cuddled and loved and bathed and taken on strolls to the park. And both were permitted to witness the family interact verbally and non-verbally every day.  Now, although both had the same privileges, at least in nature if not in degree, yet at some point the baby will begin to do distinctively human things, but the puppy will not. The baby will begin to walk on two legs, eat with utensils, communicate verbally, and develop psychologically, etc.  The puppy never will. Why? Because the baby is genetically preprogrammed toward distinctively human behavior. The puppy is only a dog. Environment cannot alter that fact. Both the baby and the puppy are genetically endowed to function in strict accordance with their natures. Experience simply serves to develop their respective capacities. Like a computer is equipped with certain base programs so that it has the capacity to perform distinctive mathematical functions and applications, so human beings, created in the image of God, have the capacity to function is distinctively human ways as those capacities are developed and matured by experience.  

            Neither Locke or Descartes, nor any other extra-Biblical philosophy, can speak authoritatively about mankind.  God’s word alone defines what it means to be truly human for one can only understand man in relation to God.

The first thing God says about man is that man is created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Human beings are God’s image-bearers in the world, the crowning achievement of God’s creation. That man is like God is something that is true of no other creature (Gen.5:1).

            What are the implications of this fact? First, human beings have been invested with a unique dignity in creation. He is not a cosmic accident, but a being with significance and purpose. Man acts as God’s vice-regent or representative on the earth. In the hierarchical structure of creation, man has been given authority over the earth (1 Cor. 11:7; Heb.2:6-7).  Only to man did God give the creation mandate to “subdue the earth and have dominion over it” (Gen. 1:28) – a commission that forms the basis of all true sciences.

Secondly, because man is made in God’s image, all human life is sacred. Genesis 9:6 argues for the sanctity of human life on the basis of the imago Dei in man. Further, James censures the individual who speaks disrespectfully to others on the basis that people are made in the image of God (Jas. 3:9). 

            In what sense is man created in God’s image? First, human beings are moral creatures. Man is created with a conscience that functions to distinguish right from wrong. “The spirit of man,” says Solomon in reference to this moral consciousness, “is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly” (Pro. 20:27). Interestingly, the word “spirit” is the same word translated “breath” in Genesis 2:7. What was man’s original moral state? He was made morally “upright” (Ecc. 7:29), for all that God creates is good (Gen. 1:31).  Unlike animals, then, man does not live by sheer instinct; he possesses a conscience.

            Secondly, man bears God’s image in the sense that he is a rational creature. He possesses intelligence ¾the capacity for thought and self-conscious reflection. He also possesses the ability to communicate by expressing his thoughts in word. This gives man the further capacity for relationships, both with God and his fellow human beings. Further, like God, man’s rational nature means that he has a will, the ability to make plans and act on them. Man is then a thinking, communicating, relational, and volitional creature, like the personal God who created him.

            Thirdly, man is an immortal creature. Unlike the spirit of the beast that goes downward to the earth at death, man possesses an immortal soul (Ecc. 3:21). When the material substance of man dies, i.e. his physical body, the spirit (that is to say, the natural life principle) returns to God who gave it (Ecc. 12:7) and the soul continues its conscious existence either in heaven or in hell. Because man has an immortal soul, he will experience an afterlife. An animal, by way of contrast, ceases to exist at death. This brings us to the next truth concerning man.

Man is Body and Soul

J.I. Packer writes, “Each human being in this world consists of a material body animated by an immaterial personal self. Scripture calls this self a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.”  Man is not merely a body without a soul, like an animal, nor a spirit without a body, like an angel, but a body and a soul. He is, then, a composite being with both a physical and a spiritual dimension (Mt.10:28; Jas. 2:26; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Cor. 6:20; Heb. 10:22; Ecc. 12:7; 3:20-21; 1 Tim.4:8; Lk.12:20; Mt.16:26). Because he has a body, man is a physiological creature. Because he possesses a soul, he is also a psychological being.

Without a body, man is not human (in fact, he is “no-body”), for it is through the body that he experiences reality. The ancient gnostics were wrong to believe that the physical body was evil — the “prison house of the soul”. Further, they were wrong to define salvation in terms of liberation from the physical body so that the spirit might merge with the cosmic consciousness. The New Testament (and the Old, for that matter – cf. Job 14:12,14-15; Ps. 16:9) teaches categorically that the body will be resurrected and reunited with the disembodied soul at the last day. The body is as integral a part of personal identity as the soul.

