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Can a Lost Man do Good Things?

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(By Mark Fontecchio)

Imagine looking out your back window to see your neighbor mowing your lawn. You know that he is usually a nice person, but you also know that he is not a believer in Jesus Christ. As you continue to watch him mow, you are left wondering what has inspired this act of kindness. Does he want something, and is this simply an attempt to get on your good side? Does he think he owns your land? Does he feel guilty that his dog has made your yard seen its better days? Has his works-based religion led him to this, as part of his attempt to earn a path to heaven? This simple illustration attempts to demonstrate some of the complications that arise when answering the question, “Can a lost man ever do good things?”

There can be little doubt that a casual examination of the lives of unbelievers demonstrates they are capable of doing good things. Charles Ryrie agrees, “Relative goodness exists in people. They can do good works, which are appreciated by others” (Ryrie 1999, 253). Many teachers, firemen, police officers, and doctors have chosen their paths of profession because they want to help people. Charities and food pantries operate because of the generosity shown by unbelievers. Jesus recognized that outwardly men had done some good things (Mark 10:21; Matt. 23:23). Paul also acknowledged that the Gentiles, “by nature do the things in the law” (Rom. 2:14). Therefore, from an outward perspective, it is undeniable that good things are done by those who do not know God.

However, this most certainly does not settle the issue. Genesis 6:5 teaches, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” A similar statement was made after the flood, “Then the LORD said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’” (Gen. 8:21). This statement was made by God after mankind was wiped out by the flood. Because all mankind has descended from Noah and his family, this reveals the continued sinful nature of the heart of man. Sin has affected every part of man.

The question at hand is what are the motivations that are leading the unredeemed to do good things? It is certainly not for us to know the counsels of the heart (1 Cor. 4:5). However, the Scriptures are not silent on this issue. The Word of God exposes the selfish nature of man, even in doing good works. Henry Thiessen taught that lost men can, “do certain outwardly good acts, though with improper and unspiritual motives” (Thiessen 2001, 192). So what would these motivations be? Paul demonstrated to Timothy that apart from God, the sinful nature of man leads to a love of self rather than a love for God (2 Tim. 3:1-4). The motivation of a sinful man is often the mere pleasure of catering to the flesh. Certainly the, “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” are powerful motivators of the unredeemed (1 John 2:16).

Another factor enters the equation. By what measurement is something considered good? Ryrie reminds us, “Total depravity must always be measured against God’s holiness. … Nothing that anyone can do will gain salvational merit or favor in the sight of a holy God” (Ryrie 1999, 253). There is no one that can live up to the perfect holiness of God. This led David to declare, “There is none who does good, no, not one” (Ps. 14:3). Therefore, any conversation of the capability of the unredeemed to do good things must be qualified with this understanding. The sinful nature of man is incapable of doing any good work to which, “God can fully approve” (Thiessen 2001, 192). This is why Paul testified, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” (Rom. 7:18).

It is for this reason believers must continue to abide in Christ, if we seek to honor Christ with our lives. As Paul told the churches of Galatia, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

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The Holy Bible: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999.

Thiessen, Henry Clarence. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.

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