I plan on writing a few meditations on the totality and exceeding nature of our sinfulness apart from the sovereign grace of God in our lives.
I want to start off with the all-encompassing nature of sin apart from faith in Jesus. Paul makes a startling claim in his address to the Romans that, if not thought through, can easily be missed.
In Romans 14:23, Paul says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Every action apart from faith in Christ, is sinful at its root. This is a very all-encompassing claim. All things done without faith as sin. What Paul wants to say here is that all of humanity’s actions at their core are sinful. All actions are at their heart, sin.
Notice here that Paul does not say that men cannot do outwardly moral things. Nor did Paul say that men cannot try or even want to do good things. In fact, Paul affirms that people can have an outwardly moral life, even one in more conformity to God’s law than a Jew (Rom 2:14). But in Romans 14, Paul makes clear that the issue is not outward conformity; rather, it is the inward intentions of the heart — God wants hearts that are in line with his character. And Paul says that this happens only through faith-filled obedience to Jesus. Without Christ, our hearts are hopelessly crooked, mixed with wrong intentions and motives. Many outward actions may look in conformity to God’s desires, but at the heart level, are in rebellion to God. And so even good deeds done without this faith are by nature, sinful. What we must gain from this verse is that the nature of our sin is total. It is not that apart from Christ, men can do some good things. Rather, at the foundation, we can do nothing good in and of ourselves.
On this verse, John Piper says,
“Many outwardly good acts come from hearts without Christ-exalting faith, and therefore, without love, and therefore without conformity to God’s command, and therefore are sinful. If a king teaches his subjects how to fight well and then those subjects rebel against their king and use the very skill he taught them to resist him, then even those skills, as excellent and amazing and ‘good’ as they are, become evil. Thus man does many things which he can do only because he is created in the image of God and which in the service of God would be praised. But in the service of man’s self-justifying rebellion, these very things are sinful. We may praise them as echoes of God’s excellence, but we will weep that they are prostituted for God-ignoring purposes” (source)
Without faith then, even our best efforts are but dirty rags to God, sinful in his sight. And apart from saving faith in Christ, we are hopelessly unable to obey God from the heart. We are unable to offer to him good works that are at any level godly. In fact, we need God’s transforming grace to redeem and enable us to obey in faith and from the heart.