But man is not only a body. Like the gnostics who denigrated man’s physicality, modern science errs when it attempts to explain human behavior only in biochemical terms. He is also a soul. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (that is, his needs are not only physical), “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).  He also has spiritual needs.

Many people in the modern world have forgotten this fact. The soul is so closely connected to the body that spiritual problems frequently produce physiological effects (e. g. stress and worry and depression can cause high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, heart attack, mucous colitis, tumors, etc.). Perhaps the single greatest tragedy of the times is the trend toward thinking about people in strictly biological terms. Man is seen as a mere animal ¾ a body without a soul. This is the product of Darwinian thought. From this trend has come the further tendency to confuse the brain, a physical organ, with the mind, a spiritual entity. This has led to a dispute of mammoth proportions between those who explain human behavior in strictly secular terms and those who explain it in Biblical terms.

So, there is unity to the human person. People are psychosomatic creatures — “ensouled bodies,” or (if you please) “embodied souls”. Both dimensions – material and immaterial – are vital to any explanation of human behavior. Because man is a biological as well as a spiritual being, there is legitimacy to the disciplines of true medical science. Likewise, because man is a spiritual as well as a biological being, it is impossible to understand and explain human behavior apart from the moral and spiritual categories defined by the Bible. One such category is man’s relationship to God.


The Biblical story of man is the story of “good gone wrong.” Made in God’s image, Adam soon fell from the original state of innocency: “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Ecc. 7:29). John Calvin said that looking at man is like looking at the ruins of a great building (i.e. a castle). The ruins express hints of the grandeur that once existed, but it is tragically ruined.

Blaise Paschal said that “the doctrine of original sin seems an offense to reason, but once accepted, it makes total sense of the entire human condition.” He was correct. It is the only adequate explanation of human nature that accounts for the perverse state of the world.

Has man now lost the image of God in which he was made? Well, yes — and no. Since the Fall, man retains God’s image structurally, i.e. his humanness is unchanged, but he has lost the image functionally.  Because of sin’s domination, he is no longer able to reflect God’s holiness, the purpose for which he was created.

Notice that I distinguish between “human nature” and “the sinful nature” of man. Unhappily, this distinction is not always clear in the thinking of Christians.  Consider, for example, the popular refrain, “To err is human…” Is that axiom consistent with God’s word? No, for God made man upright. Human nature is not the source of errant [or sinful] behavior. The Lord Jesus possessed a human nature, but He never erred. In fact, He said, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (Jno. 14:30). There was nothing in Jesus reciprocating to Satan’s temptation. Why? Because even though He was thoroughly human, He did not possess a sin nature.

The failure to distinguish between man’s physical body and his sin nature was the gnostic error of the first century. It arose primarily from a misunderstanding of the use of the word sarx, translated “flesh,” in the New Testament. Granted, Paul employed sarx to speak of both the physical human frame and the fallen sin nature (notice for instance his play on the word “flesh” in 2 Cor. 10:3: “For though we walk in the flesh [that is, though we live in mortal bodies] we do not war after the flesh [that is, we do not fight spiritual battles according to our fallen impulses]), but, far and away, the overwhelming use of sarx in the New Testament refers to “indwelling sin” (Rom. 7:18), not man’s physical frame.   The failure to make this distinction led the gnostics to deny the incarnation of Jesus, for they confused material substance with evil.

So, man retains the image of God in terms of the fact that his humanity is intact. He is still a rational, relational, volitional, moral, and immortal creature. He is still human – not non-human or even sub-human. Man, after the Fall, is not a different species, as C. S. Lewis argued. Then, in what sense has man lost God’s image? In the sense that every faculty of his being has been tainted and tarnished by sin. Sin has affected man rationally so that he no longer thinks God’s thoughts. Our minds are darkened to God (Eph. 4:18; Rom. 8:6-8). The thoughts of fallen people are evil (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 10:4). In his corruption, depraved man thinks unbiblically, concocting his own maverick ideas while ignoring God’s revealed truth in Scripture. Theologians call sin’s effect on man’s mind the noetic effects of sin.  Second, sin has affected man relationally so that he no longer coexists peacefully with God or his fellow creatures.  Stress and conflict is now a part of every interpersonal relationship resulting in marital disharmony (Gen. 3:16), sibling rivalry (Gen. 4:7), violence and bloodshed (Gen. 6), sexual exploitation (Gen. 9:18ff), and communication breakdown (Gen. 11).

