If there were ever a verse in the Bible that sounded like an overstatement, this would be it: “There is no one who does what is good, not even one” (Romans 3:12b CSB).
No one who does good? Really? As in, literally none?
What about the Marine who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddy? It shouldn’t matter if he’s a Christian or not—that’s still a good deed, isn’t it?
Or how about the woman who works three jobs to get her kids out of poverty, sacrificing every moment and every dream so that they can have life better than she did. You’re telling me that nothing about her life is good?
The actions of the Marine and the mother are, in a certain sense, good. We all have an instinctive sense that loving others—especially to the point of sacrifice and death—is good and noble.
And yet, there’s that little verse.
Here’s a perspective that helps clarify what Paul was getting at in Romans 3:12: The Bible, you see, only considers a deed good if it is pure in both form and motive.
In light of our biggest sin—replacing God’s authority in our lives with our own—even the good things we do apart from faith don’t seem that good. Yes, even dying for the sake of others. Our cosmic rebellion is that big a deal.
Say there is a guy who is committing adultery, and as he goes into the hotel to have his affair, he tips the bellhop generously. Is that a good deed or not?
Well, sorta. I’m sure the bellhop appreciated it. All things being equal, being generous is a good thing to do.
But all things are not equal in this scenario. The bellhop might have appreciated the tip, but the man’s wife, I’m sure, wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed with it. In light of the context of his affair, she would be so focused on the wickedness of his betrayal that his big tip wouldn’t even register.
What if our rebellion to God was just as abhorrent to God as this man’s adultery? What if, in betraying God, our act of throwing ourselves on a grenade for someone else was like tipping the bellhop?
Jonathan Edwards said, “The slightest sin has an infinite amount of hatefulness in it, enough to outweigh whatever loveliness the creature possessed.”
In light of our posture of cosmic treason toward God, it’s hard to even call our goodness “good.”
There is none good, not even one.
Not the man who dies for his friends.
Not the mother who empties her life for her children.
I know this is hard to accept. Oprah said you were beautiful, special, and precious. And here’s the thing: You are. That’s part of the paradox of the human race. You are a beautiful person made in the image of God, but you have been ruined by sin. And the ruin by sin is greater than the loveliness of your creation.
I love how Blaise Pascal put it:
What a chimera man is! What a novelty, what a monster, how chaotic, how full of contradictions, what a marvel! Judge of all things, a stupid earthworm, a depository of truth, a heap of uncertainty and error, the glory and refuse of the universe.
In God’s image, we are the glory of the universe. Because of our rebellion, we are monsters.
Have you ever had someone be really nice to you, but you found out later that they were only acting that way because they wanted something from you? Early in our marriage, my wife and I were broke but still wanted to take a vacation, so we took one of those too-good-to-be-true timeshare offers. We got a three-day vacation, and all we needed to do was sit through a presentation.
Lesson learned: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is too good to be true.
When we got there, the employees were falling over themselves being nice to us: “Do you prefer milk chocolate or dark chocolate, Mr. Greear?” “How do you like your towels folded, Mr. Greear?” We felt like royalty.
But then came the presentation. I spent the first hour of that presentation trying to convince the guy that we didn’t have any money. Eventually, he realized I was telling the truth.
Somebody might as well have flipped a switch.
The kindness was immediately replaced with coldness. There was no more “Mr. Greear,” and they certainly didn’t care what kind of chocolate I preferred. I may be misremembering it, but I’m pretty sure I walked out of that meeting to find our stuff in trash bags on the front lawn.
What happened? They were only nice to us because they wanted us to sign a contract. When that didn’t happen, their true heart was revealed.
If we are doing good to get something from God—whether it’s blessing or eternal life or whatever—that is an inherently selfish motive. A deed is only good in God’s eyes if it is motivated purely by love for him and others, with no self-interest at all.