The total depravity of man in Psalm 14

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TO THE CHOIRMASTER. OF DAVID.
The fool says in his heart, There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread
and do not call upon the LORD?

There they are in great terror,
for God is with the generation of the righteous.
You would shame the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is his refuge.

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Psalm 14:1-7)

If we were to survey people, believers and unbelievers alike, and ask them about the nature of man, I suspect the majority of people would say humanity is inherently good. At the very least they would say, There’s a little good in all of us.” Perhaps we would also find some who would say we are born morally neutral. We’re neither good nor evil until we choose to do either good or evil.

In most cases, this anthropological foundation leads to a soteriology of works. In other words, if someone believes man is inherently good or, at the very least, morally neutral, he will most likely believe salvation is based on a running record of our works. If our good works outweigh our sins, he thinks, then we’ll go to heaven. If not, we may still go to heaven because, after all, God is gracious.

This, however, is not what the Bible teaches. Man is not good. We are not even morally neutral. As David says here, They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one (Ps 14:3).

If you’ve ever raised children, you hardly need the Bible to tell this. I have never taught my children to lie. I have never taught them to be disrespectful or disobedient. Even so, I have caught them lying. I have seen them be disrespectful and disobedient. From where does this sinful impulse come? If it doesn’t come from outside of themselves, it must come from inside of themselves.

The prophet Jeremiah says, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer 17:9). Our sinfulness is not merely a matter of committing sin. Our very nature is sinful. Elsewhere, David says, I was brought forth, or born, in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps 51:5). We are sinful from the very moment of conception.

We may not enjoy dwelling on this subject, but we cannot overstate its importance. David even wrote a song about it. Notice the inscription at the top of this psalm. This inscription wasn’t added by our Bible translators or publishers. It is original to the text of Psalm 14. It is part of God’s breathed out Scripture, and it says, To the choirmaster (2Ti 3:16). David says, I want the congregation of God’s people to sing this song about our depravity.” Yes, sing songs about God’s mercy and salvation, but let us never forget from what God saves us. He saves us from our sin. In a very real sense, he saves us from ourselves.

We have rejected God

Verse 1 is probably familiar to most of us. David writes, The fool says in his heart, There is no God’ (Ps 14:1).

To be clear, the word fool does not refer to a person who lacks intelligence. What he lacks is understanding. He may be an otherwise brilliant man, but he’s simultaneously senseless regarding certain spiritual or moral matters. Namely, he claims, There is no God (Ps 14:1).

Unsurprisingly, this verse makes most of us immediately think of the practical atheist. We think of someone such as Richard Dawkins, who is an outspoken critic of religion. In 2006, he published a book titled, The God Delusion, in which he argues science has rendered belief in God useless. He has said, Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”

Years ago, I used to buy copies of John’s Gospel by the case and would leave stacks of them in various public places such as coffee houses. On the inside cover, I would always write the same message. It said:

I cannot make sense of the world or life itself apart from a sovereign Creator, who providentially rules the universe according to a wise, benevolent plan. If this God exists, it seems to me the most important pursuit of our lives is learning everything we can about him and his will. Perhaps this book will be a starting place for you.

That message may not persuade Richard Dawkins, but Mr. Dawkins is looking at things upside down. The book of Hebrews says, By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God (Heb 11:3). It isn’t tangible evidence that compels us to believe. We believe, then we understand. We trust in God, then the world begins to make sense.

The fact is, no amount of tangible evidence will ever convince the atheist. Consider the unbelieving Jews who saw sign after sign from Christ. They couldn’t possibly deny his power, yet they still refused to believe. Instead, they said, It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons that this man is able to do what he does” (Mt 12:24).

The practical atheist doesn’t exist because he lacks evidence. You’ll notice the fool in this text doesn’t deny God merely with his lips. The fool says in his heart, There is no God” (Ps 14:1). This denial comes from within. It’s a part of the very fabric of his being. This defiance of God, and it is defiance, is his very nature.

In Job 21, Job says:

They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.
They say to God, Depart from us!
We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.
What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
And what profit do we get if we pray to him?”
(Job 21:13-15)

That’s defiance. Paul says, The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot (Ro 8:7). In the Greek, this verse in Psalm 14 literally says, The fool says in his heart, No God.’” The fool blatantly defies God.

To be clear, though, David is not exclusively describing the practical atheist, or the one who altogether denies God’s existence. This kind of denial and defiance comes in many forms. Yes, some people openly deny God, but many others profess to believe in either a god or the God while still playing the part of the fool, who says in his heart, There is no God” (Ps 14:1).

Consider Romans 1, where Paul describes the pagan Gentiles. He says:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:21-25)

Notice some of the similarities that passage has with Psalm 14:1. Paul, too, calls them fools. They lack understanding specifically about God. It’s from their hearts this foolish defiance comes. And the end result is, they deny God. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie (Ro 1:25).

Even so, you’ll also notice these Gentiles still practiced religion. They still believed in and worshiped various gods. They didn’t altogether deny the existence of a spiritual, heavenly being as Richard Dawkins would. Does David have them in mind when he writes Psalm 14:1? Absolutely. They denied the one true God.

