In numerous conversations recently, the idea has come up that we are each essentially a good person. Numerous people in our fellowship have expressed surprise that I teach against this idea that we are fundamentally good, and instead press the seemingly ugly idea that we are fundamentally sinful. Why is the assertion that we are at root sinful and not good such an important part of the beauty of the gospel?
Our Big Army
When Israel was severely oppressed by the Midianites, God called Gideon to lead Israel to freedom. He called together an army of 32,000 people, but God had other ideas:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’
God ended up leading Gideon to whittle down his army to 300 men, and granted them a tremendous and clearly miraculous victory. None of them said “my own hand has saved me!”
When we say we are fundamentally good, we present God with our big army – our best self with all our best examples of virtue and our strongest character traits. We are saying, you may be looking at all of my obvious flaws, but these are not the real me. Judge me, but judge me by my mysterious hidden goodness and not my day-to-day incidental stumbling. Judge me for what is best about me, not what is worst. The problem is, it is still judgment, and if it is to be true judgment, it will come to light that we are not fundamentally good. If a rapist said in his defense, “But I’m kind to my mother,” would that hold water? Justice does not look for what is best, but what is worst. We all know this.
Not so Good
The reason that people have to assert that they are really a good person is that they don’t seem like a good person, and the reason they don’t seem like a good person is that they are not a good person. Our sin spills out into our lives on a moment-to-moment basis. If any one of us has a deep spiritual epiphany and realizes what kind of person we really are, it is not going to be that we are beautiful and righteous and good. It is going to be that we are much much more sinful and horrible than we thought.
Paul quotes the Psalms to hammer home this very point:
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
No one is righteous. This is a deep and abiding and important Christian doctrine, a solid Biblical truth. This means that you, my dear reader, are not a good person. You do not understand, you do not seek for God. You have turned aside with everyone else, and with them you have become worthless. You do not do good. Your throat is an open grave, and you use your tongue to deceive. YOU! Your mouth is full of curses and bitterness, and your feet are swift to shed blood. Your paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace you have not known. You have no fear of God before your eyes.
“No!” you say. This isn’t me! I’m not swift to shed blood – this is insanity! I’m a good person! But what about all those other people that you love to gossip and talk ill about? Don’t you love to tear people down? Don’t you love to find what is wrong with people and eviscerate them to your willing friends with a great delight? Do you think that is good? How much of your speech is really all about verbally tearing people to shreds and having fun doing it? You think your throat isn’t an open grave? Really? Here is the real truth:
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 1:8,10
God does not share your assessment. He thinks that if you say you HAVE (present tense!) no sin, you deceive yourself. You lie. In fact, you make God a liar, because the root of the central work of God, the gospel, says that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. But you think you are a pretty good person!
Why is this beautiful?
This is beautiful because you can stop putting on masks. You can stop pretending. You can stop all of your whitewashed tomb living. You can rest – you’ve been outed. You want to make God love you and accept you at your best, but this is a shallow and fragile love. God doesn’t just love you when you measure up and look good. He loves you down deep, at your worst. His love is secure and eternal and strong because He is not going to reject you when it proves true that you are not good.
So the Christian says, I am not defined by the fact that I am good. That is still living under law and judgment. I am defined by the fact that I am loved. Christ has died for me. Christ has raised from the dead with love and forgiveness in His heart. This is how God is towards us. He is not halting and slow and miserly with mercy. He is rich in mercy and lavish in grace (Ephesians 1:7-8). He says, I have no boundaries – eat My flesh and drink My blood. I will overcome your worst sin. I will keep pursuing you with resurrection love and forgiveness, I will find you hiding and I will restore you by My own initiative and power.