Can Unbelievers Please God? Part 1

Posted By on September 26, 2012

Most readers are familiar with the idea of “total depravity” as taught by many Christian theologians over the centuries — the idea that (in overly broad strokes) humans are unable to turn themselves to God and are inherently sinful. Those who have read with some depth in theology know that theologians disagree as to how to articulate total depravity, at least in part because it touches on many things.

One of the issues raised in a discussion of total depravity is whether unbelievers, those who have not been regenerated and “saved” through personal faith in Christ, can ever actually please God in any way. Put another way, the idea is that an unbeliever can never truly do something that God would look at and say something like, “good job”; “I liked that”; “glad to see you did that”; etc., but would always have some point of dissatisfaction or spiritual criticism — the act would further sour God’s disposition toward the unbeliever who is “under wrath.” The counter assumption is, then, that believers can indeed satisfy God in this way — meet this standard — whereas the unbeliever cannot (ever).

I think this way of looking at things is theologically amiss, but I won’t say why until Part 2. Suffice it to say now that I reject any notion that an unbeliever can turn themselves toward God in any salvation sense, or merit God’s grace in any way. That is, an unbeliever cannot do anything “spiritually good” with respect to meriting or moving toward salvation in any causative way. But that’s different than the question I’m raising: can an unbeliever ever please God? I say they can. God can indeed look at something an unbeliever does and approve of it and take pleasure in it (or be indifferent to it) and that such occasions have nothing to do with the “salvation distance” between God and that person becoming more narrow. They are two separate issues.

For now, I’d like to hear what readers think — both about the doctrinal idea and how they might suppose I’d argue against it. Lest some think I’m caricaturing a position, here are some excerpts from well-known Christian theologians:

Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 497.

a. In Our Natures We Totally Lack Spiritual Good Before God: It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Rather, every part of our being is affected by sin—our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies. Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), and, “to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15). Moreover, Jeremiah tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). In these passages Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God. Apart from the work of Christ in our lives, we are like all other unbelievers who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18)

Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, 637-638.

1. Depravity partial or total?

The Scriptures represent human nature as totally depraved. The phrase “total depravity,” however, is liable to misinterpretation, and should not be used without explanation. By the total depravity of universal humanity we mean:

A. Negatively,—not that every sinner is: (a) Destitute of conscience, for—the existence of strong impulses to right, and of remorse for wrongdoing, show that conscience is often keen; (b) devoid of all qualities pleasing to men, and useful when judged by a human standard,—for the existence of such qualities is recognized by Christ; (c) prone to every form of sin,—for certain forms of sin exclude certain others; (d) intense as he can be in his selfishness and opposition to God,—for he becomes worse every day.

B. Positively,—that every sinner is: (a) totally destitute of that love to God which constitutes the fundamental and all-inclusive demand of the law; (b) chargeable with elevating some lower affection or desire above regard for God and this law; (c) supremely determined, in his whole inward and outward life, by a preference of self to God; (d) possessed of an aversion to God which, though sometimes latent, becomes active enmity, so soon as God’s will comes into manifest conflict with his own; (e) disordered and corrupted in every faculty, through this substitution of selfishness for supreme affection toward God; (f) credited with no thought, emotion, or act of which divine holiness can fully approve; (g) subject to a law of constant progress in depravity, which he has no recuperative energy to enable him successfully to resist.

2. Ability or inability?

In opposition to the plenary ability taught by the Pelagians, the gracious ability of the Arminians, and the natural ability of the New School theologians, the Scriptures declare the total inability of the sinner to turn himself to God or to do that which is truly good in God’s sight (see Scripture proof below). A proper conception also of the law, as reflecting the holiness of God and as expressing the ideal of human nature, leads us to the conclusion that no man whose powers are weakened by either original or actual sin can of himself come up to that perfect standard. Yet there is a certain remnant of freedom left to man. The sinner can (a) avoid the sin against the Holy Ghost; (b) choose the less sin rather than the greater; (c) refuse altogether to yield to certain temptations; (d) do outwardly good acts, though with imperfect motives; (e) seek God from motives of self-interest.

But on the other hand the sinner cannot (a) by a single volition bring his character and life into complete conformity to God’s law; (b) change his fundamental preference for self and sin to supreme love for God; nor (c) do any act, however insignificant, which shall meet with God’s approval or answer fully to the demands of law.

So, let’s hear your thoughts. Would you agree with these quotations? Say things differently? Disagree? (and why – scriptural arguments / illustrations, please). Should be fun.

