Can unbelievers do good?

I have previously posted about 5 beliefs Calvinists uphold that don’t undermine the doctrines of grace. Point 1 led to some discussion on this blog, namely that people can do good things. Some people quickly shot back with Paul’s comment that no one does good, not even one.

RC Sproul has written on this very subject.

Utter depravity would mean that man is as bad, as corrupt, as he possibly could be. I don’t think that there’s a human being in this world who is utterly corrupt, but that’s only by the grace of God and by the restraining power of His common grace. As many sins as we have committed individually, we could have done worse. We could have sinned more often. We could have committed sins that were more heinous. Or we could have committed a greater number of sins. Total depravity, then, does not mean that men are as bad as they conceivably could be.

There is a recognition that nobody is utterly depraved.

When we look around us, we see numerous people who are not Christians who do things that we would applaud for their virtue. For instance, we see acts of self-sacrificial heroism among those who are not Christian, such as police officers and firefighters. Many people live quietly as law-abiding citizens, never defying the state. We hear regularly about acts of honesty and integrity, such as when a person returns a lost wallet rather than keeping it. John Calvin called this civil righteousness.

There is a recognition that people can do things that appear good.

The reason for this problem is that when the Bible describes goodness or badness, it looks at it from two distinct perspectives. First, there is the measuring rod of the Law, which evaluates the external performance of human beings… in addition to the external measuring rod, there is also the consideration of the heart, the internal motivation for our behavior [sic]. We’re told that man judges by outward appearances, but God looks on the heart. From a biblical perspective, to do a good deed in the fullest sense requires not only that the deed conform outwardly to the standards of God’s Law, but that it proceed from a heart that loves Him and wants to honor [sic] Him.

This means that individuals are capable of doing objectively good external acts (civil righteousness) whilst the act, as it pertains to the person themselves, is not ultimately good due to the heart motive from which it proceeds. We can, then, recognise that unbelievers are capable of the objective goods of feeding the hungry, giving to the poor and helping the sick whilst also acknowledging such things are not ultimately good as it pertains to the person because they are not borne from a heart for God’s glory.

As Sproul concludes:

Even our finest works have a taint of sin mixed in. I have never done an act of charity, of sacrifice, or of heroism that came from a heart, a soul, and a mind that loved God completely. Externally, many virtuous acts are going on both among believers and unbelievers, but God considers both the external obedience and the motivation. Under that tight norm of judgment [sic], we’re in trouble.

The answer to whether unbelievers can do good is both yes and no. Yes, they are capable of externally acting in objectively good ways. However, in the ultimate sense in which God judges both external behaviour and heart motivation, not one of us can claim to be one hundred per cent pure and thus not good in an ultimate sense.

4 comments

  1. As usual, Sproul is correct. The problem, In my opinion, is that generally within Reformed Christianity, to which I belong, this distinction between external good deeds and internal, heart, deeds is not maintained. In fact, typically we attack the external deeds of unbelievers, while praising our, believers, external good deeds as if they are internally perfect.
    A further distinction for me is that an act, in an of itself, can be God honoring, even if the actor is not. The example of a fireman laying down her life to save another person. Jesus Himself commends this action and thus it is good! The act which is good in no way implies that the actor herself is good, particularly in the sense of being righteous.
    In Him whose Grace is sufficient even for me,

    Tim

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    1. Yes, I absolutely agree.

      The Bible is full of examples of this. Cyrus the Great was called good for permitting the children of Israel to return despite he, in no way, being a believer or keen to honour Yahweh.

      Many reformed people simply refuse to acknowledge this distinction and want to say everything anyone ever does is bad. Clearly scripture tells believers it is possible to please God by faith, despite the fact that nothing we do will be 100% pure in motive (as Sproul rightly notes). We can still call good, good despite it not being ultimately good or counted to the righteousness of the individual doing it.

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  2. I’m with Cranmer on this one.

    XIII. OF WORKS BEFORE JUSTIFICATION

    WORKS done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

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    1. With respect, I think that too.

      This doesn’t undercut the distinction between that which is an objectively good act whilst that same act, done with wrong motive, renders it sinful on the part of the actor.

      I would point to Biblical examples such as Shamgar, Cyrus the Great and others who were not believers but who were said to have acted in good ways. I would also point to Paul’s comment on government being a force for good. Doesn’t mean such actions weren’t motivationally sinful, and not counted as righteousness, to the actor. But this doesn’t stop good being objectively good.

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