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Why be good? Part four

define-good3If we're freely forgiven in Christ - apart from any goodness of our own - why be good?

Everyone asks the question.  All the time.  And evangelicals aren't always brilliant at answering it - at least, not without undermining the whole 'free forgiveness' thing.  So what can be said?

First we thought about the nature of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a "Get out of hell free card".  Jesus is forgiveness.  To receive Him freely is not to receive a licence to sin.  Rather we've been redeemed from sin and delivered into the realm of God's Beloved Son.  Here we have free forgiveness, but we have so much more.  We have Christ Himself, unbreakably and unconditionally. This ought to transform the way we think about salvation and sin.

Then we thought about the assumptions going on behind the question.  To think that grace removes any motivation towards goodness is to admit to something very perverse indeed.  If our motives for goodness are only about avoiding punishment and attaining reward, those motives are not good!  Whatever "goodness" is  ruled out by the gospel was never good - it was only the "filthy rags" of our own righteousness.  The gospel kills such "goodness" but it also establishes the possibility of true goodness.  Now, without any carrots or sticks, I am free to love you, and to do it for your sake, not mine.

Yesterday  we explored Isaiah's teaching on this. Apart from Christ, our goodness is a filthy covering which cuts us off from our neighbours, gives us a false "holier than thou" status and focuses us on strengthening our imagined bond with God.  In Christ, we are judged for our goodness, but then raised with Him to spread His righteousness to the ends of the earth.  The good news makes goodness truly good.  It turns us out to the needy to participate in Christ's self-giving love.

Finally, today we'll see how Jesus transforms our views of God, the world and ourselves (and yes, that does sound uncannily like 321, but I promise I had no intention of crowbarring that in. It just happened ok?)  When we focus on our goodness it always ends badly.  When we get the big picture, genuine goodness results.

So first - Jesus reveals the real God.

The God of Jesus is not like Allah.  He is not administrating a cosmic experiment in delayed gratification. He's not interested in moving you closer or further from "paradise" according to your performance.  He's a Father who has deposited you, once and for all, into the radiant Kingdom of Jesus, His Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13f).  Now you inhabit a realm of freedom, love and unconditional mercy.

When sinners hear this, they might ask: "Wow, so what kind of behaviour can we get away with now?"  But that's not usually our response to those who love us unconditionally.  Usually when a person loves you unconditionally you treat them better because of it, not worse!  Therefore, if I've understood Christ's redemption, my real question will be: "Wow, so what kind of God is this??"  The answer is, He's a Father, who counts me as His unrejectable child and who loves me with all His almighty Paternal love.  This is the God revealed by Jesus.

Second - Jesus reveals the real world

I can't overstate how crucial this is.  These days we're tempted to think that the real world consists of scientific and practical certainties.  You know, like the four laws of thermodynamics and GPs' surgeries and mortgages and Newsnight.  That's the real world and the Jesus stuff is a very important past-time that sends us back into the real world with some other-worldly hope and courage.  Hopefully.  And when we encounter moral choices in the real world we weigh up, on the one hand, the brute facts of the matter and, on the other, the spiritual teachings of Jesus.  And if we're very moral we'll allow the spiritual teachings of Jesus to outweigh real considerations.  How very Christian!  Except that it's not.

What is Christian is to insist that Jesus defines reality.  This really is His world.  Like, really.  And if it's His world then a life of down-scaling, cheek-turning, rights-yielding, self-giving love is The Way. And not just "the way" for religious types.  It's literally THE WAY.  It's how, properly, to correspond to the universe.  Because it's Christ's universe.

Third - Jesus reveals the real me

Paul says: "I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." (Romans 7:18)  When Paul looks for goodness, he realises he cannot 'search for the hero inside himself'.  There is no such hero within.  But that's less than half the story about 'the real Paul.'  It's vital that he understands his birth in Adam and that inherited nature - it means he won't try to dress up "the old man" in "filthy rags". But the real Paul lies beyond himself.  The real Paul is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:1-4).

This means that his desire to do good - implanted by the Spirit of Christ - will never be fulfilled by drawing on his own resources. If he wants to do good he will have to constantly turn from self and turn towards Christ (i.e. it's the life of faith).  The real me is the me that forgets me and trusts Jesus instead.  Or to put it the way Jesus said it: "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)  Whenever we're tempted to indulge the sinful nature we imagine that we're being true to ourself.  Jesus begs to differ.  We are true to our real self when we lose our old self.

So Jesus reveals the real God, the real world and the real you.  How does that free us into goodness?

Worked example: Many times in the last few months Emma and I have sat in a fertility specialist's office and insisted - against all his objections and scoffing laughter - that we want no part in treatments that lead to "embryo wastage" [shudder].  By law he has to follow our wishes but he's making us insist on it at every point.  If we weren't alert to the issues and adamant about our chosen path, we would have easily been led into a procedure that involves the "wasting" of about 8 "embryos" per cycle of IVF.  A chilling thought.

