“What’s something that you learned from camp last week?” I asked a middle school student at a youth gathering a few weeks ago.
“That my good works don’t get me into heaven ,” he said. As he went on to explain more of what the speaker taught him, my heart was filled with joy. I know this specific student has been raised in a gospel saturated, Bible believing church his whole life, yet through God’s sovereign decree the Holy Spirit chose this specific lesson from camp to open his eyes to the beauty of the gospel like never before .
There is absolutely no sweeter moment for a youth minister to witness than a student grasping the totally free gift of grace that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for sinners (Romans 6:23). This is why we do what we do. However, as is often said in youth ministry, a student cannot understand the good news of the gospel until they first hear the bad news of their total depravity.
This isn’t the story the rest of the world is telling our students, however. Our teens are being theologized every day by TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, the books they read, the music they listen to, and the shows they watch. Most of what they are hearing runs counter to the narrative of Scripture. The self-help and self-esteem gospel is everywhere, and it leads our students to believe that they really are not all that bad. The world is teaching our students that they can reach inward and find something “good” inside of themselves to give their lives meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, this poisonous theology has crept into far too many churches, and tragically, it leads us to believe that we are self- sufficient. This false theology makes Jesus out to be a self-help coach instead of the Savior that we desperately need .
In a culture that seeks to pump students up with “self-love” talk, we as youth ministers have the difficult yet crucial task of teaching students the painful truth about themselves: apart from Jesus Christ, no one is good.
Romans 3 and our total depravity
The first text that comes to mind when seeking to explain the utter sinfulness of man to my students is Romans 3: 9-18:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Paul wants to make doubly sure that his audience gets the point that before the holy, Almighty God of the universe, they are utterly evil- Jew and Greek alike. He drives this point home by using the words “no one” and “not even one” 6 times in just 2 verses. It isn’t that one group has the upper hand in the holiness category; before God’s throne, all are full of sin and all stand condemned apart from the saving work of Christ.
But how deep does this sin problem run? Couldn’t it just be that we do some bad things, but there is still goodness inside of us to be uncovered and worked on? Later in chapter 8, Paul will go on to say that those who are in the flesh cannotplease God (Romans 8:8). Before Christ regenerates our hearts, we are utterly dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). Those in the flesh not only can’t please God; they don’t even want to.
It is important to address a common objection that a student may raise here, however. What about their friend at school who doesn’t cuss, smoke, cheat or drink, yet doesn’t believe in Jesus? How could God send their friend to hell, when their behavior is even better than even some Christians that they know?
The truth is that our outward behavior is not the main problem; the biggest issue is the heart. Before one is in Christ, his or her entire heart is sick and deceitful with sin (Jeremiah 17:9). While we are all image-bearers and unbelievers do reflect God’s beauty, the truth is that even “good” acts done before one knows Christ are still deeply tainted with sin. These acts are not done from a heart of repentance and faith and therefore are not done from a heart seeking to glorify God.
If we are still tempted to think that we are good, all we have to do is visit the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7 for our hopes to be crushed further. Here, Jesus addresses His audience from the law of Moses that they know so well, yet he takes the meaning even further. If his audience felt good about the fact that they had never murdered before, Jesus tells them that if they have had anger or hatred for their brother in their heart, they have murdered (Matthew 5:21-22). If his audience felt pride that they had never committed adultery, he humbles them by saying that if they have had lustful intent in their heart toward someone, they have committed adultery (Matthew 5: 27-28). Our hearts are the issue, and according to God, our hearts are wicked.
This means that the murderer on the street and your sweet 84-year-old next door neighbor both stand condemned before God if they have not trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. He is the only one who can make us counted as righteous before God.
Our utter separation from God is the worst news we could hear. But we can’t stop telling the story here. So what is next?
The gloriously good news of being totally bad
Scripture quickly banishes our notion of being good on every turn, yet on every single page we find our rescue and hope for the sickness of sin inside of us all. The answer is in our sacrificial Lamb, offered once for all: His name is Jesus (Hebrews 10).
No good works, no hours of church attendance and no charity volunteer hours could gain God’s smile. But the beautiful news of the gospel is that we have a God who delights to save sinners of all and every kind. The only way we can be counted as righteous before God is through the One who became sin for us, so that we could then become His righteousness and stand before His throne justified (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is gloriously good news for the outwardly “good” person as much as it is for the blatantly “bad” one- it is not our effort, our doing, or our trying that make us right before God, but only Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection.
The truth is, no one is good, and there is no hope within ourselves to ever be good. Jesus came to call sinners (Mark 2:17). Once we understand how sick we are, our need for our great Physician will appear even greater, and His healing touch will be all the more beautiful to us. My prayer for myself and my students is t hat God will reveal the depths of our sin to us so that we will cling to Him as our only hope, just like he did for my student at camp. I pray this for your ministry as well.