If 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…