Asking the Right Question
We take a break from our trip through the Revelation and ponder a question posed to a friend of mine by an Calvinist friend of his. Can the unbeliever do good?
The background to his question begins with the Calvinist doctrine of "total depravity." As there are degrees of dispensationalism, so there are degrees of Calvinism. But for our purposes, we will focus on the reasoning behind our basic question.
My short answer is "no." The reason for this is not based on Paul's writings on justification, but rather in a rather clear statement in the Book of Hebrews.
But without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
Unbelievers, prima facie, are not believers. This, I would think, is the natural place to go to argue that unbelievers cannot please God. But does it follow that they can do no good? I don't think so.
An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked:
There is no fear of God before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes,
When he finds out his iniquity and when he hates.
The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit;
He has ceased to be wise and to do good.
He devises wickedness on his bed;
He sets himself in a way that is not good;
He does not abhor evil.
It could be argued the subject here is a believer who has turned away from God and now "devises wickedness," but I think the context argues that it is a representation of man inherently. To be honest, I cannot discern from Calvin's commentary on this Psalm where he comes down. It can be read as applying to the wicked lost or the wandering heart of the believer. Either way, it would seem to be a crack in either the doctrine of total depravity or in the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints (as interpreted by some).
Healing, Giving, and other Wonderful Works of Unbelievers
In the case of the latter, wherein false believers are exposed as such, the following example is given at Ligonier.org of those that made a false profession of faith:
They had made an outward profession of faith, and Jesus makes it clear that it is possible for a person to do this even when he doesn’t possess what he’s professing. Jesus says, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matt. 15:8). Jesus even warns at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that at the last day, many will come to Him, saying: “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this in your name? Didn’t we do that in your name?” He will send them away, saying: “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). He will not say: “I knew you for a season and then you went sour and betrayed Me. No, you never were part of My invisible church.” The whole purpose of God’s election is to bring His people safely to heaven; therefore, what He starts He promises to finish. He not only initiates the Christian life, but the Holy Spirit is with us as the sanctifier, the convictor, and the helper to ensure our preservation.
They are quick to note that they are not arguing that Christians cannot fall into serious sin (we agree with them on that), but rather that not all professions are true. We also would agree on that.
Now, I have written in my studies that I believe the passage in Romans 8 referenced is directed at believers, but sticking with their own theology, let's look at what they do not quote from Matthew 7.
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’
The Lord denies none of this. The same can be said of Judas. He healed the sick. He cleansed lepers. He may have even raised some from the dead (Matthew 10). Of course, I contend that Judas may have been a believers and has eternal life, but in their theology, again, what do you do with Judas?
That is, all these supposed "never true believers" apparently did good things at some point. Was Peter act of healing a leper good while Judas' was evil? Ironically, my interpretation of those passages (Judas was a believer and Matthew 7 is about believers) better suits their argument!
They That Are in the Flesh Cannot Please God
Let's leave that there and move to another favorite verse of the Calvinist to argue the lost can never do any good.
So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
This is less clear than Hebrews 11:6, but we will gladly address it. I'll grant that all unbelievers are in the flesh. They have not the new nature and, therefore, function in the Adamic nature. However, it applies to all men. Believers can walk according to the flesh too.
My first argument is that the entire passage is aimed at believers. I will not revisit the entire chapter as we have done that in previous studies. Let me just note several verses to show Paul is addressing believers. Scripture rarely addresses unbelievers. Believers are quite capable of walking in the flesh. The epistles are filled with lists of evil, carnal acts of the flesh about which believers are warned to shun. Ephesians 4 and 5 alone warns believers against many wicked works.
For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.
Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
There we see the choice a believer has: we can walk in the new nature or in the old. It is a choice we have. We can be obedient or disobedient. So the question follows, "OK, even if that is the case, the unbeliever always walks in the flesh, and therefore cannot please God."
I'm always happy to find agreement where we can, and here I agree. But our original question is not really "can an unbeliever please God?" but rather "can an unbeliever do good?" Two very different questions.
