Evil Good Deeds? (Romans 14:23)

Romans 14:23 – But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Listening to a message this morning, I heard John Piper use this passage to explain at least one way that man is totally depraved in his lostness. And, since this is a topic of some interest to many and of some difficulty, I thought it would be worthwhile to summarize the argument that I heard made with a few additions of my own.

Here is the question: How can we say that every action of lost people is evil in its nature? For example, can we honestly say that it is evil when lost people do deeds that we all know to be good? If a lost person funds the building of a hospital in a third-world community or serves a meal for the homeless, how can we call that evil? And let’s not even begin talking about Extreme Makeover Home Edition or Oprah’s Big Give.

First let me say that the act of building a hospital, feeding the homeless, building a house, or whatever other charitable act that truly helps another person without violating another moral principle is not evil in itself. No one is arguing that the hospital ought not be built or the meal ought not be served. And, in this category, lost people do such good things regularly.

However, there is a question that comes to mind regarding whether or not the deed is good in the sight of God. Specifically, the question needs to be asked, “Is this deed something that God considers to be a good or righteous action on the part of the lost person?: And it is when this question is asked in that way that we can determine from the scripture that, no, even though the lost person does a good deed, the lost person is still doing evil.

This argument can be made from Romans 14:23. If whatever action does not come from faith is sin, any action of a faithless person is sin. Though the context of Romans 14:23 is in the debate over the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols, there is still a grand point to be made. If an action does not proceed from a faith in God, a trust in Christ, then that action is dishonoring to God even if the action itself is not a wrong action.

Let’s add three more passages of scripture to the mix to see that what I have claimed from Romans 14:23 is true in other places in scripture.

Jeremiah 17:9

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?

Isaiah 64:6

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

James 2:10

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

The question is not with the goodness or evilness of an action itself; instead, the question is with the heart of the one acting. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that there is no way that the lost person, regardless of what he or she believes is his or her motivation, can truly see into his or her heart to know the truth. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that, in our sinful state without redemption, all of our righteous acts (not our good ones but our righteous ones) are like filthy rags in God’s sight. James tells us that, if we do everything right but fail at one point of the law, we fail altogether. Thus it is impossible for someone who does not know Christ to actually perform any deed that is not, because of the lostness of the person’s heart, at its nature corrupt.

One might ask, “How then can even a Christian do anything right?” My answer to that is that we do nothing right or good that is not first sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ. The only way that I do anything good, anything good at all, is because Christ has forgiven me, set me apart for his service, and made me able by his power to act for his glory. Even then, I can take no credit for my good deeds, because I know that, apart from Christ’s righteousness, I could do nothing of any good whatsoever (cf. John 15:5).

Does this discourage good deeds? Not at all. On the contrary, I am encouraged to do good things because I know that anything good that comes out of my life will serve as a testimony to God’s glory. Nor will it discourage the humanitarian works of lost people, since they are not interested in whether or not their deeds please God.

Am I not simply being judgmental and hypocritical? No. God is the one who has said that whatever is not of faith is sin, not me. God has said that all our righteousness is like filthy rags in his sight, not me. And I do nothing to elevate myself above this description. If I were left to myself, I would be able to do nothing at all that would please God. All my actions would be evil. The only reason that I have any good that I can do is because God has chosen, by his power and for his glory, to take me, a dead-hearted sinner, and make me alive for his purposes (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10). Yes, God’s purpose for saving me includes the doing of good works; but those works are only good when they proceed from faith in Christ and are done for his glory. And the only way that works can be done for God’s glory is for those works to be done by one who is redeemed.

If you are reading this and do not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, I would urge you to think it through with sobriety. There is nothing that you, I, or anyone else can ever do to make ourselves do good deeds before God. We have already been too corrupted by our sinfulness. Our only hope of being right with God does not come from doing good actions. Instead, our hope of being made right with God comes only through the redemption he offers us in Christ. If you want to be made right with God and made able to please him, you must come to Jesus, believe in him, trust in his finished work, receive his grace, and then God will make you a new person able to please him. None of this will be done by your power. None of it will be anything for which you can take credit. But, if you trust in Jesus, God will give you the ability to, for the first time, do things that please him.