Who is a good person?
This used to be a fairly simple question. Our society had standards which defined certain behavior as right and certain behavior as wrong. A good person was a person who behaved in the right way and a bad person was a person who behaved in the wrong way.
The question has become complicated because there have been radical changes over the half of a century in how our society defines right and wrong. Behavior that was once defined as “wrong” such as sexual intercourse outside of wedlock is now considered, if not to be “right”, to at least be “none of your business”. Meanwhile behavior that nobody would have dreamed of considering to be “wrong” one hundred years ago has jumped to the top of the totem pole of sin. Much of this behavior consists not of outward actions but of inward thought patterns.
Consider, for example, the terms “racism”, “sexism”, and “homophobia”. All of these terms are very recent additions to the English language. Racism entered the English language in the 1930s, sexism and homophobia were first used in the 1960’s, with homophobia not gaining widespread usage until the 1980’s and ‘90’s. All of these terms describe ways of thinking more than they describe ways of acting. Is there any doubt that these are considered to be the greatest of evils in society today – at least by politicians, teachers, the media, and liberal clergy?
Was our society more right in what it deemed to be right and wrong behavior one hundred years ago or today? (1)
In spite of these changes there remains a general concept of a “good person” as someone who is kind, considerate and helpful to others, who obeys the law and pays his taxes, and doesn’t hurt other people. If you were to ask most people if they consider themselves to be a good person you would get answers like “I try to be”, or “I’m as good as the next person”, or if the person is particularly self-righteous “Well I’m better than a lot of other people”.
What these answers demonstrate is the human concept of righteousness. We judge ourselves to be good or bad by comparing ourselves with others. We look at people who commit major violent crimes like murder, robbery, and rape and consider them to be the “bad people”. We look at people in general and judge ourselves to be better than most. We look at someone like Mother Theresa and feel guilty.
We also feel guilty when we take a look at our own behavior and realize that we have not lived up to the moral standards we profess. We then try to justify ourselves by justifying our behavior. We make excuses for ourselves. We concoct nice logical arguments as to why our bad behavior is really right behavior. This is generally our first response if someone else points out our bad behavior to us.
Who does God consider to be a righteous person? Does He judge us in the same way other human beings do or does He have His own standards of righteousness by which He judges us?
The Scriptural answer to this question is, of course, that God holds us accountable to His own standards. He does take our standards into consideration, in judging us, Jesus said:
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:2)
This is the reverse of the way in which we judge ourselves and others. We tend to be easier on ourselves than on other people, excusing and justifying in ourselves, behavior that we would condemn if committed by someone else. Jesus says, however, that God will hold us accountable if we don’t live up to the standards whereby we judge others.
Is there even one among us who has such perfect integrity as to endure such a judgment and be deemed righteous?
In the Sermon in which Jesus made the remark quoted above He tells us what the righteousness which God demands from man looks like.
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
The scribes were the teachers of the Law in Israel. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that dated back to the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BC, who stressed purity and strict adherence to the law. When Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees He is setting the bar very high indeed. We should not try to get around this verse by thinking “well, the Pharisees weren’t really that righteous”. To do so would be to miss Jesus’ point altogether.
After saying the above, Jesus goes on to comment on six Old Testament commandments. Each time His remarks are to the effect that mere conformity to the letter of the commandment is insufficient to meet the requirements of righteousness God demands of people. We are required to be righteous in our hearts, which are only seen by God, and not just in our outward behavior seen by other people. He brings this section of His Sermon to a close by saying:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Jesus then went on to say that it is alms-giving, prayer, and fasting that is done in secret rather than in front of other people that God rewards (Matthew 6:1-18) and that we must make God’s kingdom and righteousness the chief ends of our lives, placing the pursuit of them ahead of concerns about basic human needs such as clothing, food and shelter, warning us that we cannot serve God and money at the same time (Matthew 6:19-34).
As Jesus brought this Sermon to an end, He described the way of righteousness He had been preaching as a straight gate, and a narrow way, leading to life, which few find, as opposed to the wide gate and broad way that leads to destruction. It is a straight and narrow way indeed. There is not a human being other than Himself who has ever walked it. None of the rest of us have come even remotely close. Friedrich Nietzsche was in this limited sense correct when he wrote:
The very word 'Christianity' is a misunderstanding--at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross. (2)
The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew. The word “Gospel”, from the Old English “godspel” means “glad tidings”, and translates the Greek “euangelion” – “good message” or “good news”. How can a Sermon proclaiming that God requires of us a righteousness which we do not come close to meeting, be considered “Good News”?