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20 Responses to “Can Unbelievers Please God? Part 1”

  1. Stephen Patrick says:

    Good morning Michael.

    Your question, can an unbeliever ever please God?

    Outside of faith in Jesus Christ there no relationship covenantally with God, but He has given gifts, or common grace to everyone. All of us have benefitted from the entrepreneurial mind of man whether they have been believers or not. Does the man who uses his skill and talents to come and repair our plumbing please God by a job well done? Yes he does. How about the unbelieving neighbor who cuts our grass every week? Did he perform the duty well? Then it pleased God. Did another unbelieving neighbor wake up early to go to work to care for his family please God? Of course he did. Did Steve Jobs have faith in Jesus Christ? I don’t know if he did or not, but he certainly used the gifts God gave him to design the latest technology for our benefit. Did that bring glory to God? I believe it did. How about an unbelieving musician? When they write and perform does it not bring joy to the listener? It does and I believe that God is very pleased.

    The only verse I could think of would be Genesis 1:31, And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

    Not good in terms of righteousness, but in its design or function. Regardless of faith, when any man or woman perfects or acts on the talents or gifts he’s given from the Lord which benefits or brings joy to another I think he is doing exactly what God wants him to do. And I think that pleases God.

  2. CharlesBM says:

    I don’t see why unbelievers can’t, at very least, please God in the same way that animals do. If God likes keyboard cat but can’t dig any Hendrix riffs (not-a-one?!?!?) I’ve got a theological problem.

    On a more scriptural note, I tried to dig something out of Nebuchadnezzar’s speech in Daniel 4:34-37, but I’ve ended in stalemate – maybe someone else can do better.

    At some point Hebrews 11:6 is going to have to be hashed out (perhaps in light of anywhere the word “faith” appears in James 2) I call ‘not it!’

    I also wonder what God thinks about the athletes that point to the sky when they’ve finished rounding the bases or get a touchdown – clarity on this issue (or an end the NHL lockout) will hopefully bring some comfort to my sports-watching experience.

    If you’re keeping score at home, my actual contributions to this topic are somewhere between -1 and .5

  3. Patrick says:

    My guess is the answer is YES, an unbeliever can please God.

    I believe so for the following logic:

    1) Cyrus was called “My anointed” as Yahweh’s agent. No textual or historical evidence Cyrus worshipped Yahweh and dropped his national gods. I think Cyrus will have a better eternity than Pharaoh for example and likely had a better earthly blessing paradigm as well due to his volition relative to Pharaoh’s.

    The bible leads me to believe Christ is going to evaluate all human leaders for their leadership roles and as such, it makes sense He will reward or NOT their decision making process, why they made X decisions, etc. He can’t do that if a leader was an unbeliever unless there is some differential in how He deals with them in eternity, IMO. So, they can please&displease God if I am right with potential in time&eternal implications.

    2) I think all humanity gets a judgment and/or evaluation. IF that is accurate, it makes no logic at all for Christ to judge all unbelievers if all there is to it is , “Sorry dude, you’re a loser, see ya”. I think they will have a real eval based on their works and will be rewarded or NOT for their lives, it just makes no logic otherwise.

    3) God’s character as developed in the text demands this from my view. We probably have ridden the “total depravity” idea too far. I agree we cannot approach God on our merits vis a vis the adoption as His “sons”. We’re not qualified to. This does not preclude God from loving us. If that is true, unbelievers can probably please or displease Him.

    4) My views are very biased because I am a heretic. Moltmann and Barth are closer to accurate than orthodox views of how God will and does deal with even unbelievers, IMO.

  4. HaMetumtam says:

    Freedom of the Christian. Martin Luther.

    On the other hand, what greater rebellion, impiety, or insult to God can there be, than not to believe His promises? What else is this, than either to make God a liar, or to doubt His truth–that is, to attribute truth to ourselves, but to God falsehood ? In doing this, is not a man denying God and setting himself up as an idol in his own heart? What then can works, done in such a state of impiety, profit us, were they even angelic or apostolic works? Rightly has God shut up all, not in wrath nor in lust, but in unbelief, in order that those who pretend that they are fulfilling the law by works of purity and benevolence (which are social and human virtues) may not presume that they will therefore be saved, but, being included in the sin of unbelief, may either seek mercy, or be justly condemned.

