Good Works vs. Virtuous Acts
Paul declares in Romans 14:23 that “whatever is not from faith is sin.” Here’s the dilemma: An unbeliever sees a child drowning in the river. In response, he dives in and saves her. Was this a good act?
Consider Paul’s teaching regarding obedience to the civil government in the previous chapter:
1) Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
2) Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
3) For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
4) For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
5) Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.
Paul is teaching that “every soul” (not just believers) must subject himself to “governing authorities.” We find here, and in other portions of Scripture, that obeying legitimate authority is a moral good—even for the unbeliever. But what are we to make of this in light of Paul’s comments in the next chapter regarding faithless acts?
Behind the Act
When considering this dilemma, I find helpful a distinction that many Christian ethicists make—distinguishing a “good” act from a “virtuous” act. The unbeliever saving the drowning child is a “good” act, but not a “virtuous” act. For an act to be virtuous, the person committing the act must be doing so with the right goal in mind, with the right motive, and according to the right standard.
The right goal
The act must be done to God’s glory.
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Westminster Shorter Catechism (1642-1647)
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
1 Cor. 10:31
And it must be done in service to the Lord.
Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men
The Right Motive
The act must be done in true faith.
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
And it must be done in love.
If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
1 Cor. 13:2-3
The Right Standard
It must be according the right standard—God’s law.
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law
Saving the life of the drowning child is a “good” act. This does not mean, however, that the person committing the act is good—the quality of “goodness” applies to the act not the person. If, however, the act is committed with the right goal in mind, with the right motive, and according to the right standard, then it would be appropriate to call it “virtuous,” i.e., both the act and what’s behind the act are good.