Can Unbelievers Do Good Deeds?

Imagine a circle that represents the character of mankind. Now imagine that if someone sins, a spot—a moral blemish of sorts—appears in the circle, marring the character of man. If other sins occur, more blemishes appear in the circle. Well, if sins continue to multiply, eventually the entire circle will be filled with spots and blemishes. But have things reached that point? Human character is clearly tainted by sin, but the debate is about the extent of that taint. The Roman Catholic Church holds the position that man’s character is not completely tainted, but that he retains a little island of righteousness. However, the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century affirmed that the sinful pollution and corruption of fallen man is complete, rendering us totally corrupt.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about just what the Reformers meant by that affirmation. The term that is often used for the human predicament in classical Reformed theology is total depravity. People have a tendency to wince whenever we use that term because there’s very widespread confusion between the concept of total depravity and the concept of utter depravity. 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.

When the Protestant Reformers talked about total depravity, they meant that sin—its power, its influence, its inclination—affects the whole person. Our bodies are fallen, our hearts are fallen, and our minds are fallen—there’s no part of us that escapes the ravages of our sinful human nature. Sin affects our behavior, our thought life, and even our conversation. The whole person is fallen. That is the true extent of our sinfulness when judged by the standard and the norm of God’s perfection and holiness.

To take it further, when the apostle Paul elaborates on this fallen human condition, he says, “‘There is none righteous, no, not one; … There is none who does good; no, not one’” (Rom. 3:10b-12). That’s a radical statement. Paul is saying that fallen man never, ever does a single good deed, but that flies in the face of our experience. 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. But how can there be these deeds of apparent goodness when the Bible says that no one does 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. For example, if God says you are not allowed to steal, and you go your whole life without stealing, from an external evaluation we could say that you have a good record. You’ve kept the Law externally.

But in addition to the external measuring rod, there is also the consideration of the heart, the internal motivation for our behavior. 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 Him. You remember the great commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matt. 22:37). Is there anyone reading this book who has loved God with all of his or her heart for the past five minutes? No. Nobody loves God with all of his heart, not to mention his soul and mind.

One of the things I’m going to have to give account for on judgment day is the way in which I have wasted my mind in the pursuit of the knowledge of God. How many times have I been too lazy or slothful to apply myself to the fullest possible measure to know God? I have not loved God with all of my mind. If I loved God with all of my mind, there’d never be an impure thought in my head. But that’s not the way my head works.

If we consider human performance from this perspective, we can see why the apostle would come to his apparently radical conclusion that there is no one who does good, that there’s no goodness in the full sense of the word found among mankind. 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, we’re in trouble.

This excerpt is adapted from The Truth of the Cross by R.C. Sproul.

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