Jonathan Edwards, a renowned Christian thinker and past president of Princeton University said:

So long as men are in their natural state, they not only have no good thing, but it is impossible they should have, or do any good thing. (Jonathan Edwards [1758], Original Sin (Vol. 3), Ed. Clyde A. Holbrook, P280)

It may seem that saying 'a man can't do good' means a man could do neutral things, but further reading of Edwards makes it clear he does not think so. By 'no good' he actually means sin, or actions springing from a sinful nature.

Luther says even works from grace (let alone apart from grace) has not just 'human weakness' and 'defect' in them but 'sin in them'. Therefore, according to Luther even all the saints' works are sins in the sense that there is some evil deserving of eternal wrath in them (brackets mine):

Now, if there is such a thing as a good work without sin... God forbid! ... Why then do they [papists] condemn my article...But if they [papists] say here, as they always do, “Yes, but this impurity is not sin but rather an imperfection, or weakness, or defect,” my reply is that it is indeed a defect and a weakness, but if that is not sin I am prepared to say that murder and adultery are not sins either but only defects and weaknesses. (Works of Martin Luther, Vol 32.83)

The 'Thirty Nine Articles of Religion' of the Church of England is more explicit. This article is rejected by the Roman Catholic church as heresy. More simply put I am looking for the biblical justification of this article:

XIII. Of Works before Justification. WORKS done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

As opposed to a Catholic view of grace, what is the Protestant biblical basis for those concluding that 'all works' without grace have no real good in them? In other words, all works by unbelievers are more or less sinful, according to many in the Protestant Reformation.

See also the reverse question, here.

  • If you look further into the Protestant beliefs re grace, you'll find that there is significant dissension among different groups, even to the point of a Presbyterian schism early in the 20th century. The concept of "common grace" would make a good starting point for further research, for anyone so inclined: (1), (2). Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 23:11
  • Romans 2:6-16 perhaps
    – Michael16
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 17:09

3 Answers 3


Note that in the Edwards quote you gave:

So long as men are in their natural state, they not only have no good thing, but it is impossible they should have, or do any good thing. (Jonathan Edwards [1758], Original Sin ( Vol. 3) , Ed. Clyde A. Holbrook, P280)

You left off the end of the sentence: as appears by Romans 8:8, which says:

Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

If you look here, you see that a number of commentators agree that this verse is saying that:

Unregenerate man cannot please God because they lack faith and they don't have the inherent ability to please Him.

So in this instance, Edwards is clearly saying that men in their natural state have no innate ability to do any good thing (i.e. pleasing God). Note that Edwards does not say that men in sin have no ability to appear outwardly to be good, indeed in another work, he says the opposite (commentary sourced here)

By true religion consisting in great part in the affections, Edwards means that though religion must have good deeds attending the affections, "there can be no true religion without the affections". Therefore, if a person has an unaffected will, he can do all the external showings of religion while remaining dead in his sins.

However, your question was asking the Biblical basis behind the idea that works without grace are not good, not what Edwards was saying in that passage. Essentially, this question is about the concept of Total Depravity. John Piper, I think, summarized this best in a article on Total Depravity. Piper writes:

There is no doubt that man could perform more evil acts toward his fellow man than he does. But if he is restrained from performing more evil acts by motives that are not owing to his glad submission to God, then even his "virtue" is evil in the sight of God.

Piper gives four ways man's depravity is total:

  1. Our rebellion against God is total.
  2. In his total rebellion everything man does is sin.
  3. Man's inability to submit to God and do good is total.
  4. Our rebellion is totally deserving of eternal punishment.

You are interested in point #2, and here is what he says on that point:

In Romans 14:23 Paul says, "Whatever is not from faith is sin." Therefore, if all men are in total rebellion, everything they do is the product of rebellion and cannot be an honor to God, but only part of their sinful rebellion. 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 become evil.

Thus man does many things which he can only do because he is created in the image of God and which in the service of God could be praised. But in the service of man's self-justifying rebellion, these very things are sinful.