The answer lies in the rest of the story. In the very next chapter a leper comes and worships Jesus and says “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean”, an expression of faith. Jesus heals him. Then a centurion comes and tells Jesus that he has a servant at home suffering from palsy. Jesus says that He will come and heal him and the centurion says that he is not worthy to have Jesus enter his home but that if Jesus just speaks the word his servant would be healed. Jesus commends him for his faith, saying that He had not found such faith in Israel, and grants his request saying “Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee”. Later in that same chapter, Jesus and His disciples enter a ship and a tempest arises while Jesus is asleep in the boat. The disciples, in terror awake Him. He rebukes them for their lack of faith – then calms the sea.
Throughout this chapter we see that Jesus rewards faith. In the chapter following Jesus will tell the Pharisees that He is not come to call the righteous but “sinners unto repentance”.
In the New Testament, the righteousness of God is both something God demands of people (as we saw in the Sermon on the Mount) and something God gives to people who trust Him. The righteousness that God demands of us is a righteousness we cannot achieve. When Jesus told the Pharisees that it is the sick that need a physician, not the well, and that He is come to call sinners unto repentance, He was not telling them that they didn’t need Him. He had already given the Sermon which demanded a righteousness higher than their own. They, therefore, were sinners just like the publicans and sinners whom they objected to Jesus eating with.
Earlier, when I described our tendency to make excuses for our bad behavior, I used the word “justify”. The word “justify” means to “declare to be righteous”. When we, having been caught doing something wrong, try to justify ourselves, we try to come up with arguments to convince others and ourselves that we were actually right in doing what is wrong.
God does not engage in that kind of justification in Scripture. He does not call bad actions good. He does not call wrong behavior right.
He does, however, justify sinners. Throughout the Bible, God calls those who trust in Him, righteous. These are not people who meet the standards of righteousness Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount. In Genesis 15, God speaks to Abraham, who is old and childless, and tells him that he will have a son and from his son descendants as numberless as the stars in the sky will be born. Abraham believed Him, and according to verse 6, “He counted it to him for righteousness”.
In the Psalms, King David frequently distinguished between the righteous and the wicked and calls upon God to rescue the former and to punish the latter. Yet, in the Psalms King David also expresses a deep sense of his own sinfulness. Psalm 51, for example was written after Nathan the prophet had come to David and exposed his sin in the affair with Bathsheba. David had slept with another man’s wife, gotten her pregnant, then in his attempt to cover up his sin had had her husband killed. Psalm 51 expresses his sorrow and repentance, and calls upon God to have mercy upon him, and to cleanse him from his sin and to create a clean heart within him. In repenting David expresses His faith that God can cleanse him of his sins and make him righteous. The theme of trust in God is a dominant one in the Davidic Psalms. Psalm 16 for example, opens by saying:
Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.
Jesus, throughout the Gospels, rebuked unbelief more frequently than He rebuked sin and rewarded faith. St. Luke records a parable in which He compared a Pharisee and a tax collector, who both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed this way:
God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Luke 18:11-12)
The tax collector, on the other hand, smote his breast and said:
God be merciful to me a sinner. (v. 13)
It is the tax collector who went home justified, Jesus said, and not the Pharisee.
It is St. Paul in his Epistle to the Church of Rome who provides us with the most detailed account of the righteousness God gives to those who trust in Him through Christ. In the first chapter St. Paul writes that the Gospel of Christ:
[I]s the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (vv. 16-17)
The Gospel of Christ, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again from the dead, brings salvation to everyone who believes it, Jew or Greek it is for everybody. The “righteousness of God” revealed in the Gospel, is both God’s personal righteousness, and the righteousness He gives to those who believe.
St. Paul expands upon this by first writing about the wrath of God, God’s anger against man’s unrighteousness, describing the general condition of men as having rejected the revelation of God in His creation, and turned away to worship idols, and commit all sorts of sin (1:18-32) He then goes on to argue in the next two chapters that both Jews and Gentiles are alike condemned, for the Law only justifies those who obey it, that it will condemn those who possess it and do not obey it, and will justify those who obey it even if they have never heard it, but that no one will be justified by the works of the law “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”.
