We all know people who are not Christians, yet, they do many good things for people, their community, country, etc. Are these people not good and decent? Some of them are certainly better than many Christians that I know. I realize that their good deeds will not get them into Heaven because they are not believers. Are they good people?
You raise an important issue and a common question. It is addressed directly in Chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church holds to as a faithful summary of basic Bible doctrine. (You can find the Confession, with supporting Scripture texts, on the OPC website; just click on the preceding link.) I will refer to it as I respond to your question (and recommend that you read the WCF article "Of Good Works" in detail, including Scripture proofs).
We must first remember this:
Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention. (WCF XVI.1)
Here is some supporting Scripure:
Now may the God of peace ... equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21, English Standard Version)
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2, ESV)
He has told you, O man, what is good;and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, ESV)
...in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:9, ESV)
... this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, (Isaiah 29:13)
Deeds are good only if God calls them good in Scripture, and He calls them good only as they meet certain tests: (1) they are done in faith, (2) the are done in obedience to His commands in Scripture, and (3) they have His glory as their goal.
Secondly, we can therefore conclude the following:
... works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God.... (WCF XVI.7)
That is, for a work to be good it must be done in faith and in obedience to God's Word, seeking His glory.
Therefore an unbeliever cannot please God because he is by nature a rebel against God. Accordingly, even if he does something which is in agreement with God's commands (such as being faithful to his wife), he does not do it out of a desire to obey God's Word. In a similar way, he does not desire to glorify God when he does such things, and an action is good only if it is done to honor the Lord. Therefore, a non-Christian may do things which are outwardly "good," but inwardly are sinful, and we would not want to call him a "good person" in a Biblical sense.
Since none of us can do anything good without the power of the Holy Spirit, how wonderful is the saving work of Jesus Christ, who alone of all mankind is truly Good without qualification!
"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.
The questions come from individuals like yourself. If you have questions about biblical and theological matters, you are invited to send them by e-mail by using the "Pose a Question" link on the OPC home page or by clicking here.
At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those people who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)
The purpose of the OPC website's "Questions and Answers" is to respond to biblical and theological questions. Matters of church discipline, disputes, or debates go beyond the scope of our work. We recommend that you present your concerns in these areas to the appropriate judicatory. In most cases this will be to a local pastor, elder, or session. We do not want the website to replace personal involvement in, or commitment to, the local, visible church.
While we will respond to every serious questioner, we are not bound to give a substantive answer to every question, should we deem the question to be beyond the scope of our purpose or our own ability to answer.
You will receive an answer by e-mail. Please be patient as many of our respondents are busy pastors. The response to your question may take up to two (2) weeks. Some of the questions submitted will be chosen to be posted here, along with the corresponding answers.
Note that the "Questions and Answers" posted on the site have been editedall personal references are removed, Scripture references or from some source may be added, and sometimes portions are expandedto make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.