So Many Good Works—But No Common Grace?

A few months ago the “News Editor” for the Standard Bearer reported that our congregation in Houston, Texas was using a “question and answer” approach to try to acquaint people with the truth as we know it, love it, and try to live it. 

In this article we are going to use that same method. We are going to begin with some of the questions and answers as they actually appeared in the Katy Times. We are going to continue with an extended dialogue to develop the general subject, Total Depravity and “Common Grace”—In the Light of Scripture. 

Q. What are good works? 

A. Good works in the Bible are referred to in a narrower sense than we usually use. 

Q. What do you mean by that? 

A. We use “good works”‘ to refer to any helpful gesture on the part of any person. 

Q, How does the Bible use the term? 

A. The Bible shows that a good work proceeds out of the saving work that God performs in His chosen ones. Ephesians 2:8-10 shows that good works are performed by those who are in Christ Jesus, by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace. Without the gift of faith no one can do good works, for whatsoever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). 

The Bible teaches that everything we do must be done to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31). This means that a Christian is careful to learn what God requires in His Word, and that he, in thankfulness to God, tries to bring glory to God in all that he does (I Cor. 6:19-20). These are the things that God calls good works in His Word! 

Q. You said that “good works are performed by those who are in Christ Jesus by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace.” Does this mean that only a Christian can do a good work? What if a man who does not believe in Christ donates a thousand dollars to the American Cancer Society, would not that be a good work? It doesn’t seem fair to tell someone like that that his work isn’t good. 

A. The answer to the question whether only a Christian can do good works is, Yes. The Bible shows that clearly in the following passages: Ephesians 2:8-10Matthew 5:16Hebrews 11:6a; Romans 14:23b. (We quoted them in full in the newspaper, which is not necessary here.) 

The answer to the second question as to whether the unbeliever’s donation is a good work or not is—No. Whether this seems fair to us or not the Bible allows only a negative answer. The difference between one who believes in Christ and one who does not believe in Christ is a life-death difference. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). Many who do not believe in Christ do things that men say are good works, but the wrath of God abides on them. “Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And in Thy name have cast out devils? And in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-23). 

Q. You have not really answered my question. I can see your point, but are you going to be so narrow and unrealistic that you are going to insist that all the noble and self-sacrificing deeds that unbelieving people do are not good? 

A. Yes, because that is what the Bible teaches. 

Q. That would seem to put you in a very inconsistent position. You use hospitals built with unbeliever’s money and unbeliever’s skill and dedication. You take advantage of cancer research that is funded by unbelievers. If you were consistent you would refuse to take advantage of the fruits of the unbelievers, wouldn’t you? 

A. We are getting away from the point, or better maybe we are getting right to the point. The question that we need to explore is this: “What or Who is the standard of what is good?” Psalm 25:8 states, “God and upright is the LORD.” Jesus emphasizes that truth in Luke 18:18-19 when the rich young ruler asked Him saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou Me good? None is good, save one, that is, God. 

The Bible from Genesis to Revelation reveals that God in His being and work is only good. I John 15 says, “This then is the message which we have heard of Him and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” That God is light and no darkness at all emphasizes the moral purity and goodness of His being. All that God is (His being) is good. All that He says is good. All that God does is good, and because He is good all praise and glory belong to Him. 

God is the Creator and all that He made was very good. He is the Sustainer doing good, giving us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 15:17). 

God is the Sovereign Judge Who on the basis of His own goodness always renders just judgment. 

To sum it up then, God alone is the absolute standards of what is good! 

Q. I agree with your answer. Since God is the Standard of what is good, can we not account for the good works on the part even of unbelieving man by attributing them to the influence of the image of God in man? 

A. We need to understand what happened to man when he disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17). God said to man, “The day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Man ate of that tree and he died. God’s word is no empty threat; it is living and powerful and accomplishes what it promises to do. The Scripture then refers to Adam’s sin as bringing death not only upon himself, but also upon all men (Romans 5:12). Ephesians 2:1, 5 also show that according to our first birth we are all dead in trespasses and sins. Romans 3:12 makes it abundantly clear and final—”there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” 

Thus the image of God in man is so marred that the faint evidences of it which are left in man are not sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion; therefore the “good works” of the unbeliever cannot be accounted for by an appeal to it. 

Q. Well, it’s not hard to see that man is in bad shape after his fall into sin, but now I don’t know what to say about the seemingly good works in sin, do you? 

A. To be dead in sin is not to be inactive, but very active in sin. The inactivity of man in sin is with respect to anything that is good and righteous. Through the fall of man into sin he lost his right and ability to serve God. Man became a bond-servant to sin and without ability or desire to do that which pleases God. 

You say that you can see that man is in bad shape after his fall into sin. Man’s situation is far worse than that! Our Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day III, Q & A 8 expresses the truth of the Bible when it shows that man is so corrupt that he is wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness unless he is regenerated by the Spirit of God. 

Q. Can we account for the seeming good works of unbelievers as an evidence of a “common grace” of God? 

A. Why are you so concerned that unbelieving man receive glory and praise? You took the position earlier that I stood in a “very inconsistent position.” Please look carefully at your position in the light of God’s truth. “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). All things belong to God. He gives and withholds according to just and sovereign discrimination. Man is in God’s world as a creature-servant and man must use all the resources of the creation, and his own strength and abilities to one end—to the praise and glory of God. For man to use God’s resources and strength to perform deeds and then to say “these are my good works” is not only a very inconsistent position, but is downright wicked and incurs the just anger of God.

There is no such thing as “common grace”! God’s grace is always directed to His own peculiar people in Christ Jesus. His gracious saving work in them brings them out of spiritual death to new life in Christ, restores in them the image of God, and enables them to bring forth good works so that God’s name might be glorified.