Can people do good? Can people be good? Those questions keep being asked in certain Evangelical camps, even though Scripture speaks of good acts and “god-fearing” people who are not yet part of the covenant. Why is this so? Well, it is a matter of definitions or–rather–playing with definitions.
Let me say a couple of things. It is not appropriate to describe good as being perfection. That is just playing word games. When we speak of good, it means what we normally experience of persons here on Earth. When we define a good person as meaning that a good person would never do evil, we are simply avoiding moral thinking by defining everyone as evil. I say that because no one is perfect, therefore, if one makes the definition of good to be perfection, then therefore no one is good. If everyone is evil, then you have two options. Either all good actions are performed by evil people or there are no good actions. Option two is the one used by various Evangelicals when they quote verses such as all your righteousness is as filthy rags.
The problem with using that quote in this context is that the Scriptures clearly speak of actions as being good or evil. Thus, in Matthew 25 when Jesus speaks the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, it is obvious that certain actions are not only good, they are worthy of reward. It is actually a type of sophistry to argue that no action is good but that God accepts them for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ. That reduces every action to being evil merely because an imperfect person performed the action. That changes the definition of good from the action and the intent to some indefinable internal psychological state. Worse, there is the same assumption made by the secularist utilitarian philosophers that behind every action, even supposedly philanthropic altruistic actions, the person is getting something out of it, even if it is simply personal satisfaction. In other words, no actions are altruistic because all actions have a self-satisfaction component to them. But, that argument is sophistry, just like the argument that Christians make that all our actions are somehow, even secretly, contaminated with some type of imperfection.
The problem, of course, is that you cannot prove or disprove a statement of that type. One can always win arguments by using arguments that can neither be proven nor disproven. Thus, if you claim that regardless of my perceived internal state, I am secretly harboring some impure intention in my heart, there is no way I can disprove that. But, neither can you prove your claim. An even worse argument is that an imperfect person cannot, by definition, perform a perfect act. In other words, a good act must be a perfect act performed by a perfect person. But, that is a definition not found in the Scriptures. The absolutely worst argument is that no act can be good because you cannot know all the ramifications of your actions. Therefore, your act now may have an unintended evil effect, sometimes months to years later. Therefore, your act may not be considered a good act because there may be unintended evil consequences down the line. There is a half-truth here, but only a half-truth. No action has consequences, in and of itself. For an action to be good to begin with and “evil” years later, there must be a whole set of events for which the original action cannot conceivably be thought to be fully responsible.
Finally, there is a difference between righteous and good. The final mistake some Evangelicals make is to equate righteous and good. Those terms are not equivalent. Righteous speaks of a standing before either a court or God that need not speak to the character of a person. Frankly, a very damaged person, like the thief on the Cross, can end up being righteous having done almost no good in their life. A very philanthropic person may be renowned and have done much good in their life and end up being declared not-righteous. There is no definition of a “good” person that includes perfection. Perfection is also a word that is different from either righteous or good. While it is true than in Christian theology, a perfect person would be both righteous and good, it is not necessarily true that a good person is perfect nor that a righteous person is perfect. And, as we saw with the thief on the Cross, an evil person can end up being righteous.
So, can a person be good? Yes, an unrighteous imperfect person can be good, and they can perform good actions. Those actions do not make them righteous or perfect. But, in God’s providence, those who live a good life will generally experience a certain amount of blessing in their life. After all, God makes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.