In fact, we can go even further. Through his prophet Isaiah, God said of the people of Judah, This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me (Isa 29:13). That’s a euphemistic way of saying, They don’t know me. They defy me. They deny me.” Their lips said one thing, but their hearts revealed something else altogether.

In other words, there are people who profess to believe in the one true God, yet they are fools, who say in their hearts, No God.”

David isn’t exclusively talking about the outspoken, practical atheist here. The fact is, he’s talking everyone. He’s talking about Adam’s entire fallen family. We are all corrupt by nature (Ps 14:1). We are all rotten from within. We all do abominable deeds because that’s what an inherently corrupt person does. There is none who does good.

God evaluates our condition

Perhaps we’re tempted to argue with David. Maybe we’re tempted to defend ourselves and say, I can do good. Maybe I misstep from time to time, but in general, I’m a pretty good person.” If so, our disagreement isn’t with David. It’s with God.

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 14:2, 3)

First of all, whom is God examining here? He’s examining the children of man (Ps 14:2). This word man in Hebrew is the same word translated elsewhere into Adam. God is examining the children of Adam. Who are Adam’s children? All of us. Every last one of us.

Second, what is God looking for? He’s looking to see if there are any who understand, who seek after him (Ps 14:2). He’s looking for people who are looking for him, but he doesn’t find any.

Keep in mind, the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1Sa 16:7). He’s not looking for religious people. He’s not looking for people who merely profess to believe in him. He’s looking for sincere, obedient people who love and trust him, but he finds none. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Ps 14:3).

God’s evaluation of humanity here is all-inclusive—all, together, none (Ps 14:3). While he certainly sees many religious people, people who profess to believe in him, and people who appear to do good in this world, God’s infallible conclusion is that all have sinned and fall short of his glory (Ro 3:23). I can’t remember who said it, but I remember the line that goes, God finds nothing in man to turn his heart, but more than enough to turn his stomach.”

Once again, though, many people are prone to push back. They would argue humanity isn’t that bad. To be clear, David isn’t suggesting that we are all as wicked or sinful as we could be. Read Romans 1 again. Paul implies that God restrains the wickedness of men. We are only as wicked in this world as God allows us to be.

David is also not suggesting we are without a conscience or any sense of right and wrong. Sometimes we refer to God’s moral law—namely, the Ten Commandments—as his natural law. It is a natural law because God built it right into his creation. As a result, Paul says, people are without excuse (Ro 1:20). In Romans 2, he writes:

So, when Gentiles, who do not by nature have the law—the prescribed, written law—do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. (Romans 2:14, 15)

In other words, a person doesn’t need God’s written law to be guilty. God’s natural law was built into him. The fact that he does any apparent good at all proves it. More to the point, he has a conscience. He has something inside of him that knows the difference between right and wrong even though he suppresses that truth.

Lastly, David doesn’t mean we’re unable do what appears to be good works. I just read what Paul said in Romans. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s prescribed law, sometimes do what the law demands (Ro 2:14). However, there’s a significant problem with their so-called good works.

No amount of good works will ever be good enough. God is holy and perfect. His law is holy and perfect. God and his law demand perfection. The book of James says, Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it (Jas 2:10). Again, let’s not forget what David says in Psalm 51. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps 51:5). Paul says, In Adam all die (1Co 15:22). In other words, we do not merely commit sin. We are sinners. As Adam’s children, we share his fallen nature.

We may not like to think of ourselves as depraved, evil people. We’d much rather think we all have a little good in us, but that could only be true if we are evaluating ourselves by a standard other than God’s law. According to God’s law, each one of us is guilty. In Romans 3, Paul writes:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19, 20)

When the LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, he is judging according to his law (Ps 14:2). He’s evaluating us by his perfect standard, and we all fall short. We are all fools, who say in our hearts, There is no God (Ps 14:1). Our very nature rejects him even if we never say it out loud.

Again, consider the Jews in Jesus’s day. The apostle John says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, God in the flesh, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9-11)

Later, Jesus himself says, The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (Jn 3:19). God walked among those who claimed to believe in him, love him, and serve him, yet they rejected him. That is the true condition of humanity. We are not born good. We are not even born neutral. Despite what our appearances may suggest, we are wicked sinners who reject God.

We suppress the truth

Worst yet, we are blind to our fallen nature. We don’t even see the judgment hanging over our heads. God determines we have all turned aside; together we have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one (Ps 14:3). And how do we respond? According to verse 4, we’re completely ignorant. Have they no knowledge, the Lord asks, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD? (Ps 14:4).

Naturally, people don’t call upon the Lord because the fool says in his heart, There is no God” (Ps 14:4, 1). In his heart, he doesn’t believe in God, so he doesn’t turn to God. He doesn’t seek God for help. He doesn’t cry to him for mercy. He doesn’t beg him for salvation. He doesn’t ask to be redeemed from his fallen, guilty state. He doesn’t believe he’s fallen. He doesn’t believe he’s guilty. In his heart, there is no God, and there is nothing from which to be saved.