Third, sin has affected man emotionally so that we can never fully know, trust, or understand the workings of our own hearts. The heart, meaning the affections, is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).  Emotions, by virtue of our depraved human hearts, are not a reliable guide. Sin complicates the Greek ideal to “know thyself,” making it an indomitable task.

Sin has even affected man volitionally so that he no longer possesses the freedom to choose to obey God. His will is bound in disobedience and contrariness to God (Jno. 5:40; Ps. 10:4; Is. 26:10). Natural man is not inclined to make choices that glorify God.

Further it has affected him spiritually so that he is spiritually incapacitated. Depravity implies total inability. Man does not have the capacity to respond to God and His word in himself. He cannot hear (Jno. 8:47), cannot respond (Jno. 6:44), cannot understand (1 Cor. 2:14), and cannot believe (Jno. 10:26).

How extensive is sin’s effect on human nature? No part of us – not even the body — is untouched by sin. Depravity touches people biologically. The human body was not evil or corruptible as God made it, but it has been victimized by the sin nature so that it now wears down, contracts disease, ages, and decomposes.

John Newton described the truth of man’s tragic plight when he said, “By nature I was too blind to know Him, too proud to trust Him, too obstinate to serve Him, too base-minded to love Him.” Until God reaches us in grace, such is the condition of every human being. Let’s be even more specific concerning the tragedy of human sinfulness.

Human Depravity

What is depravity? Depravity is a theological word meaning “corruption” or “perversion.” It refers to the relationship that exists between man’s present state and the image of God in which he was created. Because of the Fall, man is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). The imagery of “deadness” indicates that man is by nature unresponsive to stimuli. He is both unable and unwilling to please or glorify God (Rom. 3:10-18; Rom. 8:8-9).

Depravity does not mean that every person is as evil as he can possibly be (e. g. everyone does not commit murder, or incest, etc.), but that every faculty of man’s make-up has been infected by sin so that the potential for every conceivable sin is resident in the fallen nature: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (Mk. 7:21). Man has heart trouble. He is radically corrupt ¾ bent toward sin, not inclined toward righteousness, at the very core of his being.

Depravity is hereditary.  Sin entered the world when Adam disobeyed God in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16-17; Gen. 3:6). The “anti-God, self-aggrandizing mindset expressed in Adam’s sin,” says J. I. Packer, “became part of him and of the moral nature that he passed on to his descendants.” The scope of sin is universal (Rom. 5:12; Rom. 3:23; I Jno. 1:8,10; Ecc. 7:20; I Kings 8:46).

This assertion that sin is derived from our origin is called the doctrine of Original Sin. Every human being has a common ancestor, the fallen parent Adam (Acts 17:26), and a genetic predisposition toward wrong, i.e. a sin nature, from the moment of conception (Ps. 51:5; Job 14:4; Job 11:12).

People sin in practice, consequently, because they are sinners by nature. Inherit depravity has twisted the heart at the level of motivation. Our inner sinfulness is the fountain from which all actual sins spring

            Scripture asserts, furthermore, that every faculty of man’s nature is corrupted by sin. Depravity is total. There is no spark of divinity or island of righteousness in man: “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18). In his corrupted state, man never does a single good thing. What about acts of “civil virtue”? Do not fallen sinners sometimes perform acts of benevolence Yes, but such acts are not motivated by a desire to honor God, but, as Jonathan Edwards said, by “enlightened self-interest”. Because of the fallen nature, “every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (Ps. 39:5).

The Fall not only diminished God’s image in Adam, but also in all of his descendants. It is impossible, therefore, to understand the nature of man apart from the tragic view of man in sin depicted in God’s word. The real truth about human nature is that man is fallen. His chief problem is a broken relationship with God. By nature, man is not merely indifferent to God, but hostile and antagonistic toward Him (Rom. 8:7).  This war with God expresses itself in resistance to His claims, resentment of His rebukes, and indignation when confronted with the thought that God the Creator condemns the way man chooses to live his life (Ps. 2:1ff).

Man’s Natural Hostility toward God

            Perhaps the premier passage in Scripture regarding the tragedy of man in sin is Romans 1:18-32. No passage is more basic and fundamental to an understanding of the history of mankind and an explanation of society and the world at present as Romans 1:18ff. A grasp of these principles, consequently, is crucial to pastoral ministry. Romans 1:18ff is foundational to Paul’s presentation of the essential gospel message in Romans.  All that I have said thus far concerning man’s origin by special creation, man’s composition as a psycho-physical being, man’s ability to know both by innate and by evidentiary knowledge, and man’s tragic fallenness in sin, is expressed in this passage. No other single passage is more comprehensive and detailed in its analysis of why people are as they are.

