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    Who Is "Good"?

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    Paeter
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    Who Is "Good"?

    Post  Paeter on December 19th 2011, 7:26 pm

    On another thread, the idea was brought up that in our natural state, humans are incapable of doing good. This view is supported by Isaiah 64:4, which reads in the ESV:

    "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."

    This issue of "Total Depravity" is one I've been turning over in my mind recently, before this topic was even brought up by someone else. So I wouldn't say I've come to a hard conclusion on it.

    For several years, and until a month or so ago, I might have said that I believe in Total Depravity: that we cannot do anything classified by God as "good" apart from God dwelling within us and acting through us by the Holy Spirit. (Although that's not the official definition. Someone can feel free to post it here if they find it.)

    That may seem like a strange view, given that many non-Christians give to charity, help those in need and forgive those who have wronged them. But the view of Total Depravity I took claimed that all of these seemingly "good" acts were nothing compared to the goodness of God. They were, as Isaiah said, like a polluted garment. (Which literally translates from the Hebrew to "menstrual cloth", so yes. A used tampon. Blech!)

    A verse that helped me get to the position of Total Depravity is from Mark 10:18 (and Luke 18:19) where Jesus responds to being called good by saying,"Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." In essence, Jesus was saying, "do you realize that if you think I'm really, truly good, you're saying I'm God?"

    Another one was Romans 3:10-12 (which Paul paraphrases from Psalm 14)

    "as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."

    What's taken me away from a strong attachment to the view of Total Depravity is the language involved in these verses, and the ramifications involved in believing in Total Depravity, which I believe are not compatible with scripture.

    First, Isaiah says that our "righteous deeds" are like dirty tampons. But what does he mean by "righteous deeds"? (Not much help looking at the Hebrew. It basically means the same as the English.) Does he mean what WE THINK OF as righteous deeds are actually not righteous deeds? I don't think so.

    The ESV uses the word "polluted" when talking about our righteous deeds. What this could easily mean is that our righteous deeds are still righteous deeds. They are still truly good, just like the tampon is still a tampon, and a used diaper is still a diaper. It just has crap smeared all over it. It's "polluted", but still a diaper.

    And note that Jesus doesn't say that only God DOES good. He says that only God IS good. So this verse doesn't remove a capacity for good from unbelievers either. Which leaves, of the three verses mentioned, Romans 3:10-12.

    A key factor in loosening my grip on Total Depravity here was the use of the Present Participle, which is present in the words "understands", "seeks" and "does". The Present Participle expresses continuous or repeated action. So in other words, no one CONTINUALLY understands, seeks God or does good. As opposed to saying that no one EVER does these things.

    To my understanding, a belief in the inability for someone to do good also removes their free will and therefore their responsibility to either accept or reject God's offer of salvation. Yet God clearly holds us responsible for our decision to either accept or reject God and Jesus Christ.

    Romans 1:20 "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." (See also context)

    And reading a little further after the famous John 3:16, we see in 17-19:

    "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil."

    As Dr. Norman Geisler observes, regarding the Bible's teaching on salvation, "Never does the Bible say, 'Be saved in order to believe'; Instead it repeatedly commands, 'Believe in order to be saved'." (Systematic Theology Vol. 3, pg.129)

    So while I don't claim to have an argument opposed to the doctrine of Total Depravity that is iron clad, I can't see how one can claim that the Bible definitively teaches the concept. In fact, I think there are several issues to be addressed first in order to see it that way.

    If anyone feels like adding their thoughts to this, feel free. I'd be surprised if there weren't multiple perspectives on this issue represented in our little community, and it's a worthwhile topic to examine and re-examine.

    I'm jumping off-grid for awhile, though I may check in a few times between now and January 4th when I'm back in my "office". Mean time, Merry Christmas!



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    mindspike
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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  mindspike on December 22nd 2011, 1:19 pm

    Doctrine can be difficult, especially when attempting to reconstruct the logical processes of those who codified the doctrine.

    In the case of "Total Depravity", it is perhaps helpful to understand the doctrine a bit further. This does not mean that people are incapable of doing good apart from God's grace (or that people behave according to their most base instinct), but rather that the nature of man is essentially and (humanly) unreconcilably removed from the nature of God.

    Whether or not you choose to call the doctrine "Total Depravity" (and I think the way we understand the language has essentially changed since this doctrine was codified by Augustine), the essential element of the doctrine is that man is by nature separated from God. It does not speak to behavior or capability at all.