Christians Can Be Condemned, Unbelievers Can Do Good
Without faith it is impossible to please God. In the flesh no one can please God. But faith is independent of doing good. This truth is applicable to believers.
All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.
Two truths here given to those believers:
- Believers can be "condemned"
- Whatever believers do that is not of faith is sin
Can a Christian perform a good deed for selfish reasons? Scripture tells of those who give to the poor, but do so for the accolades it will bring. The Lord says, "they have their reward." Is the act (charitable giving) "evil?" No, it is certainly good. Yet it does not "please God" as the motive is not faithful giving. Unbelievers are often better than believers in their charitable giving. Their works are certainly "good," but not being done as an act from the new, divine nature, it does not "please God" in the form of earning life. But that is true of believers! We can only gain reward by good deeds, not the free gift of life.
Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
This idea takes us back to Romans 8 and Galatians 5. Christians who walk in the new nature are not condemned, but those who rather choose to walk in the flesh are condemned (Rom 8: 1,4). Not eternally lost (that is impossible), but their service and works are condemned. If an unbeliever and a believer to the exact same "good works," neither is saved by them. However, that does not mean the unbelievers works are now "not good." They are just useless for pleasing God.
Good is what God says is good. Joseph's brothers meant to do him evil, yet God used it for good (Gen 50:20). They inadvertently did "good." God used wicked nations to accomplish his will. These are all independent thoughts.
Romans itself teaches us that unbelievers can do the things contained in the law when they act on conscience. The man with no regard for his own safety or profit jumps into a raging river when he sees a child fall in does good. The one who cannot cheat on his wife, listens to his conscience, and runs from temptation, does good. Does they please God in the sense of service, obedience, and faith? No. But they still "do good."
An expectant mother heads for the abortion clinic. She remembers her sonogram and feels the baby kick inside here. She is overcome with love and guilt and turns away from the doctor's poison. Has she pleased God? Not in the form of service, obedience or true faith, but surely she has done "good." Her act pleases God, but not in that it put on her account any way.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, not having the law, are a law unto themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, while their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them...
This passage is part of Paul's argument against the Law as means of justification. It could be summed up this way: you may do "good things" but only by faith can one please God.
The Canaanites did "detestable things" (Deut 12) such as offering their children as sacrifices to Moloch. God did not ever ague, "everything the Canaanites do is evil because they are unbelievers." Nor did God assume the Israelites were not capable of the same evil (hence the warning in Deut 12).
Some acts are evil no matter who performs them, some acts are good no matter who performs them. But only those done in faith can "please God."
Good Works Are Possible, But Cannot Save
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness...
And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
We say that it is possible for a Christian to experience a very serious fall, we talk about backsliding, we talk about moral lapses, and so on. I can’t think of any sin, other than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that a truly converted Christian is not capable of committing... However, they persevere not because they are so diligent in making use of the mercies of God. The only reason we can give why any of us continue on in the faith is because we have been preserved. So I prefer the term the preservation of the saints, because the process by which we are kept in a state of grace is something that is accomplished by God. My confidence in my preservation is not in my ability to persevere. My confidence rests in the power of Christ to sustain me with His grace and by the power of His intercession. He is going to bring us safely home.
[R.C. Sproul, TULIP and Reformed Theology: Perseverance of the Saints, excerpt]
Christians can do great evil. Unbelievers can do great good. But only faith saves. Only by faith can we please God.
One of the things I believe which clouds the Calvinist argument is that some still hold onto the pagan doctrine of fiery torment in God's torture chamber ("hell"). They are bothered by the idea that the unbelieving mother who saves her baby from the abortion clinic is then tossed to the flame to be tortured by God, without relief, without hope, without end. I can see why they would trouble the mind and lead to the desire to conclude that even saving the baby is "wicked." Thank God I abandoned that horrible doctrine years ago. It is the first step in understanding the true Christian life and the true nature of God and the true nature of salvation.