One way that we evangelical Christians insult people on a regular basis when we’re trying to win them Christ has to do with our ideas about total depravity. My question is this: is someone who doesn’t know Christ capable of doing anything good?
Most evangelicals seem to think not. The reason is because of a wooden literal interpretation of passages like Romans 3:12:
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.” (NKJV)
But a wooden literal interpretation clearly contradicts Paul’s earlier statement about those who don’t know God but have the Law written in their hearts (bold type added):
For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them. (Rom.2:13-15 NET)
The book of Acts records God accepting unsaved Cornelius’s acts of generosity in Acts 10:1-48. I won’t write the whole chapter out here but what’s interesting is that not only does God accept Cornelius’s offerings, He even sends an angel to speak to him…before he was saved (bold type added):
About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. (Acts 10:3-5 NKJV)
The funny thing is, most evangelicals today would’ve told Cornelius that God won’t accept his heathen Roman offerings, that they’re nothing but dead works. Evidently, God thought otherwise, even though Cornelius didn’t even know about Christ until Peter came!
I could give more examples but, obviously, the verse Paul quoted in Romans 3:12 was employing a literary device called hyperbole, which was to emphasize a point and create a larger-than-life effect on the hearers. It was a common practice in the ancient world, as it is today.
The idea that nothing man does is good comes from a doctrine called total depravity, actually it’s a distortion of that doctrine and not even what the Reformers taught (originally postulated by Augustine). I don’t want to take space here to describe what the doctrine of total depravity is, and what it’s not, but there’s a balanced article you can read here. Here is a quote from the article.
There is a common misconception regarding total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that man is as wicked or sinful as he could be, nor does it mean that man is without a conscience or any sense of right or wrong. Neither does it mean that man does not or cannot do things that seem to be good when viewed from a human perspective or measured against a human standard. It does not even mean that man cannot do things that seem to conform outwardly to the law of God.
But my question is this: why call it “total depravity” at all? It’s misleading and obviously creates confusion among the rank and file adherents to the doctrine.
To say someone is totally depraved, by strict definition, would necessarily mean they’re totally unredeemable because to give them any ability to receive Christ, whether by God’s grace or otherwise, would mean they’re not actually totally depraved.
The only actual totally depraved beings we can say that the Bible points to are Satan and his demons. This is why this term is not helpful.
Another problem arises when we say things like what the aforementioned article says here:
What the Bible does teach and what total depravity does recognize is that even the “good” things man does are tainted by sin because they are not done for the glory of God and out of faith in Him.
When we say that man’s goodness is tainted, we’re saying nothing at all. It’s either good or it isn’t. We’re not only insulting these people by dismissing the good things they actually do, we’re also insulting God, for the Bible tells us that every good thing ultimately comes from our heavenly Father (bold type added):
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (James 1:17 NKJV)
So, regardless of whether it’s “man’s standard” or “God’s,” it’s good because it all comes from God in the first place!
This “every” must include even those good things the most hardened atheists do—when they use their gifts, show compassion, or other acts of goodness.
It means every good thing we enjoy about life, every advancement achieved to relieve human suffering and enhance life, every act of kindness and compassion, regardless of who it comes from, finds its source in the very heart of our heavenly Father.
What Paul was telling the Romans is that good deeds won’t save us, not that those deeds aren’t good, in and of themselves. The truth is, eternal life is found in Christ. Salvation is not about doing good works, or no works at all–it’s about the new creation. Eternal life is not determined by a scale of good and bad–it’s entering into Christ’s very life.
All people are capable of doing good things, and they understand goodness when they see it. We all know this because God created us and He is good and the source of everything good. Period.
This is my point. When you’re trying to win someone to Christ, don’t insult their intelligence with platitudes about how they can’t do anything good without Christ. That’s laughably false. All we have to do is look around at all the good things that are being done for the sake of humanity and see that this is not true. And it all comes from the heart of the Father anyway.
Rather, be like Paul, who honored the pagan Athenians by showing them that they already knew about God by quoting their own poets (See Acts 17:28). They just didn’t know that what they were really looking for was Christ. That’s good evangelism.