    It is important also to understand the use of "good" in Romans 3 and Mark 10/Luke 18. Here the word is describing nature instead of action, so that the use of "good" as the object of action (does good) should instead be understood as "the actions which naturally arise from one's nature". You have pegged Jesus' words exactly, Paeter, but what Paul is saying may be better understood as "No one is inherently compatible with the nature of God. No one desires fellowship with God because of a compatibility of their inmost natures. The actions that arise as an expression of one's nature are not in purpose compatible with those actions that express the nature of God." The subject of this argument is not the actions themselves, but those purposes which have driven the actions.

    Thus:
    To provide wholly for another is a good action.
    When I provide wholly for another, I am performing a good action.
    Because I have a sinful nature, any action I take is ultimately selfish.
    In "doing good", I have benefited others as a way of gratifying myself.
    Because I have "done good" I feel better about myself.

    That is the argument Paul makes in Romans 3. Man's nature is essentially selfish, and thus forever removed from God, whose nature is essentially unselfish. Again, it does not speak to either behavior or capability.

    As Dr. Norman Geisler observes, regarding the Bible's teaching on salvation, "Never does the Bible say, 'Be saved in order to believe'; Instead it repeatedly commands, 'Believe in order to be saved'." (Systematic Theology Vol. 3, pg.129)

    Geisler is speaking about the relationship of justification and sanctification. Belief is the evidence of justification, and sanctification (being saved) follows from justification. To view efforts at sanctification (behaving as saved) as leading to ultimate justification is to incorrectly reverse the teaching of scripture.


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  WhiteBoy on December 22nd 2011, 6:18 pm

    This is something I need to consider more before replying. I can easily buy into the nature of man being evil, so it has not really been a problem believing in "total depravity." Because of this I've not really looked into it like I should have. To begin with, some definitions like "What does it mean to be good?"

    Anyway, I'll try to post more after I've had some time.


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  Paeter on January 9th 2012, 10:14 pm

    Sounds like you and I are on the same page regarding actions of goodness and unbelievers, Mindspike.

    The points you bring up regarding Paul's words in Romans 3 are supported by the context, while the area I focused on dealt with the immediate text. Though both are compatible and intended by Paul I think.

    Your thoughts on my use of the Geisler quote made me think I may have given the impression that I believe efforts at sanctification lead to justification. So I'll just clarify that that is not my position.

    (On a somewhat related note, I think Geisler uses the word "saved" and "salvation" too much in his Systematic Theology when he should be breaking it down as Justification, Sanctification and Glorification more often, as you've done. As it is, he can get confusing in what he intends to say.)


    Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you would agree with the diaper analogy. Good actions are still good actions, even if they are smeared in poop.
    Does that work for you, or do you have a different perspective?

    I think my using the term "Total Depravity" caused an unintended rabbit trail. The motive for starting the topic was to address/confront the claim that "unbelievers are incapable of performing good actions".

    The actual formal doctrine of Total Depravity and how it relates to justification would be a different topic than I meant to get into. But a good one to start if anyone wants to!



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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  cleireac on January 10th 2012, 10:13 am

    I won't add much here, except in support of both Mindspike's and your positions. My understanding of 'Total Depravity' is that we are 'wholly messed up.' That is, that anything we do is tainted by the sin nature.

    Sure, we may do good, but it is out of selfish, sin-oriented reasons. Only by the grace of God do we truly learn to love and be self-less.

    Having said that, it is also true that God can take and bless acts of good that are polluted, or tainted. Consider the use of foreign nations to judge (and ultimately correct) the nation of Israel, or even the Crucifixion itself. In the eyes of the leadership, they were putting to death an apostate in accordance with the Law of Moses. But that act of 'righteousness' was also fueled by their jealousy and fear of loss of position.

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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  mindspike on January 11th 2012, 12:05 pm

    Paeter wrote:Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you would agree with the diaper analogy. Good actions are still good actions, even if they are smeared in poop.

    ::sigh:: I really try to avoid poop analogies.... or discussion.... or diapers....

    Isaiah 64 is rooted in Hebrew culture, so that to understand what the Prophet is saying, you need one of a) a bit of cultural information, or b) a quick review of Leviticus. In summary: Isaiah's "filthy rags" cannot be separated into constituent components of "filth" and "rag". Once the two are combined, they are a single entity; you do not have a "clean rag" (righteous deed) with "filth" (unrighteous motive) upon it, you have only a "filthy rag" (a deed motivated by unrighteousness).

    Isaiah prefaces this comparison with a description of God's behavior (v1-5) - that He meets with the man "who rejoices and does righteousness (NKJV)", and the results of this meeting are divine anger and human conviction. Isaiah follows this statement with his reasoning (v6-7) based on a description of human nature. This entire passage (63:15-64:12) is a prayer that begins with a doxology and ends with penitence.

