Can Anyone Actually Do “Good”?
Most people will read the title of this article and immediately think, “Of course a person can do good.” After all, Jesus said, “A good (agathos) man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things” (Matthew 12:35). Paul instructed Christians to (simply) “do good to all” (Galatians 6:10). He later reminded the disciples in Corinth that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). And John wrote: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God” (3 John 11).
So why such an elementary question? This question is occasionally asked by skeptics who want to know why the Bible repeatedly teaches that God’s people are to “do good,” if, as other biblical passages teach, “there is none who does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3; 53:3; Romans 3:12; cf. Mark 10:18). “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20; cf. Isaiah 64:6). Thus, Bible critics ask, “How can the Bible teach that Christians are to do good, if no one can actually be good?”
The question is a fair question. Admittedly, the Bible’s different uses of the term “good” may be confusing to some initially. As with the solution to so many alleged Bible contradictions, however, the answer actually is very simple: words are used in different senses. The term “good” can be used in different ways and in varying degrees. We can talk of a good pizza, a good day, a good dog, a good boy, and our good God, and mean somewhat (or perhaps very) different things.
In the purest and highest meaning of the word, only God is “good.” Jesus referred to this supreme goodness when He said to the rich young ruler, “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). In truth, as Caleb Colley concluded in his article “Why is Good Good?,” “God is good, but not in virtue of a standard of goodness that exists separate from Him.… Good is defined by God’s goodness, which is inseparable from His nature” (2010).
On the other hand, human beings can only know goodness and be good on a dependent and finite level. In the beginning, everything God made, including the first human beings, “was very good” (Genesis 1:31)—but not “good” in precisely the same way our perfectly good God is good. God is innately good. He cannot do evil (cf. Titus 1:2); He cannot even be tempted by evil (James 1:13). But a man can be tempted to sin, and he can choose to sin (James 1:14-15). In fact, every person of an accountable mind and age who has ever lived (save God Incarnate, the Lord Jesus) has chosen to do that which is not good (Romans 3:23). Such a decision on man’s part, even one such decision, makes him “no good” in the sense that, apart from God’s amazingly good, saving grace, he is a lawfully condemned, unholy sinner (Romans 3:24). What’s more, on our own, apart from God, we can do absolutely nothing about our sinfulness. There is nothing that we could do on our own to become “good.”
Sinful man can only become good and just by choosing to accept God’s perfectly good and gracious gift of salvation through Christ (Romans 5:8,15-21; see Lyons and Butt, 2004). Subsequently, God-saved, newly made good people (i.e., Christians) will “put to death” their rebelliously sinful selves (repenting of sins—Acts 2:38; 3:19) and “put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:5,10; cf. Romans 12:1-2).
Indeed, Christians can be good and do good. We are not good in and of ourselves. Rather, by the grace of our innately and supremely good God, we can be justified and “become followers of what is good” (1 Peter 3:13). We can walk in the light of God, knowing that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). And, during moments of weakness, when we choose that which is not good, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thus, our good God even provided a way for Christians to remain “good” and to continue doing good works, in spite of our imperfections and struggles with sin.
Colley, Caleb (2010), “Why is Good Good?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=95&article=3601.
Lyons, Eric and Kyle Butt (2004), “Taking Possession of What God Gives: A Case Study in Salvation,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1381&topic=86.