Every Man Knows That God Exists

Verse eighteen announces man’s tragic plight before God. What is his position? He is under “the wrath of God”.  Notice the contrast between verse seventeen – the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel – and verse eighteen – the revelation of God’s wrath in world history.  Paul argues that God has clearly displayed His holy abhorrence of sin in very dramatic ways, such as the Deluge, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, famine, pestilence, drought, and disease.  God’s wrath is revealed “from heaven” – that is, by means of actual judgments and catastrophes in the arena of history.

            Why does God reveal His wrath? Because He has also revealed His truth to man, but man refuses to listen to and comply with it. He “holds [that is, suppresses and stifles] the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18b). Man’s problem is that he will not listen to God, but, like Adam in the original transgression “hearkened to the voice of his wife” (who, by the way, was listening to the serpent) and did not obey God’s command, fallen man reacts against Divine revelation. The essence of sin, then, might be expressed by the question, “To whom are you listening? God or self?”  When people reject “absolute truth” as it is defined by God, the wrath of God abides upon them.

            “But,” someone objects, “how can God hold a man accountable to obey an absolute standard of truth if that man doesn’t know that truth?” The answer is “He can’t; it would be unjust.” That is precisely the point of verses nineteen through twenty-two. God has given man a revelation of Himself in nature (Acts 14:16-17). Theologians call this general revelation or “natural theology”, as William Paley called it in his classic work by that title, subtitled “Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature.”  It is “general” both in terms of its audience and its content. Its target audience is everyone, everywhere (“…there is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard” – Ps. 19:3), and its content is restricted to the general truths that God exists and is powerful. General revelation is partial; it discloses nothing about God’s grace in Christ or the covenant of redemption.

            Man’s problem, in other words, is not an intellectual problem — it’s not a lack of information.  It is a moral problem — not a lack of knowledge but the refusal to acknowledge what he knows is true. It isn’t that man is intellectually underprivileged; he has heart trouble! 

            Now, where has God given this general revelation to man? First, man has an internal or innate knowledgeof God:  “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them” (Rom. 1:19).  Ingrained in the very fabric of man’s being as a creature made in God’s image is a consciousness that God exists and the sense that He is there. He cannot escape from this innate knowledge. There is a moral law within man that distinguishes him from all other creatures. This is what it means to be human beings created in God’s image.

            Notice the phrase “that which may be known of God.” The knowledge communicated naturally to man is limited. It is not exhaustive. Man by nature has no internal or instinctive awareness of God’s trinitarian nature, for instance, or of the virgin birth of Christ, or of message of substitutionary atonement. These are truths only revealed by special revelation in Scripture. But he can – and he does – know something about God by nature. He knows that God exists and that He holds man to a standard of morality. By nature, human beings have an internal sense of right and wrong, for they have been created moral beings in God’s image. Unlike animals, every human being has a conscience – even those that have so silenced and offended it that they commit “unconscionable” crimes.

            Secondly, God has given such conclusive external evidence for His existence so that the individual who does not obey Him is “without excuse”:  “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).   God may be known through an awareness of nature, not only to exist, but also to be powerful and eternal. Paul states in unequivocal terms that creation witness so clearly to the existence of God that everybody gets the message!  This is common and universal knowledge.

            It is because of general revelation that God holds all men accountable before Him. At the final judgment, no one will be able to say to God, “If only I had known that you existed, I would have served you.” No, man does not lack evidence. How does the Christian answer the question, “On what basis can God hold man liable for obeying Him?” Most people, I suggest, answer that question in terms of “free will.” They say that man is responsible because man has the ability to either choose God or reject Him.  But Biblically speaking, man does not have the natural ability to decide for God. Since the Fall, man’s will is bound by his fallen nature. Then how can God hold man accountable? By virtue of the fact that man has been given general revelation. Man is responsible because he knows that God exists. Though his sinful nature has robbed him of the capacity to choose to obey God, the standard of justice has not been altered or “dumbed down” to accommodate man’s rebel nature. Final judgment will be just, not because it is based on man’s ability to choose or reject God, but because he refused to submit to the evidence God provided by means of general revelation.  Man is without excuse.  The blame is not with God, but with man. God is still God, and man knows it.  In fact, even the devils know that He exists (Jas. 2:19). 

