Works of Righteousness
I do not want to belabor the point in regard to unbelievers being able to "do good" as we have examined in the last two studies, but I don't want to leave too many stones unturned. I'd like to look briefly at several verses from the epistles. We will look at the context of each and the argument of each.
For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
I am going to quote a couple of commentaries on this passage. As we always note, we quote nothing but scripture as our authority. I am doing this so we can consider different interpretations, not to present someone's opinion as authoritative. We start with John Calvin's argument that the "works of righteousness" are actually "works of depravity." he bases this on the verses prior to verse 5.
For when [Paul] says, — “Not by works which we have done”, he means, that we can do nothing but sin till we have been renewed by God. This negative statement depends on the former affirmation, by which he said that they were foolish and disobedient, and led away by various desires, till they were created anew in Christ; and indeed, what good work could proceed from so corrupt a mass?
-Calvin's Commentary on the Bible (excerpt)
I'm afraid this is an example of starting with a conclusion and looking back to create a premise. We could consider such an argument if the conclusion had been firmly established elsewhere, but as we have seen, scripture seems to teach again and again that unbelievers are capable of doing good.
We now turn to Bible teacher A.C. Gabelein
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another.” It is a look backward, what they were in their unregenerate condition. These are the true characteristics of man in the flesh. Here is an answer to the question, What is sin? Sin is foolishness, disobedience, deception, slavery to lusts and unsatisfying pleasures, a life of malice, envy and hatred. It is lawlessness. And such is the natural man in all ages.
-Arno Gabelein's Annotated Bible - Titus 3 (excerpt)
I believe Gabelein's view is closer to the sense of the passage, but it still does not directly address what the "works of righteousness" could be. Let us look at the Lord's dealings with the scribes and Pharisees as we keep Titus in mind. (As an aside, there is an argument that these Jews in Matthew could be disobedient believers, but we will treat them as unbelievers as most commentators do).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
The Lord acknowledges that they did obey some of the Law. Would we conclude that even that obedience was an act of depravity? The Lord does't seem to think so. (Here we refer back to our previous study noting the Lord's words to those who "did many wonderful works in his name.") They did some good things, when they should have done all good things.There is no thought here that everything they have done is wicked. We looked at when they gave with fanfare. The conclusion the Lord made was that they had their reward in the form of glory from men, not that giving is wicked (Matthew 6).
We stay in the Sermon on the Mount (which we know is for Israel, but the argument for unbelievers doing good crosses all dispensational boundaries) and not the Lord's higher standards for believers.
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Here is Calvin's commentary on Matthew 5:46
In the same sense, Luke calls them sinners, that is, wicked and unprincipled men. Not that the office is condemned in itself; for the publicans were collectors of taxes, and as princes have a right to impose taxes, so it is lawful to levy them from the people. But they are so called, because men of this class are usually covetous and rapacious, nay, deceitful and cruel; and because among the Jews they were the agents of a wicked tyranny. If any one shall conclude from the words of Christ, that publicans are the basest of all men, he will argue ill, for our Lord employs the ordinary phraseology. His meaning is: those who are nearly devoid of humanity have some appearance of discharging mutual duties, when they see it to be for their own advantage.
He goes off a tangent here, arguing that the office of tax collector, in general, is meaningless. What he seems to miss is that these "sinners" do good things. They love those who love them. They greet their brethren. Surely these are minimal (as the passage teaches), but are they not good?
Unfortunately, we see again his prejudice in interpretation seeping through. There is nothing in the Lord's example to suggest that these "sinners" love those who love them simply "for their own advantage" as he proposes. That does great violence to the Lord's words.
Do we not know an unbelieving father who dearly loves his children? He may even have a heart for others' children. The argument the Lord is making is that even sinners can have basic, human love. They can have "natural affection."
A More Literal Translation
Remind them to be subject to principalities and authorities, to obey rule, unto every good work to be ready, of no one to speak evil, not to be quarrelsome -- gentle, showing all meekness to all men, for we were once -- also we -- thoughtless, disobedient, led astray, serving desires and pleasures manifold, in malice and envy living, odious -- hating one another; and when the kindness and the love to men of God our Saviour did appear (not by works that [are] in righteousness that we did but according to His kindness,) He did save us, through a bathing of regeneration, and a renewing of the Holy Spirit, which He poured upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that having been declared righteous by His grace, heirs we may become according to the hope of life age-during.-
-Titus 3:1-7 (Young's Literal Translation)
Young employs a parenthesis in verse 5. This helps emphasize Paul's argument that the Lord's kindness and love which is the source of His saving grace has nothing to do with anything we can bring to the Lord. I believe it is legitimate to argue, thus, that Paul is only excluding any idea of righteous works and not necessarily stating they existed.
That is, Paul could be saying, "we were just as wicked as those we now are trying to reach, like them we had no works of righteousness, but even if we did, God saved us anyway because of His love and kindness, and for no other reason." That's a bit wordy, and it does not acknowledge that unbelievers have any righteous works, but it also does not exclude them.
Nowhere in scripture is the argument made directly that unbelievers are incapable of doing anything righteous or that they cannot "do good." There are a few places where some may want to infer such a conclusion, but they have to ignore the full counsel of God. Their conclusion is inconsistent with the witness of scripture in every age.
