Can Non-Christians Do Good Works?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 3:48pm
QUESTION: It would seem that non-Christians can not do any truly good or meritorious acts without the grace of Christ. But does this mean that everything they do is sinful? Romans 14:23 says that whatever is not done in faith is sin. But what about the acts of self-sacrifice that non-regenerate people perform, such as the firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11, or parents who give of themselves for their children? Are all of those acts sinful since they are not done in faith?
ANSWER: It is a mistake to think that any act is either 100% sinful or 100% righteous. Our deeds are more complex than that. I often say that every act has both an outside and an inside. The outside is what other people can see. ANYONE can do a good work that is good on the outside (such as the acts of self-sacrifice mentioned above). Such acts are good externally when compared with God’s law. E.g., two people individually could each give $10,000 to the local church. On the outside they are equal. But it is the INSIDE of a deed that makes the difference. Of the two, the inside is the more important.
What do we mean by the “inside” of a work? This refers to things such as the motivation of the work, and the goal intended to be accomplished thereby—things which only God can see (1 Sam. 16:7; Luke 16:15). Sinners (non-Christians) can do deeds that are good on the outside, but they will always be sinful on the inside because they are not done in faith (Rom. 14:23), nor to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), nor in the name of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17).
The problem is that even Christians are usually guilty of the same kind of sin: doing works that are good on the outside but that fall short on the inside. This often takes the form of hypocrisy—something for which Jesus condemned the Pharisees (Matt. 23:25-27). But even sincere Christians are far from perfect in these inward matters. One may think he is keeping all of God’s commandments because he is not conscious of “doing anything wrong.” But Rom. 3:23 says we all fall short (present tense) of the glory of God. I think this refers even to the best Christian’s inner life. None of us has perfect love, perfect faith, perfect motivation. This is why perfectionism is a shallow doctrine.
The difference between non-Christians and Christians is not that the latter do perfect works and the former do sinful works. ALL do sinful works (i.e., fall short) to some degree. The difference is that Christians have accepted the grace of God, by which the blood of Christ FORGIVES all our shortcomings, and non-Christians have not.