Growing up, going to concerts was a normal part of my life. At one concert, in particular, I remember the singer of one of the bands making a long speech in between songs about how he moved away from being religious. "At the end of the day," he said nearing the end of his speech, "it doesn't really matter what you believe, just as long as you're a good person!" This was accompanied by flashing lights and applause.
At the time, the statement seemed innocent enough. I even found myself wanting to cheer along. But at the end of the day, is that the only thing that truly matters? To just be a “good person”?
One of the reasons the call to “just be good” might be attractive to us is because we assume everyone can do it. While expecting everyone to believe the same things is unreasonable and exclusive, expecting everyone to ‘be good’ is a bar we believe everyone can meet. But this assumption creates a very particular disposition in us. While it may give us resources to be more tolerant and inclusive, it also does something else: if everyone can ‘be good’ by their own will, we expect everyone to rise up to this occasion, and then when someone does not, whatever contempt we feel toward that person is justified.
So while the call to ‘be good’ is inclusive, it is also unclear. What does it mean to be good, how good to you have to be, and what happens when some people are better than others? In answering these questions, we will find out how unfair this statement can be.
An Uneven Playing Field
It turns out this phrase isn’t so simple, especially if we acknowledge that we do not get to choose the country, state, city, neighborhood, or family we are born into. What do we tell the delinquent teens taught to steal from childhood- “just do better?” This litmus test of “just be good” then almost becomes absurd, especially if we recognize that some of the virtues we believe we created in ourselves have actually been nurtured in us from infancy. While some of us have been groomed to be law-abiding citizens, as it were, others have been neglected, abused, and even raised in circumstances where being a “productive member of society” is a completely foreign idea. The degree then to which a person can ‘just be good,’ moves drastically based on where or how a person was raised.
While the Scriptures affirm that everyone apart from Christ will be held responsible for their sin (Rom. 1:20), the scriptures also point out that just because someone is moral and hasn’t externally broken God’s law, this doesn’t mean they’re not doing this for selfish purposes:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside, you appear to people as righteous but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matt. 27-28, NIV).
The Shallow Test of Good Behavior
The Scriptures continually subvert this reliance on good behavior. Revealing that the ivory towers of morality and self-righteousness are mere mirages, Jesus says in Matthew 5 that anyone who hates their brother or sister is liable to the same judgment as if they had murdered them, and if anyone lusts after someone in their heart they have committed adultery. Scripture continually closes this chasm between the moral and the unruly, revealing to us as the prophet Nathan did to King David that it is we who are in dire need of grace.
In his letter to the Corinthians, after the Apostle Paul lists a litany of immoral sins he says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). As we saw with the Pharisees in Matthew 27, it is possible to act like a ‘good person’ externally, but what Paul is highlighting for us here is that we are only truly good if we have received a righteousness that is not our own, but Jesus Christ’s.
Morality then is a shallow test and a thin veil, because under the right situations, under the right stress and duration, we are just like those who we look down upon in contempt. How we were raised and our life circumstances might have very well kept us from being the cheating spouse, the person in prison, or the drug addict on the street, but it is only by the justifying grace of Jesus Christ that we are washed white as snow.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). In this parable, the Pharisee is shown to go above and beyond in his moral and religious behavior for God, but Jesus says it is the tax collector who receives grace. The immoral man who beats his chest in grief over his sin crying out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’, is the one who went home justified (vs. 14).
Heaven, then, is not a place where morality is crowned and rewarded; it is the place where sinners have become saints, where we all who are saved by grace alone through faith alone receive what our good works never could—the very righteousness of Christ.
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