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Why be good? Part two

FilthyRagsYesterday we began thinking about the gospel and being good.  If we're forgiven already why try?

This question is asked all the time.  By non-Christians trying to get their head around the good news, and by Christians - pretty much every time you preach the gospel.  It's hugely, hugely common.  Which is revealing, isn't it?  Because the question is founded on a very troubling assumption.  People assume that, as soon as you remove the threat of hellish punishment or the reward of heavenly blessings, there's no reason left to be good.  And that goes to show that our basic motivation towards goodness is not good.  Our basic motivation is to avoid pain and accumulate praise.

If the carrot and stick are removed and we can see no further reason for goodness we're only confessing that our "goodness" has nothing to do with the good that we do. Our goodness is merely a strategy to negotiate the rewards and punishments due to ourselves.

Isaiah was always saying things like this.  See for example chapter 64:6 where he proclaims that all our righteous acts are filthy rags.  Notice he says our righteous acts are filthy.  Obviously our unrighteous acts are filthy.  It's one kind of window onto human depravity when you see naked evil.  But Isaiah says, when you see someone clothing their nakedness in the fig-leaves of human religion and morality you are witnessing an even deeper evil. Those fig-leaves are filth because they hide the human problem not under the blood of Christ but under our own 'righteousness.'

Isaiah is making a point that religious people always resist.  In our own day religious folk commonly deride the findings of evolutionary psychology.  Certainly such findings can be overly reductionistic.  But when a scientist claims that "altruism" is really a strategy for propagating our "selfish genes" they are naming a deep truth.  They're thousands of years late to the party, and they're not diagnosing the issue with anything like the depth of Isaiah, but the observation is correct.  Naturally speaking, when I'm good, it's not for God (who provides His own covering for sin) and it's not for my neighbour (who is merely the occasion for my "altruism" not the object of it).  I'm good for my sake.  Which is not good.

So is that it? Do we just abandon goodness?

Well yes.  Obviously.  We abandon all 'goodness' that is in any way threatened by the gospel.  Whatever 'goodness' is ruled out by the free forgiveness of Jesus was never good in the first place.  It was a filthy covering and we must be happy to see such 'goodness' nailed to the cross of Christ.

But after death, there's resurrection.  Having condemned our goodness, we see how Jesus rises up to offer us the gift of true goodness.  Isaiah again:

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation     and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.  (Isaiah 61:10-11)

All our righteousness is like filthy rags. But His righteousness is a royal robe. Or, to switch the picture, it's a priestly crown.  Or - he switches it again - it's a bride's jewelry.  Or - one more change of analogy - it's like a fruitful crop springing up all over the globe.  This goodness from above first clothes us and then, organically, it grows through us and reaches the world.

Suddenly I - a filthy sinner - am clothed.  I'm royalty.  I'm holy.  I'm married.  And when Isaiah pulls back to the wide-angled shot, he sees this righteousness bearing immense fruitfulness, the world over.

Does Isaiah want us to give up on goodness?  Our own goodness, yes.  But there is a righteousness from God: He is the Bridegroom-Priest-Firstfruits.  He is the Anointed Saviour speaking from the beginning of the chapter - the One who binds up, frees, comforts and clothes the filthy to make them "oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendour" (v3).  He is Jesus: the end of our goodness and the beginning of true goodness.

In Him there is simply no need to buy off God, or cover my sins, or establish my moral standing, or reassure my own heart, or put you in my debt.  Every motivation for selfish goodness is taken away in Jesus.  And now, from a fullness in Him, I have something to share.  God may not need my goodness (in order to love me), and I don't need my goodness (in order to justify me) - but there's someone who does need my goodness.  You do.  And now - for the very first time - I can actually serve you.  I'm free to be good.

The gospel does not end goodness, it establishes it.  Without the free forgiveness of Jesus you can't be good.  Now you can.

In other words:

19 We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin...

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe... 

28 We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.  (Romans 3:19-31)

To be continued...

12 thoughts on “Why be good? Part two

  1. Pete Matthew

    Can we have why be good part 3 soon? Absolutely brilliant stuff (particularly as I'm preaching a series on the implications of the resurrection, last week was past tense, what we already are in Christ. This week present tense - progressive sanctification. Quite tempted to simply point them to your blog post and go home early!!

  2. Glen

    Nice to hear from you Pete! It'll be up tomorrow (if Jesus tarries). And maybe that's another element to consider as we think about implications of the resurrection: *waiting* :)

  3. matchamd

    Excellent post! I wish I could get it into my thick skull though - it seems that whenever it "clicks" I immediately forget it all again. I need to be recalibrated by the gospel all the time.

  4. Glen

    Same! But if it came naturally it wouldn't be gospel. It's always coming in from outside, that's what makes it good *news* :)

  5. Josh Vasby-Burnie

    If I believe that Jesus is good - and that in particular, he is good to me - then what am I to make of his commands to me? Are they there to spoil my fun, or are they there for my good? If I trust Jesus, I need to learn to learn to trust him in what he says.

    If the ground suddenly opens up in front of me and I fall into a sewage pit and someone dives in, rescues me, cleans me, adopts me, gives me new clothes, a new status and, whilst enjoying that new status we go to the theater and on route we pass an open sewage pit - do I have the right to jump in? If the guy assures me he will always rescue me in that situation - do I have the right to jump in then? Of course I do. But would I do so? Of course not!

    The real problem though is that even though living for Jesus is so much better than living for sin (and the difference is even greater than the difference between spending the night in a theater and spending the night in a sewage pit) - I still believe at times the sewage pit is a better option.

    Praise God that he even forgives my wrong beliefs and in his love he works to convince me that sin is horrible and Jesus is great!

  6. Pingback: Why be good? Part three | Christ the Truth

  7. A3B7A29B44 BW 4,6 some part of me with 1 Adam

    Here is the cure for our curse and certainly is not boasting in our current humanity. I enjoyed your discussion. "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadvast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain....Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my. God for you because of the grace of God that was given you (us) in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge...as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."

  8. Pingback: Why be good? Part four | Christ the Truth

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