When God created man on the 6th day, He took a moment to survey all that He had made “and saw that it was very good!” Scripture says man was created in the image of God, but according to John Wesley, man lost that image when he chose loving self over loving God. In his sermon The End of Christ’s Coming, he states, “And in that day, yea, that moment, he died! The life of God was extinguished in his soul. The glory departed from him. He lost the whole moral image of God—righteousness and true holiness.” This correlates directly with Genesis 6:5, which says, “The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.”
The world believes that man is basically good. Even some Christian theologians sometimes make this misguided claim. In the book Grace, Faith, and Holiness, H. Ray Dunning came to the conclusion that “man is ‘essentially good but existentially estranged.” But if this were true, then it is only estrangement that is necessary to overcome in order to be restored to a right relationship with God, and the atonement made by Christ was not necessary. We could just simply say we are sorry, and God would welcome us back. But it is not simply estrangement that must be overcome. There is a reason we are estranged from God. It is the loss of our moral goodness, righteousness, and holiness that separates us from God. Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of goodness, and only the blood of Christ could restore the light of God’s goodness in us once again (Hebrews 9:22-28; Ephesians 5:8).
Dunning believes that if mankind was not essentially good, then “in conversion, man would cease to be man since that which is essentially evil cannot become good without ceasing to be what it was and becoming something else.” This is simply wrong. Evil is not the essence of man’s being but rather the condition of man’s soul in his fallen state. Paul affirmed this when he wrote to the church in Rome: “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t” (Romans 3:12; 7:18-19). If mankind is essentially good, then how can it be that “no one does good, not a single one?” (Romans 3:12). Wouldn’t a good person’s actions reflect that goodness? Richard S. Taylor also contradicts Dunning on this point in his book Exploring Christian Holiness, vol. 3: “Man without holiness may be maimed, but he is still man. Therefore, while holiness is natural to human nature, it is not inseparable from human nature. It is not an attribute of manness per se.” Mankind was first created holy and good, but holiness and goodness were lost in the fall.
What is goodness? Is it a moral quality, a natural quality, or a dominative quality? These are the three ways that man originally reflected the image of God before the fall, according to John Wesley. The word “good” has a fairly versatile function in language. When saying that vegetables are good for your health, goodness is defined as being suitable for a purpose. When saying that a person is good at their craft, goodness means being able to perform skillfully and reliably. And finally, in the case of identifying someone as a good person, goodness takes on a moral definition; the person is known to be kind, fair, and trustworthy.
In Galatians 5:22, Goodness is described as one of the fruits of the Spirit. In this context, it means acting on behalf of others in a right, and just, and humble, and self-sacrificing manner. In other words, holiness and righteousness in action, but our lives cannot produce the fruits of the Spirit until we are living in the Spirit. Goodness is not something we, as fallen humans already have but rather, it is a result of the transformation that takes place in sanctification by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who restores the image of God in us.
Any goodness in a moral sense is completely lost in our rebellion against God. Even in a natural quality goodness is lost to us in the sense that mankind is no longer able to fulfill his purpose. Because our spirit is dead, we are incapable of having any real relationship with God. And in the dominative sense, man has lost his goodness in that he can no longer govern well. Mankind is not good at his appointed responsibility of overseeing creation. Romans 8:19-22 explains how creation itself is subject to God’s curse of death and decay because of the sins of man and “groans” for the Day of the Lord when mankind is fully transformed by God, freeing us and creation from the curse of death.
We humans have lost any sense of moral goodness—no longer holy and righteous; natural goodness—no longer useful or capable of fulfilling his purpose of a holy relationship with God; or dominative goodness—no longer able to govern well. We are like King Saul, who was appointed to rule over Israel but failed miserably at the task set before him because of his own selfishness and pride.
It is true that we are valued by God and that we have dignity. Genesis 9:6 explains that anyone who commits murder is to be put to death because “God made human beings in his own image.” Despite our brokenness, God still loves and cares for us. Psalm 139:14 speaks about how we are “fearfully and wonderfully made, “but sin has corrupted us through and through. Even our bodies are corrupted by sinfulness, as demonstrated by our sickness and death. We have taken God’s masterful creation and smashed it to pieces. Only the Creator can remake us into “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So as far as I can see, it is not true that fallen man is “essentially good” in any capacity. Man can be restored to goodness by faith in Christ, but apart from an act of God, there is no goodness in us. Jesus Himself made this very clear when He said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Goodness is lost to fallen man and only restored in justification by faith in Christ and the subsequent sanctification that follows. Only then is the image of God restored in us.