    It is perhaps more helpful to look to Philippians 3:2-11

    Philippians 3 (ESV) wrote:2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

    Where Paul speaks of the "righteousness under the law", he is speaking specifically of deeds and actions which the Law of Moses (Old Testament) describes as righteous. The remainder of the teaching goes on to say that even though these deeds were righteous, they did him no good at all. Salvation is not linked to righteous or unrighteous behavior, but solely to Jesus Christ.

    So to return to the original question, "Can bad people do good things?" or as it is more tactfully phrased, "Are unbelievers capable of performing good actions?" Paul's answer in Philippians is, "I was a good man in the way the Jewish law calls a man good. But all these things that might have helped me, I call them all nothing. (WEB)"

    The unbeliever is capable of all the same actions and depth of emotion as the believer. And just like the believer, his only hope for salvation is in Christ.

    Take a deep breath and get a coffee. The next paragraph departs from the immediate topic into further implication.

    An action in an of itself is an amoral occurrence, in the same way as the flip of a coin or the roll of a die. In the same way, the existence of matter in any form is amoral in itself, without significance. Because of this, all occurrences initiated by matter are without moral implication or impact. In other words, there is no such thing as an "evil deed" or a "good deed" in the natural philosophical and scientific sense.

    No man, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Jew, or Jedi may perform a "good" or "evil" deed, because the action itself is without moral capability.

    When the Bible speaks of morality, it addresses nature, intention, and reason, but never action. When the Bible addresses action either by instruction or example, the subject of the address is always a description rather than a proscription. eg. "Those who are righteous act like this," not, "Act like this in order to be righteous."

    Morality cannot exist without a supernatural component. Morality begins with God, is defined by His nature, and is revealed in the Bible. Because God created man in His own image, man is a moral being. Like God, our morality is a function of our nature. Unlike God, our personal morality does not objectively define universal morality.

    The conflict between nature and action is at the heart of the doctrine of Sanctification. Smarter people than myself have written multiple volumes about this subject. For further research, and depending on your personal inclination, I recommend John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, Ravi Zacharias, or D. James Kennedy. Or their predecessors: Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Wesley.


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  Paeter on January 11th 2012, 8:34 pm

    mindspike wrote:Isaiah's "filthy rags" cannot be separated into constituent components of "filth" and "rag". Once the two are combined, they are a single entity; you do not have a "clean rag" (righteous deed) with "filth" (unrighteous motive) upon it, you have only a "filthy rag" (a deed motivated by unrighteousness).

    I'd go a step further to acknowledge that both of the Hebrew words being used to create "filthy rags" or literally "menstrual cloths" contain the idea of sin or being unclean. But given the somewhat imprecise metaphorical language being used and the use of the word "righteous"(instead of words that communicate the idea of "what we think of as righteous" instead), I can't say I'm convinced that this verse indicates that there is nothing good/righteous motivating an unbeliever's every action, or that every action of an unbeliever is ultimately selfishly motivated. I don't see this particular and very specific detail taught elsewhere yet in scripture, either.

    I know that many see a deductive chain starting with scripture that leads them to this conclusion confidently, but I can't get there myself without seeing at least an equal amount of room being left over for alternatives.


    mindspike wrote:
    The unbeliever is capable of all the same actions and depth of emotion as the believer. And just like the believer, his only hope for salvation is in Christ.

    And I definitely agree with this.



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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  WhiteBoy on January 11th 2012, 9:32 pm

    Very well said Mindspike! Personally, I need to consider what Paeter and others said and challenge myself to "prove it" to myself. It's one of those things that I believe it, and when others articulate it I agree with it; but when it comes to defending it, I am still lacking.


    Last edited by WhiteBoy on January 13th 2012, 10:32 am; edited 1 time in total


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  mindspike on January 12th 2012, 12:39 pm

    Paeter wrote:But given the somewhat imprecise metaphorical language being used and the use of the word "righteous"(instead of words that communicate the idea of "what we think of as righteous" instead), I can't say I'm convinced that this verse indicates that there is nothing good/righteous motivating an unbeliever's every action, or that every action of an unbeliever is ultimately selfishly motivated. I don't see this particular and very specific detail taught elsewhere yet in scripture, either.

    I would start with the very next verse.

    Isaiah 64:7 (NIV) wrote:No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.

    Also, before spending any great amount of effort on etymology, Isaiah defines his use of "righteousness" for us.

    Isaiah 64:5 (NIV) wrote:You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?

    A little research shows us that the same phrase translated in v5 as "those who gladly do right, who remember your ways" is translated in v6 as "righteous acts" in the NIV. The KJV and others actually use the word "righteousness" in both places.

