If you would ask someone today whether or not there is some goodness in man, you would probably receive an answer in the affirmative. The response would be the same whether the person was in a liberal church, a conservative church, or no church at all. It is not uncommon to hear people say that "all men are good" or "deep down inside they are a good person." This idea grew popular during the Enlightenment with the emphasis on man's reason. Man became viewed as the center of the universe and capable of just about anything. In fact, many philosophers of that time held a very diminished view of God since they concluded that man could accomplish so much with the power of his reason that he did not need God. However, this view of an innate goodness of man or that everyone has an "island of righteousness" goes back even farther than the Enlightenment. A British monk in the 400s, named Pelagius, also had a very high view of man. He even believed that man was capable of being perfect in and of himself. Again the clear implication of this sort of thinking would mean that man would not need God and was fine on his own. Such a view is antithetical to Scripture.
In contrast, the Bible presents a very low view of man. When God decides to punish humanity with the flood, it is due to man's wickedness which Enlightenment thinkers and Pelagius denied existed in man. The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). Notice that this wickedness of man was great and not small. In God's view, man was not good but evil at the root of his very being; the heart. His heart did not contain goodness but only evil. This evil was not occasional but continual (literally all the days in the Hebrew). It was not just a few intentions of his heart that were evil but every intention. God later says through the prophet Jeremiah that The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus affirmed the wickedness of man's heart when He stated that It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person (Matthew 15:10). His point was that it is not certain foods that one eats that would make them unclean but instead what they would say since this reflects the thoughts and desires of their heart. Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes through the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matthew 15:17-19), None of this list of what comes out of the heart could be described as good. In the depths of man's heart, we do not find an "island of righteousness" but an ocean of depravity.
The doctrine described in these verses has been known as "Total Depravity" (the "T" of the TULIP in Reformed Theology). "Deprave" means "To debase, especially morally; corrupt" (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/deprave) and "total" indicates that this debasement extends to every part of the person. There is not one area of our lives that has not been tarnished by sin due to the Fall. This does not mean that man is as wicked as he could be. Only that man is wicked at the core of his being. In fact, theologian and author R. C. Sproul would rather call the doctrine "Radical Corruption" in order to better communicate this truth.
Enlightenment thinkers and modern day Pelagians may argue that such corruption is due to nurture and not nature. They may claim that man is born basically good but becomes corrupted by the conditioning of society. However, the Bible teaches the opposite. One is born a sinner by nature. David declared that Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive. (Psalm 51:5). Paul tells us that the Ephesians were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:3). This is universal as Paul stated the condition being like the rest of mankind. Man has inherited Adam's sin nature so he is born a sinner. Due to Adam's disobedience, he and the entire human race became slaves to sin. Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Since sin is a part of man's innate nature, he cannot help but sin. Jeremiah puts it this way: Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil (Jeremiah 13:22). Just as it is impossible for an Ethiopian to "choose" to change the color of his skin and a leopard his spots, it is impossible for man to do good because he is accustomed to doing evil due to his sin nature. The only way man could quit doing evil would be for his nature to be changed. Something he can't do himself.
Now the accusation may arise that certainly man does do some good and is not totally evil. Afterall, several unbelievers give generously to the poor and some treat their neighbor better than Christians do. Are these not good things? Wouldn't this rule out the argument that man in his depraved nature is evil continually? However, we are not the standard of what is good to make such judgments. God is the One who determines what is good or evil. When the rich young man approached Jesus seeking the good deed that he must do to have eternal life, Jesus reminded him that the one who determines what is good is God Himself. Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:17). He then points to the Law that God gave that reveal His holy standard. While the man thought he had kept the commandments that related to relationships with one's neighbor, it became clear that he was in violation of those that concerned his relationship with God. His refusal to part with his possessions revealed that he had erected another god whom he worshiped in place of the true God. He had clearly fallen short of God's standard by violating the first of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments.
For God, the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. God is concerned with the motives that underlie the reason that one does what he does. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). One can do the right thing but if it is done with the wrong motives it is still wrong in God's eyes. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is that You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37). If someone does something for any other reason than love for God, then the action would not be viewed as good in God's eyes because it was not done in His honor and out of love for Him. This would make even the most pious acts wrong if they are not done for God. Since man by nature does not seeks for God (Romans 3:11), he would not be doing a "good" deed in honor of God. In fact, quoting from Psalms, Paul states All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:12). The Psalmist describes no one as doing good. To clarify he states not even one. Man universally does not do good in God's eyes.
The Enlightenment and Pelagian denial of depravity proves detrimental to one's understanding of salvation and evangelism. Ignoring Scripture's teaching on the "total depravity" of man leads to one believing that man is good enough to play an active role in his salvation. Some may erroneously be misled to believe that salvation depends in part on them. If man has the ability to do good on his own and even be perfect as Pelagius claimed, then why would he need God? Furthermore, if man is not viewed as depraved, then the question would arise as to why he even would need to be saved. Man is good in God's eyes so what would be the problem?
This heretical view also greatly effects the way that one evangelizes. Since the perception is that man is able to obey God's commandments on his own, evangelists shift from faithfully teaching and preaching the Bible for God's Spirit to work through His Word to convict and regenerate sinners (Romans 1:16; 10:17; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23; Acts 2:37) to working to manipulate emotions through several different gimmicks just for them to simply raise a hand or say a prayer; promising their salvation based on their actions instead of God's work. This is a shift from the strong biblical preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards to the theatrics and psychological tactics of Charles Finney. This Pelagian style of evangelism has created dozens of self-proclaimed "Christians" who have never been converted or even know that such is necessary because they never heard Jesus tell Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3:3).
Several theologians have described the current era as the "Pelagian Captivity of the Church" and it appears with the Enlightenment and Pelagian emphasis on man's goodness and ability that they unfortunately might be right. The only thing that can break this type of captivity would be to go back to the Scriptures and boldly proclaim its message that man is by nature a sinner in desperate need of the Savior and whose salvation depends solely and completely on Him.
Soli Deo Gloria