Should we praise unbelievers? Should we affirm them when they make any progress or improvements in their lives? And should we encourage them to see any achievements as God-given?

In Practicing Affirmation, Sam Crabtree answers with a triple “Yes!” And offers persuasive arguments. For example:

In the same way that Yellowstone Park is a reflection of common grace, unregenerate persons reflect graces not intrinsic to themselves. To affirm the beauty of their character is to draw attention to the undeserved grace that God has bestowed upon them in the form of faint echoes of Jesus, even in the presence of as-of-yet unperfected flaws in those same individuals. In the providence of God, some unbelievers are actually better behaved than some believers. This behavior is God’s gift to them, not their intrinsically meritorious character (32).

Contrary voices
But, I can hear others voices saying, “They that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Is not even the ploughing of the wicked sin (Prov. 21:4)? Does not the wrath of God rest on the unbeliever (John 3:36)?  And what about “There’s none that does good, no not one” (Rom. 3:12)?

If all that is true, what’s the point in praising and affirming unbelievers. Is that not like admiring a car’s shiny paintwork as it heads over the cliff? “Jump, run, escape for your life,” seems more appropriate.

Biblical knife-edge
So how do we balance on this biblical knife-edge. We don’t want to fall off on the side of encouraging unbelievers in pharisaical self-righteousness. But neither do we want to treat all unbelievers as if they are Hannibal Lecter. Here’s a guide to waking the knife:

  • We should recognize God’s work/image wherever it appears, even in the life of an unbeliever.
  • We should trace all good to God, and encourage unbelievers to see any good, any progress, any improvement as the gift of God
  • We should regularly remind unbelievers that although it’s good to be/do good (at least it’s better than being/doing evil), that’s not good enough – they need to be born again, they need to repent and believe the Gospel.
  • The best good works, even the best believer’s best works, are full of imperfection and weakness, and need to be repented of.
  • We should sometimes remind unbelievers that our commendations and affirmations are only from a human perspective. God’s view may be very different and at the end of the day is the only one that matters.

And this is the one area I’d have liked to see Sam develop a bit further in his book: What is a good work from God’s perspective? And as a starting point, where better than the Westminster Confession’s chapter 16, “Of Good Works.”

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: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.

Summary
In answer to the question, then, Should we praise unbelievers?” Yes, but make sure it’s regularly set in a wider Law/Gospel context that stirs the unbeliever to seek the only one who is good, that is God (Matthew 19:17).

Practicing Affirmation Review (1): Scots don’t do praise
Practicing Affirmation Review (2): 10 ways to praise people
Practicing Affirmation Review (3): Is the “sandwich method” a lot of baloney?
Practicing Affirmation Review (4): Should we praise unbelievers?