Pleasing God Requires Faith, But Not "Doing Good"
Carrying on with our thoughts from our last study in regard to unbelievers "doing good," I wanted to address Romans chapter 3. We saw last time that we must distinguish between "doing good" and "pleasing God." The core of the Evangelical gospel is that we are not saved by "good works." We, thus, acknowledge that men can perform "good works" without pleasing God.
The doctrine teaching it is only in faith that we can please God comes from the clear statement in Hebrews 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please [God]."
The Greek word translated "please" there is "εὐαρεστέω." It is only used three times in the Greek New Testament texts. All three occurrences are in the Book of Hebrews, the book of "better things;" the book of service and maturity (perfection) for the Acts Age. Its primary focus is to remind the believer that he must carry on in faith in this life he wants to attain the "better resurrection" and "the city whose builder and maker is God" hoped for in the book. (Our book on the topic of going on to perfection, for this age, is the Book of Philippians.)
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Believers are encouraged to run the race. We are encouraged to lay aside the flesh. This is the focus of Romans chapter 8 as well, as we have seen. We have a choice to either walk in the new nature ("spirit") or according to the flesh. Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4 & 5, and Philippians also lay out these two paths for believers. One is the path to waste (perdition), the other the path to finishing the race (perfection). We have looked at this idea in a number of previous studies.
I wanted to remind us of these truths before we look at the statement in Romans 3 in regard to "none who does good."
As It Is Written, There Is None Who Does Good
As it is written:“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
We first note "as it is written" in verse 10. We thus look to where it is written: Psalm 14, Psalm 53, and Ecclesiastes 7. When we look at these passages we see an interesting context. The two Psalms both end this way:
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When God restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
The answer for this condition, and the focus of these Psalms, is the restoration of Israel. Israel had been attacked and abused by the nations around her. Their wickedness against Israel, because Israel has fallen away from the Lord, is the context. This does not speak to a general wickedness of man. Can we even infer David is making an argument that all men are wicked, none does good, as a standalone argument? No, I don't believe so. David is addressing Israel in prophetic way (although there are general principles which can be applied). The solution to the problem looks to the restoration of Israel.
Do all these evildoers know nothing?
They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on God.
But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
where there was nothing to dread.
God scattered the bones of those who attacked you;
you put them to shame, for God despised them
Some Gentile nations and the rebellious of Israel devour "[His] People" (Israel). The wicked nations were, at times, used to chastise his people, Israel. In the end, as he has done in the past, God will destroy those nations "when God restores his people." Ignoring this and concluding the passage simply means no one, in any age, at any time, is capable of ever doing good ever is a failure to "rightly divide the Word of Truth."
No One Does Good "All The Time," Not "Never"
Would we take "there is none who does good," rip out the word "none" and conclude that not even believers can do good? No. Even the hardest Calvinist wouldn't draw that conclusion. So, we're stepping back and looking at the argument of scripture. Paul is addressing that those who think that either their good outweighing their evil meriting salvation and those who think they've never done anything truly evil have no standing before good. No amount of good can merit life and no one does good all the time is the argument.
We now turn to the Book of Ecclesiastes (7:20) and note the underlying point being made.
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins
The conclusion here is that all sin. The idea is that there is no one who "never sins." Hence, all men are sinners. We have all "sinned and come short of the glory of God." Would we take this verse and teach that no man ever does that which is right? Of course not. Can we conclude since there no one who never sins that therefore all men can do is sin? If I said there is no one who has never lied, am I say everything every man says is a lie?
As we saw in our last study, unbelievers are capable of doing the right thing on occasion. The man who resists temptation and does not cheat on his wife, the woman who turns from the abortion clinic and saves her baby, the one who gives to charity. They all "do what is right" in these instances. The last example is from the Lord himself noted in our previous study. But while men may tell the truth on occasion or do what is right sometimes, no amount of "doing right" can pay for one sin.
This the core of the gospel. It is not that everything one does is evil. We preach that all men sin and the only remedy for sin is found in the finished work of the Son of God. We convince men that good works cannot save them. We know men have done good things, we (and the law if that is their code) show them they don't do good ALL the time.
Let's look at this statement by the Lord in Mark 10:18:
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone."
Would we argue from this verse that no one, believer or unbeliever is capable of doing good or of being good? Ever? No, because the argument here is that no one is inherently always good except God. Jesus, being God in the flesh, is good, but did his questioner realize this fact?
The Lord himself, at the judgment in Matthew 25, states, "‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things." The Lord calls the servant "good" (same Greek word used here as is used in Mark 10), but if we were to rip the statement the Lord made in Mark and apply it universally, we would have to ask how this servant can be "good" when God alone is good.
Paul's Argument Regarding Gentiles Without The Law
I am not going to write an entire commentary on the Book of Romans in context, according to Right Division, here so I gently take this passage out of Romans 2 for this particular study.