    As poetry, the passage includes a division between subject and object (those who gladly do right vs those who sin against the righteous) that is meant to evoke the division between the Hebrew nation and their persecutors. This division is eliminated in v6 when Isaiah unites both subject and object, increasing the emotional impact of the verse.

    As a prayer, the instruction to the Hebrew people is that there is no difference between the righteous and the unrighteous, between the Hebrews and their oppressors. From v6 on, all hope of salvation is directed to both parties equally. The righteous man's deeds have the same value as those of the unrighteous!

    What does this mean? It means that even as a believer, I cannot escape the selfish motivation and implication of my every act. This is extraordinarily depressing. Every altruistic act performed on behalf of another, every act of humility, every moment of worship, is performed at the very best motivation out of a desire to please God (v5). Because I gain God's favorable attention, and because I am aware that acts performed with a desire to please God will gain His favorable attention, my base motivation is a selfish desire to benefit myself.

    This line of reasoning is scientifically, humanly, and philosophically inescapable, AND IT WILL INTELLECTUALLY DESTROY YOU. This exact conclusion has driven philosophers to madness and suicide (Nietzsche, for example).

    The mystery of sanctification is that the grace of God enables the believer to recognize this and overcome it through penitence, as Isaiah does in v8-12. Isaiah's prayer in 65:15-64:12 is one of the greatest philosophical arguments in favor of altruism ever presented. And it hinges upon the recognition that humanity (believer and unbeliever alike) is entirely incapable of that act.


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  Paeter on January 12th 2012, 8:17 pm

    Mindspike, I think you've presented a very good argument here. It's not the real possibility of its truthfulness that I resist, but the absolute CERTAINTY in it that I can't arrive at, as you seem to have.

    I believe scripture is clear that in our natural state we are hopelessly corrupted. But again, I don't see the following to be in scripture:

    "There is nothing good/righteous motivating an unbeliever's every action and every action of an unbeliever is ultimately selfishly motivated."

    I have trouble reconciling this claim with a passage like Romans 2:14-16

    "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus."

    I don't believe that anyone can justify themselves, escaping the penalty of hell, apart from Christ. But there are indications in scripture that there will be both rewards of different degrees for the justified and punishments of different severity for the condemned. Which indicates to me that because of their actions, including motives, some of those condemned will suffer less than others.

    It seems there is some good in the mix that humans are responsible for, and that God will take into account, even though it falls immeasurably short of saving anyone apart from Christ.

    So I agree that in terms of justification (salvation from hell) the totality of deeds of both the righteous and unrighteous are the same. They are completely incapable of saving us from condemnation.

    But I also conclude that there is some good that all are capable of in their capacity as reflections of God, twisted and broken though the mirror may be.

    mindspike wrote:
    The righteous man's deeds have the same value as those of the unrighteous!

    What does this mean? It means that even as a believer, I cannot escape the selfish motivation and implication of my every act.... Every altruistic act performed on behalf of another, every act of humility, every moment of worship, is performed at the very best motivation out of a desire to please God (v5). Because I gain God's favorable attention, and because I am aware that acts performed with a desire to please God will gain His favorable attention, my base motivation is a selfish desire to benefit myself.

    This line of reasoning is scientifically, humanly, and philosophically inescapable...

    Again, I think your argument is compelling and thought out. But I see too much room for alternatives to use strong words like "every" and "inescapable". Thinkers smarter than the both of us together do not find the line of reasoning you've suggested inescapable.

    There are too many unanswered questions and possibilities left for me to say so firmly that the issue is settled and scripture definitively teaches so strong and specific a conclusion. I grant the very real possibility of your argument's veracity. But the totality of evidence sitting in front of me demands that I keep a loose grip on my conclusions regarding this extremely fine point.


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  mindspike on January 13th 2012, 1:40 am

    Paeter you have a gentle touch to curb my zeal.

    What we're running into is one of the great mysteries of the Bible - the nature of mankind as both a sinful being and a reflection of God's image. I tend to lean heavily in the direction of Augustine in emphasizing the sinful nature of man. The Westminster Divines lean as you do toward man as a reflection of God's image.

    God's plan of salvation is infinitely more complex than we can hope to totally comprehend, designed to be understood by all people at every stage of life - from cynical battleaxes like me to earnest and compassionate ministers like you.

    God bless us, every one!


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    Re: Who Is "Good"?

    Post  Paeter on January 13th 2012, 4:54 pm

    You're kind to call it compassion. But it's actually more like ignorance on my part. I've leaned on both sides of this issue at times, and currently the data I feel I need to take into account is beyond my faculties to cross reference.
    So I'll skip checking "battleaxe" and "compassionate" and put my "X" on the box labeled "ignorant" for now.

    Hmm... that just made me think of another topic that might be interesting. Think I'll go kick it off now.


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