Sin is Rebellion

Then, why do people profess atheism? If it’s true that everyone knows instinctively and by external evidence this absolute truth, why do people deny the existence of God?  Because they suppress and stifle that truth in unrighteousness. Again, man’s problem is not a lack of knowledge, but the refusal to acknowledge God: “Because when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful” (Rom. 1:21).  He “does not like to retain God in his knowledge” (Rom. 1:28).  By nature, man doesn’t like the God who is; in fact, he is hostile to God and to God’s restraints upon his life (Ps. 2:1ff).  David says that fallen man has heart trouble: “The fool hath said in his heart,” not his head, “[literally] ‘No God’.” (Ps. 14:1).

            The wrath of God abides upon man because fallen man refuses to acknowledge God as God. I suspect that many people tend to think of man by nature as someone who is simply indifferent to God. But God’s word says that depravity is not just a spirit of apathy toward God – it is a positive antagonism and antipathy to Him.  Fallen sinners are at war with God at the very core of their being.  They think of Him as their enemy.  They do not love God; in fact, they hate Him.  Romans 8:7 says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God…” Paul’s use of the abstract noun “enmity” where we would ordinarily expect the verb “hostile” has the effect of intensifying the force of his declaration.  Fallen man is not only hostile toward God; he is hostility itself!

            If depravity is not an intellectual, but a moral, problem, then how do we explain the verses in Scripture that speak of the unregenerate man’s “ignorance” (e. g. Eph. 4:18)? Simply by remembering the etymology of the word “ignorance.”  The root of word is “to ignore”.  Natural man is ignorant of God because he has deliberately chosen to ignore Him.  The knowledge does get through, but man suppresses it. Every false doctrine arises from this motive of moral antagonism toward Him, whether Darwinism, Humanism, or Atheism.  Can you hear the invective in the following quotes:

Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.  – Jean-Paul Sartre

One is forced to conclude that many scientists and technologists pay lip-service to Darwinian Theory only because it supposedly excludes a Creator.  – Dr. Michael Walker, Anthropologist, Sydney University

I am an atheist, out and out — I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he does not that I don’t want to waste my time.  – Isaac Asimov

            By nature, man is an “enemy in his mind by wicked works” (Col. 1:21).  In his celebrated essay entitled “Men Naturally God’s Enemies,” Jonathan Edwards comments on the reason that fallen man does not like God:

They hear that God is an infinitely holy, pure, and righteous Being, and they do not like him upon this account…They have greater aversion to him because he is omniscient and knows all things…They are not pleased that he is omnipotent, and can do whatever he pleases…They do not like his immutability, because by this he never will be otherwise than he is, an infinitely holy God.

He proceeds to analyze the extent of man’s enmity, stating that they are “enemies to the dominion of God; and their nature shows their good-will to dethrone Him if they could.” He explains the psychology of atheism, saying, “The same mortal enmity which, if you saw there was a God, might make you to wish there were none, may now dispose and incline you to think there is none.” Then he answers the objection of the individual who deny that they feel any animosity toward God:  “You object against your having a moral hatred against God; that you never felt any desire to dethrone him. But one reason has been, that it has always been conceived so impossible by you. But if the throne of God were within your reach, and you knew it, it would not be safe one hour.”

            Although fallen man cannot threaten God’s throne, their malice against Him takes the form of a war against His word, His people, and His holy laws. Hear Edwards again: “Indeed they cannot injure God, he is so much above them; but yet they do what they can. They oppose themselves to his honor and glory; they oppose themselves to the interest of his kingdom in the world; they oppose themselves to the will and command of God; and oppose him in his government.”

            Sometimes this natural animosity against God takes a very sophisticated form.  An individual from a local “study group” in our community wrote the following about “the whistling Christ”:

He never died at thirty-three. At the last minute, he talked fast, and got out of that. And then he joined the navy, wanting to disappear. Now he’s back in Jerusalem, ten years later, gimpy and whistling.  Jesus at forty-three. Stove up a little from the shipwreck, but the island did him good.  Year after year alone was what he needed, to get that movie, that bad dream, out of his head. To learn not to cast his eyes upward any more. To get upward out of his head…Over the years, the voice in his head that he called Father receded, like a tide. He couldn’t believe what that voice had asked him to do…If that Father wanted to forgive, why didn’t he just do it? …He’s come to Jerusalem again, the hilly city. He wants to be human. It’s not so easy…He like a joke. He likes a drink…The children call him Whistling J. He does the hornpipe for them when they ask. He loves to clown around.

