Monday, April 23, 2007

Question about doing good

Can a sinner do anything good by God's standard? How would you go about showing what the Bible speaks of on this matter?

When a non-Christian helps an old lady across the street, that is sin, because it is not done for the glory of God, and therefore is stealing what is rightfully God's.

"We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight. We all wither like a leaf; our sins carry us away like the wind." (Isaiah 64:6)

"Everyone rejects God; they are all morally corrupt. None of them does what is right, not even one!" (Psalm 14:3)

Those who are not saved have no faith in God therefore sin in everything they do: "But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23)

"No one is good but God" - Jesus to the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-19).


Ben said...

I'm going to give a few responses from the other side. I think I might stray a bit from the point you brought up, but hopefully it's all related enough to make sense.

1) Literature types and Interpretation (Psalm 26)

"Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth."

This is the same "literature type" as the "no one seeks God" passage. Though the Romans reference changes our perspective on that passage, please note that the Psalms are frequently given to hyperbole. And yes, I have considered that this may be a prophetic passage about someone other than David, the author; but there are a number of similar passages which would indicate to me that "There is none righteous," especially when taken in its context, may not be describing the "Spiders dangling above a flame" of Reformed tradition -- seeing as if we intepret Psalm 14 in that way, we should translate other Psalms with the same approach; seemingly, this would introduce some contradictions.

It may be possible that the Isaiah passage could give way to a similar interpretation. I don't think I'm going to take the time to prove it, but certainly if the principle applies here, it also applies elsewhere. Please note that I am not in any way arguing against the concept of original sin, or otherwise claiming that man can earn salvation.

2) Foreknowledge (Romans 8:29)

Essentially, the question at hand deals with two of the TULIPs -- Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. Now, if we were to defeat the "sinners can't do good" premise, we could still chalk it up to common grace, but for the purpose of our discussion I think I'll ignore that dimension. The first of these I'll tackle is Unconditional Election.

"For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son"

Certainly I don't need to prove that justification is a gift, so that "no one can boast". But I think foreknowledge adds a necessary component: that though God is not required to choose you because of anything you've done, He is also not required to choose you with His eyes closed. Foreknowledge means that God knows who you are and what you are like, even if you haven't done anything yet. Because of this, and because there are frequent references in the Psalms and the Gospels that separate those who are righteous and those who are not -- and admittedly, also because I believe the Bible and reality teach us that we have at least some free moral choices -- I would suggest that God chooses us, not based on our greatness, not based on something that we can do to earn His grace, but He chooses us because He knows us.

Perhaps he sees in us the qualities that He desires, just as David was "a man after God's own heart". Thus we have, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to Him as righteousness," and similarly, "To as many as believed in Him, He gave them the power to become sons of God." And further, "If you were blind, you would be without sin; but because you claim to see, your sin remains." Also, the parable of the publican and the pharisee is one that I reference frequently ... or how about this: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." We know as well from some passages in the OT and NT that there is a definite concept of the "righteous gentile" ... a person who, although not part of the convenant, has shown themselves to be the kind of person that God seeks. But I'll deal more with that in the next point.

3) The Righteous Gentile

There are two theories of sin natures that come to mind for me. "Total Depravity" says that because of Original Sin, man cannot do anything right; this is usually supported by the eponymous "No not one" passage. "Original" says, man is bound to a sin nature. It prevents him from saving himself, but does not prevent him from ever doing anything good. This is the essence of the question of your post: Original or Total Depravity? Or, is it a requirement that every action of an unregenerated person be 100% evil?

The first response to this, I believe comes from our previous discussion about OT saints. If, as some of us posited, there were righteous people before the coming of the Holy Spirit, it could follow that their righteousness was effected, not primarily through the regeneration that we depend on, but instead through their own actions. Though their holiness was not sufficient to save them on its own, these "examples of Holy Living" as in Hebrews chapter 11, are people of whom it is said, "God is not ashamed to be called their God." What a testimony, for God to be proud of your work ... not in a "It's a good thing He decided to be on My side" sense, but in a "Well done, good and faithful servant" sense.

Now, you may well say, "These people were part of God's convenant. They may have had a special dispensation of grace that allowed them to live holy lives. But in this situation, we are talking about some one who rests outside of special grace." Thus we come to the question of the "Righteous Gentile". Does it exist? Cornelius, although outside of God's convenant, was recognized to be righteous. Also, we have seemingly contradictory passage in the NT, such as Romans 2:14-16, where even as Paul says that the Gentiles are a law unto themselves, says that their thoughts can defend them; or also, Luke 12:47-48,

"And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more."

... perhaps indicating the axiom, "You will judged more lightly if you have less knowledge of what's right". I don't think I really have the systematic theology chops, or time, to do a thorough study of "The Concept of Righteous Gentiles in the Old and New Testaments", but I hope that I at least have conveyed the idea, and you guys can evaluate whether or not you think these claims are true through your own study I guess.


For this situation -- potentially righteous gentile helps little old lady across street, thus stealing God's glory -- here's what occured to me. The two commandments: Love God and Love Others. Jesus says, "the second is like it" -- why? Perhaps 1 John can shed a little light on this -- "if you do not love your brother, whom you have seen, how can you love God, whom you have not seen?" If, without reference to God, PRG helps LOL across a street, he might follow this breakdown of reasons:

40% - Wants to feel good about himself
30% - Worried about little old lady, hoping she doesn't get hurt
30% - Ashamed not to help a little old lady with people watching

In this situation, although his motivation is divided, he may possibly be in the second case motivated out of love. Therefore, though he is not able to save himself, he may have in this action the seeds of the true good that God desires: love.


Of course, I recognize there are some problems with this argument. I'd imagine that Romans 9 will figure in at least one rebuttal. Food for thought, though, you know?

Danny Slavich said...


I wish I had time to develop a very cogent response. But I'll leave that to Ben.

Let me just say this:

1. I agree that it is impossible for unregenerate people to act with pure motives.
2. It is more commendable to act "good", yet with impure motives (as in the example Nathan gave), than to do something wicked from impure motives. For example, I think that at the judgment, the unbeliever who pushes an old lady in front of an oncoming bus will be judged more harshly than the unbeliever who helps her across the street. The first has acted MORE sinfully than the second.
3. An interesting side-note: can a Christian do anything with pure motives? I don't think so. Calvin said that even our actions are purified by the Gospel, so that impure motives on our part (though no doubt less impure than an unregenerate man), is made acceptable to God through Christ.

Ben said...

Yeah, that's basically what I thought. But it took me a lot longer to get there.

David, T. said...

It is interesting... I posted this earlier, but I guess it didn't "go anywhere"...

Romans 6:6-13 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, {6 Or be rendered powerless} that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.

Romans 6:18 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I think that this is the reason why we can do "good"... Paul assumes that the person who has been made alive to God now has the ability to offer or chose to offer their body as an instrument of righteousness. Being made alive to God through Jesus Christ brings about a slavery to righteousness... and breaks a slavery to sin. I believe that many in the world do good and steal the glory from God and profane his name in the process. No one is good, but God, but it is through our association and identity in Christ that (counting ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus) that brings about righteousness in our lives.

However, with this being said - there are many times that I try to do the right thing only to steal the glory inwardly. So I guess my question would turn to: how can we guard our hearts from that?