It is here that he introduces the concept of justification by grace through faith:
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. (3:24-26)
It is because of the death of Jesus Christ, that God can be righteous Himself, and at the same time declare those who believe in the Savior He has given us, to be righteous as well. Christ’s death satisfies God’s just wrath against sin (this is what propitiation means) so that He can declare those who trust Him to be righteous without compromising His own righteousness. The mechanics of how Christ’s death accomplishes this is not fully explained in Scripture, and is probably beyond human comprehension, but St. Paul and St. Peter do explain that it involves substitution. St. Paul wrote that God “made Him to be sin for us Who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). St. Peter writes that Christ “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth… his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” (1 Peter 2:22, 24). In His death, Jesus took our sins upon Himself, and suffered for us, paying the penalty we owed to God’s justice and satisfying God’s wrath.
St. Paul goes on to explain that our works do not contribute to the righteousness that God gives us through faith. If righteousness in the eyes of God is something we must strive for through our own actions, we would be able to boast if we achieved it. The righteousness of God, however, is a gift freely given to us.
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Rom 3:27-28)
Note that St. Paul writes “without the deeds of the law”. A few verses later he writes:
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (4:4-5)
This is the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”, which was not invented by Martin Luther in the 16th Century, but was clearly taught by St. Paul in the first. It is false to say that St. Paul did not teach sola fide because the word “alone” does not appear modifying the word “faith” in this epistle. The “alone” in “faith alone” means “without works” not “without grace, without Christ, without the Atonement” or anything of the sort, and St. Paul clearly says “without the deeds of the law” and “to him that worketh not”.
What this means is that being righteous in the eyes of God, is not something God dangles before us, like a carrot before a horse, as an end for which we are to strive, in order to keep us on a perpetual treadmill of good works. It is something God has already freely given us in Jesus Christ and we are to simply trust Him (take Him at His word) about it. This righteousness is not something of which we are to boast, but is rather something that should humble us. It is also the only proper foundation for a life of good works. Remember that St. Paul said, quoting the Prophet Habakkuk “the just shall live by faith”?
This means that trusting Jesus Christ as Savior is not a one time act (3) but the ongoing foundation upon which the Christian life of good works is to be lived. We are to live for God based upon the conviction (another word for faith) that Christ has died for us, redeemed us to God, and risen from the dead, and that through this God forgives us of our sins and gives us His righteousness and everlasting life in accordance with His promise in the Gospel to all who believe.
It is only by trusting God in this way that we can come to love Him and it is only through loving Him that we can do works that are pleasing in His sight. Jesus said the first and great commandment is the commandment to love God with all our hearts. St. John says that this is only possible because of His love for us:
We love him, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:9)
We know of this love, because it is revealed to us in Christ, in the Gospel, which we receive through faith.
If our righteousness in the eyes of God, if our acceptance by God, depended upon our fulfilling the Great Commandment we would never be accepted by God. God deserves and demands that we love Him wholeheartedly. This we never do in this life and we cannot love Him at all if we strive to love Him in order to be accepted by Him. Love is not something that can be produced upon command. If, however, we trust in Christ, if we believe that God out of the love, kindness, mercy, and grace of His heart, has made us completely acceptable to Him in Christ already, through our faith God will work love for Himself in us. And out of that love will flow works that are pleasing in His sight. It is not those works that make the believe righteous in God’s eyes, however, but the work of Christ.
The traditional Christian distinction between “works of the law” and “works of love” is the fundamental distinction between the works acceptable to God and works that are not – but the distinction is lost if we make “works of love” the basis of our personal acceptance with God. If they are something we must do in order to be accepted by God then they are “works of the law” not “works of love”.
(1) A lengthy answer to this question would sidetrack this essay but my answer is that we have moved away, as a society, from a more right view of right and wrong towards a more wrong view of right and wrong.
(2) Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by H. L. Mencken, The Anti-Christ (Middlesex: The Echo Library, 2006), p. 39.
(3) The evangelical practice of talking about one’s conversion as one’s salvation has pitfalls here. Faith is supposed to look away from the believer, away from his works, and away even from itself, to Christ. The Gospel is that Christ saved those who trust Him through His death on the Cross – not that we are to save ourselves by trusting in Christ. Thus, the familiar evangelical question of “do you know when you were saved” should be answered, by the believer, with “Yes – I was saved when Jesus died on the Cross” not by giving the date of the believer’s conversion. Likewise, the best answer to the evangelical question of “If you were to die tonight, and God were to say to you ‘Why should I let you into Heaven’?” is perhaps not what many evangelicals think it is. The answer is “Because You gave Your Only-Begotten Son to die on the cross for my sins, raised Him from the dead, and promised everlasting life to whoever believes in Him”.
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