For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
Gentiles were never under the Law, yet they did, by nature, things contained in the Law. The problem is that they did not do them without fail. They are sinners according their own consciences. John Calvin himself comments on this chapter (in part) this way:
Nor can we conclude from this passage, that there is in men a full knowledge of the law, but that there are only some seeds of what is right implanted in their nature, evidenced by such acts as these — All the Gentiles alike instituted religious rites, they made laws to punish adultery, and theft, and murder, they commended good faith in bargains and contracts. They have thus indeed proved, that God ought to be worshipped, that adultery, and theft, and murder are evils, that honesty is commendable. It is not to our purpose to inquire what sort of God they imagined him to be, or how many gods they devised; it is enough to know, that they thought that there is a God, and that honor and worship are due to him. It matters not whether they permitted the coveting of another man’s wife, or of his possessions, or of any thing which was his, — whether they connived at wrath and hatred; inasmuch as it was not right for them to covet what they knew to be evil when done.
Their conscience at the same time attesting, etc. He could not have more forcibly urged them than by the testimony of their own conscience, which is equal to a thousand witnesses. By the consciousness of having done good, men sustain and comfort themselves; those who are conscious of having done evil, are inwardly harassed and tormented. Hence came these sayings of the heathens — “A good conscience is the widest sphere; but a bad one is the cruelest executioner, and more fiercely torments the ungodly than any furies can do.” There is then a certain knowledge of the law by nature, which says, “This is good and worthy of being desired; that ought to be abhorred.”
But observe how intelligently he defines conscience: he says, that reasons come to our minds, by which we defend what is rightly done, and that there are those which accuse and reprove us for our vices; and he refers this process of accusation and defense to the day of the Lord; not that it will then first commence, for it is now continually carried on, but that it will then also be in operation; and he says this, that no one should disregard this process, as though it were vain and evanescent. And he has put, in the day, instead of, at the day, — a similar instance to what we have already observed.
-Calvin's Commentary on the Bible, Romans 2 (excerpt) Emphasis mine
Calvin is arguing, as does Paul, that the Gentile is condemned by his own conscience. Despite having no law, he knows that some of what he does is "good" and some of what he does is "evil." This God-given conscience is born into man. If a man shuns adultery, it is not an act, in itself, inherently evil, etc. Calvin does not argue that men only think they've done "good," he is arguing they know the difference between doing good and doing evil and they are condemned by their own consciousness of having done evil (or not having done good perfectly).
Now, I do not quote Calvin as an authority, but rather to note that even Calvin understood, at least in this passage, that men who know not the true God can "do good." When Paul came upon the Athenians worshiping the "Unknown God" in Acts 17, he informed them they were ignorantly worshiping the true God. That was not true faith unto salvation, but it was not inherently evil.
Looking back at Romans 3, we again mark the phrase "become unprofitable." The Greek word used here is "ἀχρειόω" and Strong defines it this way, "to render useless." Sin is what makes us "unprofitable." Without faith, we are of no use to God.
The Law Is Good, But Cannot Save
Let us stay in Romans 3 and look at more of the context of our passage.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
The works of the law are good works. The law is holy and good (Rom 7:11-12), but "by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified." Paul, in regard to the law, was "blameless" (Phil 3:6). Obeying the law is good. The problem is that no one could obey ALL the law. And the law was unable to save. Faith is necessary for salvation, but that does not render obedience to the law as "evil." There is no need for this argument if all acts of unbelievers are necessarily wicked. The argument only makes sense if men can obey the law in part and do good works on occasion.
Note James' argument in regard to demons.
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!
The demons know there is one God, but they do not have faith in Him. But the understanding, their monotheism, is "good." It is not sufficient, but it is still "good." The danger in proof-texting is that we can take a verse out of its context and create a false doctrine. Would we dare take this verse and teach, "scripture teaches all demons do well?" Of course not. But that is the same reasoning used to argue that Romans teaches no unbeliever ever does good ever.
All of Israel were monotheists. All knew to do good on the Sabbath. Do we this conclude all were regenerated believers? Of course not. The witness of scripture is that no amount of doing good can pay for sin. It is not that no one ever does good ever.
All Men Can Do Good, But Not Constantly Do Good
We return to Romans 3:
"Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law."
All men have sinned. Good deeds of the law cannot save. The "no one does good" is part of argument that no one does good CONSTANTLY. We all have sin. We have all turned from doing good to doing evil at some point. There is no scale. One sin is enough to condemn us. No amount of good works can save. We cannot boast of "good works" because we have no complete remedy for sin in the law.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (1:24)
In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. (1:27)
God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (1:28)
This implies they, at one time, did not have a depraved mind and did not do things they ought not to do. You can apply this to just about command or warning in scripture to the nations. If every act is evil and depraved, none of it makes sense.