The phrase, “there is none who does good” is confusing? I do good! What does Romans 3:12 mean?


It’s important to understand that these words are written about the natural man without Christ and concern unbelievers, i.e., the unsaved.

While the unsaved might be considered very talented and successful, have substantial resources, be very smart, and for the most part be considered by the world to be good, they don’t have what it takes within themselves to be saved. It could appear they have it all yet have nothing.

All of us are sinners (Rom. 3:23; cf. Eccl. 7:20; Isa. 64:6). Everyone is corrupt from the inside out (cf. Jer. 17:9; 13:23). Psalm 14:3 states, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (i.e. Rom. 3:12; cf. Psa. 53:3; Rom. 3:11, 13). This is a universal indictment of all mankind—all of us, except Christ! There is no one good, but God alone (Luke 18:19; cf. 1 Chron. 16:34; Psa. 25:8; Mark 10:18).

God’s Definition of “Good”

When Scripture states, “who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12), it simply means what it says. People will naturally reply, “But I do good things!” But do they really? They say they give generously to the poor, give to the church, provide jobs for others, and don’t fool around on their spouses, etc. All these things may be considered by many to be good, even very good, but why do they do these things? Somewhat offended by this question, most will say, “Because these are the right things to do!”

But the Lord inquires deeper into one’s heart and cross-examines even further asking for whose glory they do all these good things. Since unbelievers don’t know God, they can’t categorically state it is for the glory of God alone. The truth is they do these things for themselves. Whether it's for political or advertising gain, to impress friends, or just to make themselves feel good for a season, they ultimately do "good" for their own glory. So, as Paul wrote, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12, NIV).

God’s definition of good is far different from ours. He’s not just speaking of doing good works (cf. Jam. 2:17) but also the condition of the heart behind those good works (1 Cor. 13:3, 13; cf. Gal. 5:6). To God, it really matters why we do the things we do! Let’s re-emphasize this reality:

To God it really, really, really matters why we do the things we do!

Sinners should be concerned. 1 Corinthians 10:31 tells us to do all to the glory of God.” In Colossians 3:17 Paul states, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Peter emphasizes that our works actually need to be ongoing God glory realities: “…whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 4:11). Did you see that? God is mentioned four times and the pronoun he, referring to God, is mentioned once. So, five times in one verse Peter underscores the fact that God must be our reason for the things we do. In addition, John gives these instructions: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Fallen Man’s Dead-Tainted Goodness

Three parts of water (good works) added to one part of deadly botulinum toxin (human nature) still results in a deadly poison. How deadly is this toxin? At most, 1 nanogram of botulinum toxin per kilogram can kill a human being. One nanogram is exactly 0.000000000001 kilograms (SI unit). That’s a billionth of a gram. So, it takes a really small amount to kill a person. Now, imagine that your fallen nature is even deadlier. Actually, it’s already spiritually dead in trespasses and sin and infects everything it comes in contact with. Likewise, Just doing good doesn’t change a fallen man’s depraved nature.

Fallen mankind's sin nature accompanies all so-called “good works.” Every one of them. None of man's works are unaffected by sin, therefore all of his works are tainted and unclean! This means no matter how many good works one may do, they are still fallen works and not good from God’s point of view. Why? Because fallen man is still ultimately spiritually “dead in trespasses and sin” (Eph. 2:1-3). No matter how many good works get stacked up on the sandcastles of a person's life, at the end of the day when the hurricanes, tornadoes and floods of judgment come, the sandcastle is still but a crumbling structure. It’s going to fall, and great is its fall (cf. Matt. 7:24-27).

Since we are this bad (actually far worse) and can’t save ourselves, what are we to do? We need divine grace and we need to be “born again” (i.e. John 3:3,5).

Genuine salvation is not based on a person’s personal goodness (cf. Tit. 3:5), but upon Jesus’ perfect righteousness alone. Jesus is God and never sinned (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Christ died for his sinful people (Rom. 5:8). As the Spirit gives his ability (i.e. John 6:44, 65), God’s people will genuinely confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9-10). Jesus saves. Jesus redeems. Jesus transforms the heart. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, eradicates the deadly poison from our works.

There’s only one that does good. His name is Jesus.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).