Biblegems # 107
Question: Is it true that man can do no good apart from God? Even the humanistic worldview proclaims the importance of selflessness. On the other hand, the heart of man is wicked… So is it true that, apart from Christ’s love, even “good” actions have an underlying intention that ultimately makes them selfish acts?
The Bible text that immediately comes to mind is the apostle Paul’s quote from the OT that no one does anything good:
Rom. 3:10, 12 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; …All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
But then you have Jesus saying:
Luke 11:13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
So which is it—people can do good, such as giving good gifts to their children—or people are incapable of doing good, as Paul seems to say in Romans? Actually, Romans 3:12 does not say we are incapable of doing good; it simply says no one does good.
Both Jesus and Paul are completely agreed that mankind is wicked at heart, corrupted by sin from birth, and shaped in iniquity throughout life. This is a solidly biblical portrait of the human condition, one that is strikingly at odds with the contemporary worldview that sees mankind as inherently good, or at least morally neutral at birth.
Eccl. 7:20 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.
A truly “righteous man,” according to Bible, is someone “who does what is right and never sins”—not someone who never does what is right. We are all unrighteous because we are all sinners; but even sinners can do the right thing.
The sinful nature is inherited at conception:
Ps. 51:5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
However, as sinful and totally corrupt as man is, people are still capable of acting in accordance with God’s will, showing that “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness” (Rom. 2:15).
This is why people without Christ are quite capable of doing good things and of recognizing good that others do. That’s why, in the words of this week’s Biblegems reader, “even the humanistic worldview proclaims the importance of selflessness.” In fact, the apostle Paul was counting on the non-Christian’s appreciation for selflessness when he contrasted the high human standard of being willing to die for a good person with the even higher standard set by God:
Rom. 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So, is it possible for unsaved people to do good without hidden selfish motives? Certainly. But it is the very fact that we know what is good but don’t do it that condemns us.
Rom. 7:24-25 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!