Can Man Do Good?

We are fallen beings. We were created in God’s image, and then through one man’s disobedience we lost it. But is there enough of the image of God left in any of us to do good? To this question I must honestly answer, Yes, and, No.

Yes. We are capable of performing good deeds. Unregenerate people perform good deeds all of the time. The wealthy give to charities. Families adopt orphans. Parents love their children and children return that love. Some attend church, tithe regularly, are kind, generous, loving, helpful people. They do good deeds. Their actions are honorable.
But what does Scripture say about this? Take a look at Isaiah. Here we will find a clear answer to the question.

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. (Isa 64:6)

At first glance this verse is often misunderstood. There is an emphasis put on the inability of man to perform any good works. But does the verse say this? I think it does and it doesn’t. It does say that we are incapable of performing any good deed that will cover up any of our sinfulness. It also says that all of our good deeds are like a polluted garment. Our righteous deeds are like bandages that cover our leprosy, and covering our leprosy they become polluted.
But does this mean that there are no good deeds performed?
No. It means that righteous deeds have been performed, and yet those righteous deeds are tainted by our own sinfulness. You see, the problem is not that we commit sins. The problem is that we are sinners. In other words, the problem is not that we get things dirty, we are dirty. And we need to be cleansed from our sin nature, and then the ‘getting things dirty’ problem will be taken care of.
This is the reason we are to be clothed in Christ. Christ does not simply cover our sinful ‘leprosy’, He cleanses our sin.

This leads to another question. What about Christians who do good deeds? Are those good deeds polluted with our sin?
I do not believe that the good works performed by Christians are tainted by their sin. Since it is God working through us and producing fruit in us, those works are not tainted by sin. They are what we were created for.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)

What about Christians who sin? All Christians are to be daily repenting of their sins and Christ is daily cleansing us from our sins. This is known as sanctification. And sanctification is the process by which we are being saved from our sins. Our hope (expectation) is that one day we will be thoroughly cleansed from our sin (glorification) and look upon the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria


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8 responses to “Can Man Do Good?

  1. Father Brown

    I would maintain that sinful man is only capable of doing good in a relative sense. Yes, a wealthy man can donate millions to charity, and that may be viewed as “good” from an earthly perspective. But if that act is not done unto the glorification of God, then it is just as sinful in God’s eyes as if the rich man were to go and shoot a bunch of innocent kids. In other words, any “good” action done by a nonbeliever is done only in reference to itself, not in reference to God. I suppose this is a bit of an Augustinian conception…

    “For although some suppose that virtues which have a reference only to themselves, and are desired only on their own account, are yet true and genuine virtues, the fact is that even then they are inflated with pride, and are to be reckoned vices rather than virtues.” (City of God, XIX, 25)

    How then could any action done by a sinful man be deemed “righteous”? If “righteous deeds are tainted by our own sinfulness” then are they really righteous?

    P.S. I really like your blog, by the way. Very solid.

  2. Jeremy Weaver

    Daddy Brown :-),
    I used the word ‘righteous’ because that is the word used in Isaiah. I think we see the see thing here, but am going to act as though we don’t for a moment.
    The Canons of Dort state:

    “Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.”


    “There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.”

    I think these two articles make it clear that we believe that Scripture teaches that men retain some capacity for good, but ‘unfit for any saving good’.

  3. Don D

    I believe you are right in your post and wrong. If a man does a good deed, such as give to charity, what is his motive? Is it self recognition, tax deduction, honor, or any other prideful motive? That is why the verse states our best intentions are like a polluted garment. The only true way to do good deeds is to do them with a selfless motive, in private, and without recognition. In this way it honors God. So even a christian can do “good deeds” but be tainted by selfish sinful motives. Only the creator can look into the heart.

  4. Father Brown


    Thanks for the comment. That cleared things up. I think we’re on the same page. I would affirm your statement that “Scripture teaches that men retain some capacity for good, but ‘unfit for any saving good’.”

    Sorry to get my feathers all ruffled for nothing…

  5. bluecollar


    Good stuff! Unless our deeds are done with the desire to glorify Christ, they are worthless. This is the standard that the world will fall short of. That is all part of coming to and serving the Father only through Christ.

  6. forgiven

    Hi doxoblogy

    You have me so far.. Good stuff

  7. Jonathan Moorhead

    Jonathan Edwards on True Virtue is appropriate here.

    What about familial love or the soldier that dives on the grenade for his comrades? Doesn’t that prove that unbelievers can display true virtue? You all have demonstrated that the answer is a definitive no.

    Word verification: “doxly” – very appropriate!

  8. Gummby

    My pastor gave us a good illustration of this one time. I’ll use dairy farmer as an example, since my uncle is one. He talks about a dairy farmer who works all day at his regular job, and then comes home in the evening to cook the biggest, juiciest steaks around. The meat is good, but it is tainted, because the one who did them has hands that are tainted. Only with men, it is their hearts that are tainted.

    Great post. I’m putting this and the other “not” posts as my featured read while I’m gone.

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