            Blasphemy – masquerading as sophistication and intelligence.  The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.

Common Grace

            This spirit of antagonism toward God is even more heinous when considered in light of the blessings that God as Creator bestows upon all His creatures. Theologians call the goodness of God toward His creatures common grace.  J. I. Packer says, “He is good to all in some ways and to some in all ways.”

            In general terms, the whole creation benefits from God’s goodness: “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9).  As Creator, God “rejoices in the habitable part of His earth and his delights are with the sons of men” (Pro. 8:31).  He is pleased to “give us richly all things to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17).  Who can smell the fragrance of a rose, hear the song of the robin, view the colors of a sunset, taste the sweetness of a Washington apple or Georgia peach, or feel the relief of a summer rain shower and doubt that God is generous and kind and good?  “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5).

            Even the wicked enjoy the benefits of rain, food, air, companionship, rest from labor, and prosperity, but they “glorify Him not as God, neither are thankful.”  Thomas Watson, the Puritan, wrote, “If all be a gift, see the odious ingratitude of men who sin against their giver! God feeds them, and they fight against him; he gives them bread, and they give him insults. How unworthy is this! Should we not cry shame of him who had a friend always feeding him with money, and yet he should betray and injure him? Thus ungratefully do sinners deal with God; they not only forget his mercies, but abuse them. ‘When I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery.’ Oh, how horrid is it to sin against a bountiful God! – to strike the hands that relieve us.” The goodness of God should lead men to repentance, but in their hardness and impenitence, they treasure up to themselves wrath against the day of wrath, taking His mercies as their right and complaining against him with bitter animosity when they are not permitted what they desire.

Revolting Against God in order to Play God

            Why does man rebel against God? Because he wants to be his own God. He fights God in order to play God.  Romans 1:25 is a succinct definition of idolatry: “…they worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator.” This was the essence of Adam’s sin. He chose the way of godless independence and self-sufficiency as a short-cut to happiness. Such a spirit of self-will and self-esteem is now indigenous to all of Adam’s children, for they have been set in the mold of his decision.  Sinful human beings revolt against every form of dependence on God in order to deify the self.  John Calvin put it poignantly:  “Man’s chief problem is that he is turned in upon himself, and his greatest need is to be turned outside of himself, upward in worship to God, then outward in service to others.”  

            Such a spirit of rebellion expresses itself in human pride:  “Professing themselves to be wise, they become fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts.”  Man rejects God’s revelation and substitutes in its place his own ideas and speculation. Such is the tragic view of man in sin in Romans 1.

The Second Adam

And such is the dark backdrop against which the glorious gospel is set.  The only remedy for this irrational, anti-God allergy that the Bible calls “sin” is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Only grace can help such a creature. Regeneration, sanctification, and ultimate glorification are God’s works of grace designed to restore God’s moral image in man so that he can mirror God’s glory as he was made to do.

This “grace” has come by Jesus Christ.  He is the Second Adam, the paradigm of what it means to be truly human. He was man as man was intended to be.  He is the perfect image of God; consequently, He is the perfect man.

Those who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit are created in Christ “a new man” (Eph. 4:24; 2 Cor. 5:17). The new man has a new nature – a nature that loves God and is capable of responding to Him. But the “old man,” i.e. indwelling sin, is not eradicated, necessitating a conflict between the fallen nature and the new nature that will continue until death.

The goal is to grow more and more toward Christ-likeness by daily mortification of the flesh and consecration of the new man.  Such growth in grace, or sanctification, occurs as the child of God looks by faith upon Jesus Christ and is changed by the Spirit from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).

Finally, at the Savior’s second advent, the last vestiges of sin will be removed and the child of God will be given a new body to match his new heart. Not until the grace of glorification can he expect to be fully liberated from the ongoing struggle with sin, but he can indeed make progress in holiness, through the strength of the Spirit, as he commits himself day by day to following Jesus Christ.


            This is the Biblical view of man that is so basic to theology, ethics, and pastoral ministry.  It is my story.  I am a child of the first Adam, but praise be to God, I have been united by His grace to the Second Adam. He is my salvation, and He is my song.

O loving wisdom of our God, when all was sin and shame;

A Second Adam to the fight, and to the conflict came!