Yesterday 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)