Now, why 'be good' here? Why not cave in to the specialist who, for goodness sakes, knows about the real world of fertility facts and figures. Why not go for options that will increase our chances of pregnancy many times over?  God knows we want kids.  Why be good?

Honestly, it's not a hard decision.  Not having kids is hard, sure.  But life is hard - there simply are no options that can sidestep the curse.  Childlessness is hard but saying 'No' to children-at-all-costs is not hard.  Because this doctor is not God, neither are the odds of pregnancy, neither is the estate of parenthood.  We have a Father who is very, very good and who has given us all we need in the kingdom of His Beloved.

What's more, the real world is not the world of utilitarian calculations.  It really is Jesus' world.  And however medics want to speak of it: "embryos", "zygotes", "blastocysts" - Jesus names reality.  And once you call life "life" you gotta admit, the ethics of the whole thing resolve pretty starkly, wouldn't you say?

More than that, if this is Jesus' world, He's not a coach who's trained us hard, given us advice and is now yelling from the sidelines.  He's the One in whom every atom and act coheres.  We're not shutting our eyes to the real world to follow our spiritual advisor, we're going with the grain of the universe - His universe.

Finally, the real me is not found in indulging my desires (no matter the cost).  The real me is in Jesus.  Which means He is never taking me away from real life and real fulfilment.  Never.  Because He's it!  There are some burdensome yokes out there - millions of 'em.  But Jesus' yoke is not - it's the one easy yoke.  That's what He said.  His life is the only easy life.  I promise you - He said that.  Seriously, look it up.

Some preachers manage to make Christianity sound like the second worst experience in all existence - second only to hell (but at least it's not hell so it's the clever option).  But no, life in Christ is a life connected to the real God, the real world, the real you.  All other yokes fit badly - they burden you. But His yoke is easy, His burden is light.

So why be good?  Because forgiveness is not a blank cheque, it's Jesus.  He's put to death our point-scoring moralism and raised us up into His self-giving life.  He shows us the real God, the real world and our real selves.  In Jesus, the Good Life is simply given to us.  And now, instead of using or spoiling or avoiding goodness, we're free to live it!

Some final thoughts...

13 thoughts on “Why be good? Part four

  1. RW

    Glen, great series of posts!

    I was especially interested in what you said near the end of this one:

    "Some preachers manage to make Christianity sound like the second worst experience in all existence – second only to hell (but at least it’s not hell so it’s the clever option)."

    I'm not disagreeing with you here, but why do you think some preachers do this (after all, shouldn't it be the opposite)? How could we respond to the tendency to present Christianity as so unappealing and unattractive?

  2. Liz

    great post, Glen!

    RW, I wonder if many preachers make Christianity sound like this because that's how they feel it to be? I've seen a bunch of different figures about ministerial burnout, divorce, family breakdown, depression etc. One article I read cited around HALF of pastors they interviewed saying they had no friends!! Sometimes I wonder if the way church is structured in many cases puts too much of a burden on one man. So rather than Christianity being a joyful life shared with brothers and sisters, it becomes more like desperately trying to swim across a rip tide, dragging 250 semi-willing people along with you. Certainly I know Christians whose faith seems to be defined by guilt over not being good enough.

    What are your thoughts?

  3. Glen

    Thanks RW and Liz - how do we respond to preaching that paints Christianity as "the 2nd worst experience in all existence"? I think Liz is onto something about such a preacher having themselves bought into a burdensome Christianity. If that's the case (and I'm sure it is) then it's a problem that goes deep. And I think the only answer is the *true* gospel. Note how in Galatians 4, Paul says to a bunch of believers who have lost the gospel "Where has all your joy gone?" Joyless, burdensome Christianity is a key sign we've drifted from the good news.

    I think one way we pervert the gospel into a joyless burden comes precisely as we answer this "Why be good?" question. Far too many Christians answer the question by saying something like "We're forgiven but not *that* forgiven" and from there an introspective hard slog ensues. Against this I think we need to preach such a free gospel that folks say instead, "Hallelujah, what a Saviour!". At that point the question will become an incredulous "Why be bad?"

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  5. Liz

    I think you're right, Glen, which is kind of scary because it means there is a lot of drifting in the church! And when that happens, Christianity becomes an endless cycle of guilt-ridden obligations, with no power and no joy. That's certainly not the Jesus I know, but sadly that's the one who gets portrayed, albeit unintentionally.

    I wonder if we also sometimes get stuck in trying to understand the gospel as intellectual truth only, rather than life-changing power. I've been struck lately by how, in the Book of Acts, the disciples' preaching is often an explanation of some amazing thing that has just happened - a lame guy walking or something like that. Without that element of our faith, are we simply asking people to assent to our point of view, which they can do without changing their hearts? "You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that, and shudder."

    What do you think?

  6. Howard

    It's all too easy in our times for what counts to become a mental assent to some collection of data deemed to be true, but entirely devoid of any real connection to the one who is truth, (given so generously to us because of His grace). Even our thoughts on defining 'goodness' can be so distorted here - not many of us would begin a discipleship group by heading to a wedding party and producing gallons of the best wine, or, returning from death, spend time having a quiet breakfast with a few close friends on a beach - but this is so in the Kingdom of God. I was particularly struck this week by the late thoughts and reflections of Brennan Manning:
    When this Father and Saviour takes hold of us, life indeed becomes good.