In Romans 7:18 Paul says, "I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh." This is a radical confession of the truth that in our rebellion nothing we think or feel is good. It is all part of our rebellion. The fact that Paul qualifies his depravity with the words, "that is, in my flesh," shows that he is willing to affirm the good of anything that the Spirit of God produces in him (Romans 15:18). "Flesh" refers to man in his natural state apart from the work of God's Spirit. So what Paul is saying in Romans 7:18 is that apart from the work of God's Spirit all we think and feel and do is not good.

NOTE: We recognize that the word "good" has a broad range of meanings. We will have to use it in a restricted sense to refer to many actions of fallen people which in relation are in fact not good.

For example we will have to say that it is good that most unbelievers do not kill and that some unbelievers perform acts of benevolence. What we mean when we call such actions good is that they more or less conform to the external pattern of life that God has commanded in Scripture.

However, such outward conformity to the revealed will of God is not righteousness in relation to God. It is not done out of reliance on him or for his glory. He is not trusted for the resources, though he gives them all. Nor is his honor exalted, even though that's his will in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31). Therefore even these "good" acts are part of our rebellion and are not "good" in the sense that really counts in the end -- in relation to God.

Thus, everything the unregenerate do apart from God is not good because the indwelling desires of the heart are against God, and are done still in rebellion to him.

  • 2
    This is quite a good answer using very similar arguments that both Edwards and Luther make. Actually Luther's commentary on Rom 14:23 assigns anything that goes against a man's conscience is wrong but in another location he also argues exactly as you have on that same verse. I had looked that up yesterday. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 17:04
  • @Mike - I deleted that first paragraph. Thanks for the clarification. In this answer, I did briefly touch on Rom 14:23, and I would agree with Luther in saying that going against your conscience is wrong
    – SSumner
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 15:19

I am unable to get any meaning out of your Luther quote. Not enough context is given. But you mentioned how Luther said the good works of the saved can be sins. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther says:

Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin. Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.

Luther's theology of the sinfulness of good works can be understood from two viewpoints.

One, our doing of good works is seldom done out of purely good motives and can have negative, evil consequences. For example, I can bring a burned ham casserole to the homeless shelter on the night there are Muslim guests, and curse drivers who get in my way there. Sin creeps into everything.

Two, it is a grave sin--Luther starts messing with mortal and venial here-- to put an ounce of faith in your own works to add to, to ensure, to complete your salvation. Among the places we find justification for this theology are not only Peter's mess-ups but also Galatians 5

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Here, we learn that to do works of law in order to be justified by them will cut you off from grace.

  • Basically the Luther quote captures the fact that Luther attributed some components of sin in every action... even our best deeds, since nobody ever loved God with their 'whole' heart. Catholics said this is not sin but 'weakness' Luther said if that is so, then murder is weakness. So the Pope made an anathema against Luther's beliefs and both let each other fall under damnation and hell. Either Luther was right or the Pope but there is no middle ground.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 5:08
  • Don't forget the issue if placing your FAITH in your works to complete or to deserve what Christ had done. Whether Christ spoke truthfully with, "It is finished" is as much part of the controversy.
    – pterandon
    Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 10:49

Calivinists adhere to the doctrine of total depravity and the original sin.

Total Depravity - the state of complete lack of desire and ability to do anything for God's glory due to the affliction of the original sin.

Romans 3:9-12 (NLT)

9 Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. 10 As the Scriptures say, “No one is righteous— not even one. 11 No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. 12 All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”

Original sin - it is the sin that is committed by Adam and it's effects are all passed on to all of his offspring.

Romans 5:12 (NLT)

12 When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.

Here's the crux of the matter:

Genesis 2:17 (NLT)

except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die."

It is clear that to eat the fruit is a sin because it is a command not to eat it.

1 John 3:4( HCSB)

Everyone who commits sin also breaks the law; sin is the breaking of law.

It is also clear that the fruit will give knowledge about evil as well as about good.This goodness clearly has its origin from sin not from God.

Now consider this:

Genesis 1:31 (NLT)

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.

This is the reason why Romans 3:12 says that no one does good. It is because everyone's source of what is good is from the original sin.Look at how Jesus showed this truth:

Matthew 7:11 (NASB)

"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

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