It is not uncommon to hear of hardened soldiers—trained to fight, kill, destroy, cuss, and drink—throwing themselves on grenades to save their buddies. Perhaps we catch a news broadcast about a multimillionaire donating a large chunk of his estate to pay for scholarships for the disadvantaged. Maybe we notice a food-and-coats-for-the-homeless drive held by a group of schoolchildren, or we applaud an honest Joe who turns in a lost wallet or a purse full of cash.
Many of us have scratched our heads over the fact that some unconverted people in the world do a great deal of good. Every community has a handful of souls who lead lives of self-sacrifice and kindness toward others. Some of these people have a kind of piety and faith that puts some of us to shame. Indeed, some would argue that, not too long ago, the average person on the street was more sincere, generous, and devout than many Christians are today. Frankly, these charitable behaviors make Christians wonder whether there is much difference between themselves and those in the world—or even if these people are more converted than they are!
What gives? Why do we struggle to do good, yet some people seem to do it so naturally?
Elihu declares in Job 32:8, “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.” Job’s young friend utters a truth that is self-evident to those whose minds God has opened but is hidden from carnal perception. God has endowed man with a human spirit that places him higher than the animals, giving him intelligence, emotion, speech, skills, and abilities similar to but lower than God’s own abilities. This spirit allows humans to function with free moral agency, to choose what behaviors they will follow.
This human spirit, however, has no moral compass in itself; it is essentially neutral, though it tends to be dragged down by the needs and desires of our flesh. A young child can become a saint or a sinner, depending on the training he receives, but if he is left to his own devices, as Proverbs 29:15 warns, he will ultimately bring shame on his family. This principle results from the fact that Adam and Eve, who, as mankind’s representatives before God in the Garden of Eden, set the pattern of choosing the knowledge of good and evil rather than God’s offer of knowledge that leads to eternal life (Genesis 3:1-6; 22).
Human beings, then, come in an array of moral hues, from black as sin to white as the driven snow and every shade in between. Humanity has produced Adolf Hitler, who attracted millions to his cause, as well as Mother Theresa, who repulsed millions with her Catholic beliefs. At base, we are all mixed bags, capable of the heights of altruism and the depths of egoism. It all depends on what we choose to do, yet our record tends toward the dark rather than the light.
In I Corinthians 2:11-13, Paul explains that man’s essentially neutral spirit is distinct from God’s Spirit. The human spirit understands only what the human mind can discover. If a man wishes to understand and do truly godly things, he must have God’s Spirit, which He freely gives upon repentance and conversion. This Spirit from God is “not the spirit of the world” (verse 12), which is “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). Paul goes on to say that God’s Spirit teaches us things beyond any wisdom discovered by the human spirit (I Corinthians 2:13).
Within this passage, Paul hints at the fact that the human spirit, when it is under the inspiration of the spirit of this world, can counterfeit the wisdom that comes from God’s Spirit alone (see II Corinthians 11:13-15). A carnal person’s works may seem “right,” but they are still acting under the guidance of the “natural spirituality” that is part of the spirit in man.
Consider the Ten Commandments. Most of us probably know people who agree that they are fine laws and strive to keep them. Does this mean they are converted? No! At best, men naturally follow at least the last six because they can see by the human spirit that they produce an ordered and peaceful society. The first four commandments, however, require God’s Spirit to understand fully.
Paul confronts this issue head-on in Romans 2:14-15, admitting that the unconverted often follow God’s law even if they have no knowledge of it. He calls them “a law to themselves,” meaning that the rules they follow are their own, not God’s, though they may agree with God’s law at points. How? Because the spirit God breathed into Adam in the Garden of Eden allows them to reason out a correct moral sense—at least partially. Generally, though, man’s moral sense is partly right and partly wrong, yet fundamentally hostile to God (Romans 8:7).
Nevertheless, the human spirit is so incredible that, in varying degrees depending on the individual, it can reason out parts of God’s truth on its own and put them into action. But by no means does this mean such people are converted! Jesus and the apostles are unambiguous about conversion being a special calling by God (John 6:44; II Timothy 1:9), marked by the indwelling of another Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16; II Timothy 1:14), God’s Spirit, that is holy and begets us as His children (Romans 8:9-14).
In Acts 5:29, 32, Peter provides the key to the difference between the converted and the “good” yet unconverted of this world: God’s people obey Him rather than men, and God gives His Spirit to those who obey Him. In other words, a converted person will have and use God’s Spirit and obey His law diligently and increasingly, while natural man will be guided only by his “natural spirituality” and be a law to himself. Because He will do what feels right “in his heart,” he will occasionally perform good works with which God would be pleased. As Jesus so bluntly puts it, even evil men give good gifts to their children (Matthew 7:11). Even a blind squirrel finds an occasional nut.
So, while we may be put to shame by someone’s good works from time to time, remember that God’s Spirit working in us makes all the difference: “But we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16)!