We Reject the Argument That All Sin is Equal
Paul explains the moral decay of the gentile nations in Romans 1 as a progression. He does not argue these nations went from absolute wickedness to absolute wickedness. Such an argument is meaningless. As the nations rejected God's witness they decayed from even the most basic "good" to gross wickedness. The unbeliever can marry and stay faithful to his wife. Do we not see that adulterous and Sodomic behavior is presented as a turning from that which is good to that which is evil? Surely we do not equate these.
Because the nations rejected the witness of God in creation, "God gave them up unto vile affections." The obvious sequence here is "Not Vile" to "Vile." The gentile unbeliever is capable, with his conscience, to do some basic "good" until he rejects God. This is what leads to wickedness, and eventually gross wickedness. The first time he steals, part of him tells him he's wrong (or even prevents him from stealing). Then he slowly sears his conscience and steals with ease. Is "not stealing" that same as "stealing?"
Keeping One Law Is Still Keeping One Law
Now let's look at James' argument in regard to the Law.
We carefully note that James is addressing Jewish believers in the Acts Age (James 1:1). This is not a passage for all men of all ages, but there is principle here relevant to our discussion.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Would we ever conclude from this passage that committing adultery is the same as not committing adultery? That is neither the argument here nor can it be inferred. Not committing adultery is a "good," yet we know good does not atone for evil. That is clearly James' argument.
The Commandments teach us that "not" doing ("thou shalt not") is equated with obedience and goodness. And performing even the most mild of good deeds is commended by the Lord ("What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?... Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" -Matthew 12:11-12). Simply getting a lamb out a pit is to "do good."
The Lord is addressing believers here (with the Pharisees present), but does not the same apply to unbelievers? For them, is not committing adultery the same as committing adultery? If they rescue a lamb, is that not to "do good?" Do we dare argue the motive of the unbeliever is different than that of the believer in regard to a lamb? One has to start with that conclusion to be able to reach it from the whole counsel and witness of scripture.
Obedience Is Not Meritorious, But It Can Still Be Good
Obedience is not meritorious to the degree that it puts God in debt to anyone. For the believer, obedience is the mark of the overcomer, it is the basis of reward, and it is the basis of position in the life to come. It has nothing to do with the awarding of a free gift. In the same way, obedience in the unbeliever is not meritorious to the degree that it puts God in his debt. He has not faith, thus he has not grace, thus he has not life and will not see life.
But that does not mean he is devoid of any good works? We conclude this study with Paul's argument on Romans contrasting works and grace.
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
If unbelievers had only wicked works, Paul would have no need to make these arguments.
For as Paul has reasoned before concerning the justification of Abraham, that where reward is paid, there grace is not freely bestowed; so now he draws his argument from the same fountain, — that if works come to the account, when God adopts a certain number of men unto salvation, reward is a matter of debt, and that therefore it is not a free gift.
-Calvin's Commentary on the Bible, Romans 11:6 (excerpt)
Calvin accepts the premise that men have works which they can present. If we believe scripture had already concluded in passages such as Romans 8 that unbelievers are incapable of doing good, of what use is this argument? Paul would simply argue: since all the works of the unbeliever are wicked, salvation must be of grace. But that is not the argument here.
Paul's argument is as Calvin states, that if works are counted in any way, salvation is of debt and no longer of grace. How silly an argument this would be if the works we are counting are imposiible or simply wicked works. The assumption here is that men want to believe their works, before faith, are meritorious. If that were not the case, Paul would simply state that salvation must be of grace as men have no good works to present.
Righteousness In Scripture
Coming full circle, the Greek word in Romans 4:5 translated "righteousness" is the same word translated "righteousness" in Titus 3:5. The imputed righteousness of God saves. The righteousness of our own hands cannot save. The word "δικαιοσύνη" occurs 92 times in scripture, 30 times in Romans alone. The contrast is between the righteousness of God which comes by faith and the righteousness men try to present which is insufficient to save. There is no thought that the righteousness men try to gain by obedience to the law are simply acts of wickedness or that they are wicked in and of themselves.
Remember the Lord's teaching to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. The Lord tells these who kept only part of the law, "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone." None of their works could merit salvation, but some of their works were clearly approved by the Lord.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
Those who do not have life are unbelievers. Was searching the scriptures evil? They were "doing good," but without coming to a knowledge of the Son of God and placing their faith in Him alone for salvation, they could not, thus, have life. The searching was good, the failure to believe was evil.
To be honest, all of this is an exercise if intellectual self-aggrandizement. For some reason the Calvinist must have the doctrine that unbelievers can do no good. There is no life without faith. Whether anyone who rejects Christ does good works is inconsequential to that question. But as Paul frames salvation in Romans as a mutually exclusive case of works versus grace, it is not unreasonable to assume he is making the same argument concerning "works of righteousness" in Titus. Otherwise, it seem a rather worthless comparative.
We place this exercise aside now. My goal is not to necessarily prove my position, but rather to show the dangers of starting with a conclusion and failing to let the whole counsel of God speak. Consistency is one of our key words on this blog. Where we can, we must strive for consistency.