Once again, I’ll draw your attention to Romans 1, which says:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)

No one has an excuse for unbelief. Creation itself testifies to God’s existence. Even so, notice what Paul says the unbeliever does. He suppresses the truth. He pushes it down. He avoids it. He ignores it. When the fool says in his heart, There is no God,” it’s not that he doesn’t know the truth. He denies and defies the truth.

Sometimes you’ll hear a Christian talk about people living in a remote part of the world who have never heard the gospel, read the Bible, or been told about the one true God, and he says, God won’t hold them accountable for their unbelief.” But that’s a clear contradiction to what Paul says in Romans 1. What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them, but they suppress the truth (Ro 1:19, 18). Consequently, they are without excuse (Ro 1:20).

There’s a very real sense in which the atheist is a mythical creature. He doesn’t really exist. In fact, even someone who denies the God of the Bible, someone who refuses to worship his Creator, won’t be able to help himself. He may not worship his Creator, but he will worship something. God built the desire to worship into us, and even the practical atheist will find himself worshiping something. He will give his life in committed devotion to something.

Paul says of the Gentiles:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:21-23)

As Bob Dylan has said, It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

For those who persist in their denial and defiance of God, we see they are in great terror (Ps 14:5). This phrase is in what we’d call the perfect verbal form, which means they aren’t necessarily afraid in the present. David is describing the terror, or fear, they will experience in the future as though it is happening right now. We might say they will be in great terror, or perhaps we could say they should be in great terror.

Terror of what? What should they be afraid of?

Judgment.

Paul tells the Corinthians, We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2Co 5:10). John MacArthur once said:

Sinners live with the illusion that they can make a judgment on Jesus Christ and avoid him making a judgment on them. … You judge Jesus wrongly, and he will judge you rightly. … The question is not what you will do with Jesus. The question is, when you see him face-to-face, what will he do with you?

The majority of people may deny it, but children of Adam are on a path that ends with terror. Jesus said, The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many (Mt 7:13).

Obviously, the people addressed here in Psalm 14 have made a deadly serious miscalculation about themselves, the world, and most importantly, God. The fool says, There is no God, and I don’t need him anyhow” (Ps 14:1). God says, You’re foolish, corrupt, and ignorant, and you have every reason to be fearful because you deserve nothing less than my wrath.”

Salvation in the Lord alone

While there are plenty of troubling truths in this psalm, we don’t want to miss the good news peaking through the darkness. Perhaps you noticed that verses 4 and 5 mention a group of people who appear to stand apart from the foolish, corrupt, ignorant God-deniers. In verse 4, the Lord refers to my people (Ps 14:4). Then, verse 5 says, God is with the generation of the righteous (Ps 14:5). Finally, verse 7 says, Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad (Ps 14:7).

Who are these people, and how did they become righteous if there is none who does good, not even one? (Ps 14:3). To answer those questions, let’s go to Romans 3, where the apostle Paul quotes this psalm. I’ll begin reading at verse 9.

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.”

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:9-20)

Paul quotes Psalm 14 and several other Old Testament passages here to establish one very simple point. We are all guilty sinners. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. It doesn’t matter whether you are a moralist or an atheist. You stand guilty before God and his law.

Then again, evidently, there are exceptions. Psalm 14 speaks of the righteous, God’s people. Who are they? How did the escape the terror to come? Let’s continue reading here in Romans 3.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

Notice how Paul reiterates our guilt yet again. There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Ro 3:22, 23). He doesn’t want anyone to deceive himself into thinking he is inherently righteous or can become righteous if only he does enough good works. We are all guilty, but praise be to God, there’s a way out. We can escape our guilt and the terror to come. We can escape the fallen family of Adam and enter into the righteous family of God. How so?

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone.

We can be justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood (Ro 3:24, 25). By propitiation, Paul means Jesus assuaged God’s wrath against us by suffering it in our place. We can be justified and declared innocent by God because Jesus was innocent, born sinless, keeping God’s law perfectly throughout his entire life, and suffering God’s wrath in our place. Then, just as God treated his Son as guilty, he looks at us through his Son’s blood and treats us as innocent.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood—and notice this last phrase—to be received by faith (Ro 3:24, 25).

Do you remember what God rhetorically asked in Psalm 14? Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who do not call upon the LORD? (Ps 14:4). That’s the escape. That’s our means to salvation. We are not righteous by birth. We cannot become righteous through our efforts in this life. But we can, by God’s grace, call upon him for mercy. We can turn to him for salvation. We can trust that he can and will save us through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Ro 3:24). We can receive justification before him by faith (Ro 3:25).

Hebrews 11:6 says, Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

In 1908, a national newspaper asked several authors to answer the question, What is wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton’s reply was the shortest one submitted to the paper. He simply wrote, Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton”.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyhow. If we will sincerely turn to God in faith, calling upon him for mercy and grace, seeking his salvation, then we must first admit we are sinners. Until we realize we are the fool of Psalm 14, we will have no reason to see the LORD as our refuge and seek to become part of the generation of the righteous (Ps 14:6, 5). We must first know we are the problem.

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