The Bible is pretty overwhelming when it considers our state in sin apart from the saving grace of Christ. Not only does Paul tell us that from birth, we are deserving of wrath (Eph 2:3), enslaved to sin (Rom 6:16), dead (Eph 2:3), and unable and unwilling to obey God (Rom 8:3), but he also says that every action apart from faith in Jesus is sin (Rom 14:23).
What Paul says here is astonishing. He says that every action, every detail, is sin if it is not rooted in saving faith in Jesus. This of course means that even religious or moral actions which on the outside look good, are to their core rotten and sinful. Even the good things we attempt to do for others, or even God, is at its foundation, disobedience.
A reasonable question to Paul’s heavy doctrine of sin is, how can those who are moral citizens be this steeped in sin? How can it be that, while on the outside someone’s actions may look upright and loving, they are actually selfish and deserving of wrath?
Paul answers this question in Romans 10 by saying that although moral people might be nice and even “have a zeal for God,… [it is] not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they do not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:2-3). What Paul means here is that although their actions may seem good and even righteous, their deeds are done without submission to God’s righteous standard. They are done independent of God’s moral law. In fact, they are deeds done apart from God, and in spite of God. And this means that even good works, apart from faith, are a subtle form of rebellion, done as an act of independence from God.
Doug Wilson helps with this concept by saying,
As Paul states, no one seeks after God. The sinful mind is hostile to God and cannot desire him. But as Paul also recognized, the unregenerate Jews did have a zeal for God, but without knowledge [Rom 10:3-4]. This zeal only increased their condemnation. Paul, before his conversion, delighted in the law of God, and had a great zeal for it. But he also hated the people of God… A zeal without knowledge [is therefore]… seeking after God on your own terms, with your own understanding, [and is] simply a subtle way of running from him… Like someone in quicksand, any ‘advance’ he makes in one area works to his disadvantage in another…”
Wilson does a good job at describing this. Even though one may have a zeal for God, it is a zeal which is on our own terms, apart from submission to him. And so a person may do many good things, but if they are not submitting to God’s righteousness, then even those good things are rebellious and sinful. They are done apart from God. They are a stealthy form of running from him. Because at the foundation is a desire to do good without God’s standards. At the foundation is a desire to do good independent of him. And that is a form of disobedience.
This is our state apart from Christ. Even in our obedience, we are sinful.