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  8. Chris

    I didn't intend to write a response to this excellent series of posts. But here at the end, I have to chime in.

    I am often guilty of the "Christianity is the second worst option". In my case I have lived as a Christian feeling guilty over my sin for years. But realizing what an idolater I was, and how ingrained that propensity is in me, how this sin has damaged my relationships is what has brought me to this place.

    I am forgiven by The Father, sure. But I have to repair my relationships (very painful), and figure why I am such an idolater so that I continue to not fall into this particular sin, doing further damage. Also I need to do this in order to build trust. Sounds a little bit like the theology of glory, huh?

    And yet I must, for otherwise, I am not repentant right? It is a terrible burden, but I have no choice. So I tell myself this is sanctification, and it feels like the ripping and tearing of flesh, and it exposes still more sin in my life. So on it goes.

    The joy I feel is in knowing I am forgiven by the Father. The burden is in knowing, not just the enormity of my sinfulness, but how deeply my sin has harmed others, and how hopeless it often feels to repair that damage.

    So Jesus says his burden is light. He says it, so it must be so. And yet... what am I to make of it? It seems I spend a lot of time in the Desert and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

    This a great series, and please do not read the above as a disagreement. There just often seems to be some pretty thick shadows over my joy, and I do not know how to reconcile what ought to be with what actually is in my own life.

  9. Glen

    Hey Chris,

    Repairing relationships with others is not a theology of glory at all. It's exactly what Luther was talking about when he said "God does not need your good works, your neighbour does." Let me put it more starkly - God does not need my 'sanctification', but my wife does. She *really* does. And it will be painful for me to overturn the patterns that are so natural to my flesh. But...

    1. None of this gets me closer to (or takes me further from) God. My relationship with the Father is secure in Christ. I *have* a new life in Jesus. I don't have to work for it. It's mine as a gift of God's pure grace alone. Working this new life *out* can be painful - *will* be painful. But none of 'my efforts at sanctification' do *anything* to my relationship with God. That's all a gift, given freely in Jesus and it's mine by faith alone.

    So, yes, I "have to" live out this new life. But that's not the "have to" of a price being paid, it's the "have to" of a river bursting its banks. The new life is mine and it must flow out.

    Now as the new life hits the "old man" there will be a lot of pain. Having said this, I must remember...

    2. It will feel like death to go against the ways of "the old man" but it is *hell* to follow them. The way to life is always through the cross and the alternative to the cross is always to be left in stupid, dark, disconnection from God. We mis-label "life" if we think true life is going our own way. Going our own way is hell. It's hell for others and it ends up being hell for us too. "Going God's way" is actually what true life is all about, and this is a sheer gift to us in Jesus.

    Now "going God's way" is no guarantee of groovy feelings, it's actually a guarantee of cross-like pain. But that pain is not a sign I'm 'doing it wrong', nor does it disprove my unshakeable status with God. It's the true path of life: taking up my cross daily and following Jesus.

    3. None of this pain is "meritorious" towards God but it is beneficial to my friends and family. When I seek greater Christlikeness, I'm not doing it for my own sake or for the sake of 'my standing with God'. I'm going through the Desert out of love for others because humbled-Glen is what my family and friends need (not self-sufficient-Glen).

    This path through the Desert will require divine help, but thank God...

    4. The Father does not look on with arms folded, waiting for me to get my 'sanctification' together. He loves me as the ridiculous, broken, contradictory sinner that I am. Even if I feel I'm being disciplined - that's purely because I'm being treated like a son, like an unshakeable, unrejectable member of God's family. Looking to Him - my Abba, Father - and knowing His good pleasure and love is the sustaining grace through it all.


    5. *Everyone* goes through the Desert. There's no other path from Egypt to the Promised Land. And we tread this path *together*. It's brilliant that you have shared Chris. Keep sharing with a trusted brother or two. We can't do the journey alone. But with others, we are reminded constantly of the grace we forget when we only focus on our own path.

    Every blessing in Jesus

  10. Brian Midmore

    Let me expand a little. The best person to go to is Abraham who is surely the archetypal Christian. Abraham had two justifications in his life, the first by faith then later by I know that you fear God. So we as Christians are first justified by faith now and then at the End we are justified by works. We are assured of our justification by works at the End because of the Holy Spirit that has sealed our salvation. Nonetheless if we given a choice between good and evil we should choose good because that is the way that leads to life. Rom 8.13

  11. Brian Midmore

    Let me expand a little. The best person to go to is Abraham who is surely the archetypal Christian. Abraham had two justifications in his life, the first by faith then later by I know that you fear God. So we as Christians are first justified by faith now and then at the End we are justified by works. We are assured of our justification by works at the End because of the Holy Spirit that has sealed our salvation. Nonetheless if we given a choice between good and evil we should choose good because that is the way that leads to life. Rom 8.13

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