    I dont quote Luther as an appeal to authority, but quote him as he sums up my position very well and much better than i could. If i gave you the resources to do a particular job and you did not give me any credit but took the glory for yourself… you would be miffed, i know this because i have heard you criticize the “star of Bethlehem” guy for not citing the guys who done the hard work and made it possible for this guy to make his film, (rightly so..i may add) So if God enables a man to do a good deed and the credit is unjustly held to the man instead of giving God the glory for his ability to do a good deed how would it be pleasing to Him ?

    Premise A. All are bound in unbelief (Rom 11:32)
    Premise B. without faith it is impossible to please Him (Heb 11:6)

    Conclusion. No unbeliever can please God.

    • MSH says:

      Does Heb 11:6 really relate to the unbeliever who feeds and cares for his cat faithfully? Who takes a meal to her neighbor knowing no one else knows, but does it anyway? The husband who is tempted with infidelity but remains faithful — and only he and the temptress know that a decision had to be made?

      Examples are myriad — every day unbelieving people do things for which they get no attention, but do them because somehow, internally, they know it’s the right thing to do (the law of God, written on the heart). Does God really *dislike* people when they respond to the unheard prompting of the law of God written on the heart? What else should an unbeliever do when the invisible law of God tugs at his or her conscience? True, they do not earn salvation brownie points, but as I noted in the post, that is an altogether different question.

      Your premise A relates to salvation, and yet you want premise B to be all-encompassing. Not consistent. But I’ll wait for Part 2.

      • HaMetumtam says:

        Does God look at the heart that motivates the deeds or does He just look at the deeds ?
        Seems you think the later. The husband may have already committed sin even though there is not act, Sin is committed in the heart before it goes to action.

        Premise A relates to all of mankind and their default state of unbelief.
        Premise B is a declarative statement that is either true or false according to the law of bi valance. If true it would be all encompassing and therefore consistent, with premise A. Can you show an exception to this truth, where God is pleased without faith ?

        • MSH says:

          Yes – Hebrews 11.

          The “without faith it is impossible to please him” line is in conjunction with “he that comes to God.” This is clearly the language of salvation or saving faith. If you read my post (I recommend doing it again) closely, I make it clear that I am not referring to pleasing God in this sense. I am asking the question of whether an unbeliever can do ANYTHING in ANY way that doesn’t result in God being angry with it (as the quoted excerpts illustrate).

          • HaMetumtam says:

            I think i am clear on what your saying, you seem to be under the impression when someone disagrees with you they are misunderstanding something, which may be the case sometimes but not here. Your assumption that Heb 11:6 is specifically and only relating to salvation is unwarranted in light of the whole context of chapter 11. For instance the mention of Able, Enoch and the Ancients before verse 6 and also the whole array of others mentioned in the chapter after verse 6 Moses, Abraham, Rahab are acts of faith and trust in God and not directly relating to salvation. so to divorce verse 6 out of this context is not fair.

            But that aside lets divorce verse 6 and see if it can stand on its own against your claims, the one that pleases God MUST believe that He exists and believe He rewards those who seek Him.

            Unbelievers by definition do not seek God and some don’t believe that He exist and therefore fail the criteria of verse 6.

            your flogging a dead horse here, with this topic.

            • MSH says:

              No, I’m not flogging. And the immediate context of Hebrews 11:6 is clear. Think about the whole verse in its context:

              “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would **draw near to God** ?must believe that he exists and ?that he rewards those **who seek him**.”

              It’s absolutely clear that the comment is about seeking God. That isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m not at all sure how you got “seeking God” out of my first post. You’re addressing an issue I didn’t raise — and in fact denied.

              I just posted part 2.

  5. haibane13 says:

    I guess this might bring up the well known question , Are we saved because we believe or do we believe because we are saved ?

  6. Romans 14:23 – But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

    While the actions of unbelievers may be commendable or produce some sense of good, God is not pleased with their actions because the motivation for their actions is not the glorification of God but the glorification of self.

    So, I see Scripture revealing that unbelievers are completely unpleasing to God in every act and thought. This is not to say that every thought and action of the Christian is rooted in faith. Thankfully, we have a righteousness not of our own, that of Christ Jesus who did perform every act and thought by faith for the glory of God the Father.

    • MSH says:

      You’re taking this quite out of context. Romans 14 (and its parallel, 1 Cor 8) concerns “Christian liberty” – or what to do about “disputable matters” where Christians disagree. Nothing in the context has to do with the behavior / decisions of unbelievers.

