by Leighton Flowers
Good deeds are worthless as a filthy rag in the sight of God not because the motive of the doer is necessarily wrong, but because the debt of sin owed is too great to be overlooked on account of such deeds. No deed, even if motivated by a genuine faith and selflessness, can pay off our debt of sin. Only the blood of Christ wipes away our sin and God graciously chooses to bestow the righteousness of His Son to whosoever trusts in Him.
Therefore, the Bible isn’t attempting to say that no one can do a genuinely selfless deed motivated by sincere faith in God. The Bible is only saying that even these good and faithful deeds are worthless apart from the provision of Christ on Calvary!
The apostle Paul taught:
“…there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” – Romans 3:11
In an effort to demonstrate that all people have fallen short of the glory of God and broken His law, Paul quotes from Psalm 14:2-3, which says:
“The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
There are basically two theological approaches for interpreting this passage:
(1) Calvinistic Approach: Apart from a Divine irresistible work of regeneration (by which God changes a chosen individual’s nature and desires), mankind cannot willingly seek to know, understand, or follow God.
(2) Non-Calvinistic (Provisionist) Approach: Apart from God’s gracious initiative in bringing His Son, the Holy Spirit, and the inspired gospel appeal, no one can merit salvation or consistently seek to obey God in a way that will attain his own righteousness.
The contrast between these two perspectives can be illustrated by this simple question: Does proof that I am incapable of calling the president on the telephone also prove that I am incapable of answering the telephone if the president were to call me? Of course not, yet that is essentially the principle a Calvinist is assuming in their theological approach to this text.
Calvinists read this text to mean that our lack of initiative somehow proves our inability to respond positively to His initiative. They presume that God’s work in sending His Son, the Holy Spirit, and the inspired gospel, calling for all to be reconciled through faith in Christ, is insufficient to enable the lost to respond in faith. But the text simply never says this.
In Romans chapter 3:10-20 the apostle is seeking to prove that no one can attain righteousness by means of the law. But in verse 21 he shifts to reveal a righteousness that can be obtained by means of grace through faith in Christ.
Calvinists seem to think that because mankind is unable to attain righteousness by means of the law that they must equally be unable to obtain righteousness by means of grace through faith in Christ. This, however, is never established anywhere in the pages of Scripture.
Of course, we all can affirm that no one is righteous with regard to the demands of the law. But there have been many throughout the pages of Scripture who have been declared righteous by means of grace through faith.
Calvinists wrongly assume that because mankind is unable to fully keep the demands of the law that they are equally unable to admit their inability to keep those demands and trust in the One who has. Again, this is simply never established in the Bible.
Proof that mankind is morally incapable of earning their own righteousness by doing good works is not proof that mankind is morally incapable of believing and trusting in the righteousness of another.
It must also be understood that placing one’s trust in the righteousness of Christ is not earning one’s own righteousness. Those who trust in Christ are graciously imputed with His righteousness, they are not earning their own.
Psalm 14 in Context
If we go back to examine the context of Paul’s original quote in Psalm 14, a hyperbolic passage used to emphasize how bad unbelievers really are, we read that he is specifically speaking of “the fool” who says, “there is no God,” and then he contrasts between the “evil doers” and “His people…the generation of the righteous.”
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good…Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord? There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. – Psalm 14:1; 4-5
This passage is saying that fools who refuse to believe cannot do good, not that everyone is born unable to believe unless God causes them to do so by some kind of irresistible grace. That would make the fool much less foolish given his incapacitated condition from birth. It would be similar to calling a blind man “a fool” for not being able to see when he has absolutely no control over that ability.
Now, a Calvinist can make the theological argument that “the fool” who says “there is no God” does so because he could not have done otherwise due to an inborn nature sovereignly decreed by God as a result of the Fall. And the Calvinist can attempt to make the case that “the generation of the righteous” who are considered “his people” were made so by some kind of irresistible working of God.
In contrast, a Provisionist (like myself) can argue that these “fools” trade the truth of God in for lies by denying His existence with a libertarianly free choice, and those who become “His” do so by grace through a genuine faith response. Either way, that is the point of contention — neither side can just assume their position (see question begging fallacy).
It is the Calvinist’s burden to prove that fallen man is born morally incapable of responding in faith to God’s inspired and powerful appeal to be reconciled from that fall. They have to demonstrate how our fallen condition prevents us from responding willingly.
Additionally, Calvinists need to explain why a just God would seal mankind in a fallen/disabled condition from birth and still hold them responsible for their rejection of God’s appeals, even though they have no control over their naturally disabled condition and subsequent “choices” to reject God’s genuine offer of forgiveness.
Also, Calvinists need to explain how their interpretation of Romans 3:11 fits with other teachings of scripture about man’s responsibility to seek God, such as:
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,” – Acts 17:26-27
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” -Isaiah 55:6-7
“Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.” -Zephaniah 2:3
“And he did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the Lord.” -2 Chronicles 12:14
“Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O Lord.” –Psalms 83:16
“Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” -2 Chronicles 20:3
“For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” –Luke 12:30-31
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” -Romans 2:6-8
“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” –Psalms 9:10
“And those who had set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord, the God of their fathers.” –2 Chronicles 11:16
Needless to say, the Bible certainly treats fallen men as if they are genuinely responsible (response-able) to His appeals and offers of grace and forgiveness. On what basis do Calvinists rest the presumption that, as a consequence of the sin of another, God has decreed for mankind to be born with “Total Inability” to respond willingly to the gospel?
This is a dogma yet to be found explicitly taught in the Bible.