“I try to be a good person.”
That’s how most people will respond if you ask them why they believe they will go to heaven when they die. It is, of course, a disastrous way to think. It’s akin to thinking that you can arrive at the gates to Disneyland and suggesting that they should let you in because you try to be a good person. They will smile at you and tell you “that’s nice, but that’s not how it works here.”
The idea that all God is looking for is for you to do your best at trying to be good isn’t a biblical idea. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that trying to be good won’t cut it. The biblical standard is “you must be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), a standard people are quick to dismiss as hyperbole. “No one is perfect!” people say. Exactly right.
Even our most noble deeds don’t impress God. “All our righteous deeds are like polluted garments” (Isaiah 64:6). What we think is impressive God dismisses as unclean. Why? Because He knows the motive behind our nobility. In the end, our altruism is tethered to a self-glorifying root. No matter what degree of goodness might be attached to our deeds, the self-glorifying motivation drains the deeds of their ultimate goodness.
Ask the person who is trying to be a good person this question: “What is your standard of goodness?” Their answer will help explain why their efforts fall short. The average person sees himself as the arbiter of goodness. We set our own standard. We make our own judgments. Their full declaration should be “I try to be a good person according to my own definition of goodness. And when I fall short, I let myself off the hook for my actions and tell myself my heart was in the right place, even when it wasn’t. And I look around for people who aren’t as good as I am so I can feel better about myself.”
Think about the rich young ruler in the Bible. When Jesus told him that in order to obtain eternal life he had to keep all the commandments, his response was “All these I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21). That’s the ultimate “I try to be a good person” response. Jesus quickly destroyed his wrong-headed notion by showing this man how he couldn’t obey the first commandment to have no other gods before God. “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor” Jesus told him, pointing out that his wealth was more important to him than following Jesus. “He became very sad,” the Bible says, “for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23).
Our self-righteous impulses are bone deep. But God says that His blessings come to those who don’t see themselves as good people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” He tells us (Matthew 5:3). In other words, it’s not until we recognize our spiritual bankruptcy that we will ever begin to know the blessing of God in our lives.
The “I try to be a good person” posture is a house of cards. It is ultimately unsustainable because none of us has it in himself or herself to be the good person we try to be. “There is none righteous,” the Bible says. “No, not one.” “All we like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way.” The only recourse left for the person trying to be a good person and recognizing that he or she falls short is to lower the threshold for what qualifies as acceptable goodness, or else redefine goodness altogether to align with a standard of morality that fits our choices. And in the end, we hope God will be reasonable and see things our way.
So, should we all quit trying to be good people? Of course not. We need more good people in our world. And God wants us to be good people, aligning our lives with goodness as He defines it.
What we need to do is realize that our goodness is not the currency of salvation. Your goodness assets are no good in God’s economy. It’s like trying to use pesos in a vending machine in Vermont. The coins drop right into the return slot on the machine.
Salvation comes to those who see their need, acknowledge their poverty and receive the free gift that God offers; a gift paid for by His Son. It’s a gift that inspires gratitude and service. Receiving the gift births in each of us a longing, a desire, to be more like the Giver. To be good people.
One final thought that is tangentially related to all of this (warning – deep water ahead).
I came across an essay this week written by James R. Wood, an Assistant Professor of Theology at Redeemer University in Hamilton, Ontario. In an essay titled The Church Against The Ideologies, Wood reflects on the writing of Roman Catholic theologian named Henri De Lubac and an article he wrote in 1942 titled “A Christian Explanation of Our Times.” Woods says that De Lubac “argued that modern values such as freedom, equality, brotherhood, nationality, progress, and social justice originally emerge from Christianity and only make sense when integrated within the Christian whole. As these concepts become detached from their origin—when they become ‘laicized ideas’—they are transformed into dangerous ‘ideologies and utopias’; or, as Chesterton described them, ‘Christian ideas gone mad.’ These ideologies isolate one aspect of Christian truth to the neglect of others, and become dangerous distortions of reality.”
In other words, when an individual or a culture decides to pursue godly virtues uncoupled from the worship and honoring of God Himself, the entire endeavor is doomed not simply to fail but to fail catastrophically and dangerously. The pursuit of godliness apart from the pursuit of God Himself will not end well for anyone, whether it’s a nation or an individual.
Tell your friends they shouldn’t try to be good people until they’re ready to surrender their lives to the One who alone is good.
And if you need a fresh reminder of who that is, enjoy one of my favorite old songs – based on Psalm 4 – from Steve and Annie Chapman.
I know you’re getting this newsletter earlier in the day than you’re used to. That’s so I can remind you about the concert tonight!
We’ll have cookies and brownies and coffee at 7:00. Come and bring your friends. You will love the music and be glad you came!
Hope to see you at 7:00!
After a great inaugural year of AWANA last year, we are starting to make plans for the 2023-24 AWANA year which will start on Wednesday, August 30. That’s where you come in!
We can always use more helpers on Wednesday nights from 6:30 – 8:00 pm. The work isn’t complicated. It’s mostly about loving kids!
If you’re curious about helping, contact Laura White and let her know. She would love to get a text (501 517-5799) or an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) from you!
Speaking of kids, we’ve been having a great time this week during our Backyard Bible Club as children are learning about the Lord’s Prayer. Take a look!
Thanks for praying for the kids and the volunteers this week.
We have lunch all planned for you this Sunday!
The lunch is free for everyone. Donations will be accepted! All proceeds will go to help cover some of the costs associated with the Street Reach outreach in Memphis.
Crowder. Magic Springs. July 29.Our students are making plans to go. If you’d like to tag along, talk to Cole and let him know. Or click here for details and to register now.
Mark your calendar now for the end of July all church pizza and pool party!
We wrap up our series on the Seven Deadly Sins this week with a look at what is almost certainly the root of all sin – the sin of pride. If you think this one doesn’t apply to you, that’s a sure sign your heart is proud! We’ll explore what the Bible tells us about putting off pride and clothing ourselves with humility.
See you in church.
Soli Deo Gloria!