  7. Janina says:

    Totally agree that salvation is a separate issue from unbelievers pleasing God

    Becoming a believer is by God’s election John 6:44, 65 – so credit goes to God and those that condemn unbelievers and treat them as “second class” are in danger of criticizing God and His decisions

    All of humanity is God’s creation and he loves us all and Christ died for all. From the beginning human nature is a mixture of good and evil –
    It matters to God what people do. Rom 2:14-15 “Gentiles” ie “unbelievers” know what is right and wrong and when they do good that pleases God and put to shame so called believers. Enter parable of Good Samaritan in Luke 10. What about the city of Ninevah that repented Mat 12:41? I am sure it pleased God that unbelievers humbled themselves (in contrast Jonah was not so pleased LOL)
    I know many unbelieving people that can put to shame some of the believers – they have high morals, high integrity, honesty, compassion etc – God loves those atributes because He gave them to all humans – Luke 6:45
    There is also the other side of the coin – God is displeased with lot’s of stuff that the believers do –
    I think that when Paul is talking about “nothig good in him” it’s mostly theological issue, that no matter what we do it will not be perfect and will not earn salvation – we are not on the same level as God is. Christ Himself said -” there is no one good but God” – Matt 19:17, Mark 10:18

  8. Sam T. says:

    Hello Dr. Mike; I just want to state that I agree with you, (not trying for brownie points) but for this reason.
    My take on your question, (how I’d argue against it. Lest some think I’m caricaturing a position).
    1. No, I do not think your caricaturing a position. Because if one where to do so, then you would have to say (because I must please God or am I pleasing God) then that must mean – there must be some Law still in affect.
    2. One must adhere to (as you have led me to see Dr. Mike) a first century application.
    a. After the cross, good deeds-bad deeds are no longer judged by God. Though He may not approve of your motive(s) it does not violate your relationship.
    b. Hebrews 11:6 is not about “Faith” or neither about “pleasing God” Chapter 11 is about the hero’s of faith-it was about them. Those on this side of the cross, Hebrews chanpter 12 is for the believer. Oh allow me to add, when you come to the (chastens) part, it’s not God going to spank you for a wrong deed or for not pleasing Him. It’s about God presenting the His Truth and correcting our unbelief.
    3. We are not under a Law or the Law. We are not born under the first Adam. We are born under Christ Seed from the cross onward (everyone born into this world) though everyone must understand what Christ have and has already completed for everyone. Faith is still the nucleus for salvation.
    4. No commdemnation to those who are in Christ.
    5. Pleasing God before the cross means something completely different then after the cross. Before the cross, it was according to you’re faith. After the cross NO-where in scripture does it say, according to you’re faith. Scripture state’s from Acts on that it was according to Christ Faith. It is always His Faith that you have no guilt nor comdemnation for a wrong deed done. Though if you do something that is agaisnt the Law of the land you must pay.
    I’ll finish with this.
    6. Wrong deeds are not sin. Sin is not a wrong deed. Sin is not a wrong doing. Sin is wrong being or wrong thinking. Biblically speaking sin is unbelief. (John 16:8) The Apostle Paul says it wonderfully, “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind” (Colossians 1:21 NKJV) You can finish reading the rest of it.

  9. shaun says:

    Dr Heiser, I have a somewhat related question from 2 Tim 1:15-18. It has more to do with the salvation end of this topic.

    2 tim 15-18 You will know, I expect, that all those who were in Asia have turned against me, Phygelus and Hermogenes among them. But may the Lord have mercy on the household of Onesiphorus. Many times did that man put fresh heart into me, and he was not in the least ashamed of my being a prisoner in chains. Indeed, when he was in Rome he went to a great deal of trouble to find me—may the Lord grant he finds his mercy in that day!—and you well know in how many ways he helped me at Ephesus as well.

    My take on this passage is that Onesiphorus is an unbelieving friend of Paul. Why else would Paul say, “may the Lord grant he finds his mercy in that day!”? I assume “that day” means the day of judgement. A beliver would not need a prayer for mercy since they would be saved. Notice Paul doesn’t pray for him to come to belief. Maybe Paul knew he was beyond that point and would face judgement.

    If I’m correct does this mean we should also pray for unbelievers? And does it mean that God may lessen the punishment for some?

    I realize “may God have mercy” could just be a figure of speech, but you have to admit its an odd one for Paul (of all people) to use twice on a beliver.

    Your thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated Dr Heiser. This passage has bugged me for years.

  10. [...] I won’t repeat what I said in Part 1, the comments to that post have left me thinking that some readers still don’t understand what [...]

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