When you hear about someone being called a good person, what comes to mind? Does that mean they have an agreeable personality or demeanor? Is it someone who’s always doing kind things for others? Is it somebody who meticulously avoids breaking any laws?
At funerals I’ve heard the deceased described as “a good Christian man” or :a good Christian woman.” Is that to be compared to a “bad Christian man” or woman?
The Bible doesn’t mince words announcing, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). To ensure we don’t miss this surprising assessment, we find similar statements elsewhere: “… There is no one who does good…. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1,3). Psalm 53:1-3 offers a nearly identical statement.
In a psalm of repentance, King David prays, “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). And perhaps the strongest words of all are found in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is what separates Christianity from any of the world’s other religions and belief systems. All other religions, in one way or another, tell us, “This is what you’ve got to do.” And then they present rules, regulations, laws, principles and philosophies intended to make us right with God (or whatever they call the divine). Maybe. If you’re lucky.
By contrast, rather than “do this” or “do that,” the essence of the Christian faith is summed up in one word: “Done.” Romans 5:8 puts it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” A chapter later we read, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Other passages expand on this foundational precept, teaching us about God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Another verse, Titus 3:5 reaffirms this: “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Okay, so it seems there’s nothing we can do – or could ever do – to earn our salvation, forgiveness of sins, and being brought into a right, eternal relationship with God. It’s done; but the Lord was the doer. Hmm. Does that mean we’re “home free,” that we don’t have to do anything, that we can live our lives just as we see fit without consequence?
I like how the apostle Paul answers that question. In Romans 6:2 he argues, “May it never be!” Another translation tells us, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” But this seems to present us with a conundrum. We can’t do anything to earn God’s favor and acceptance, but we’re also told that doesn’t give us license to do whatever we choose. Then why should we “be good”? Why should we bother with doing good works?
The answer to that is simple: It’s God’s purpose for us. After we’re told we've been saved by grace through faith, and not because of anything meritorious we’ve done, Ephesians 2:10 continues, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Contrary to cultural mantras, He didn’t put us here to “grab all the gusto” or to “look out for No. 1.” He’s got lots of good stuff He wants us to do, for His honor and glory.
Other passages elaborate on this truth. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we discover the purpose of the Scriptures is “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Biblical teachings aren’t intended for us to become spiritual eggheads.
This helps us to understand another verse which has puzzled some when pondering grace vs. works. In Philippians 2:12 we’re told to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This isn’t in any sense saying we’re to work in order to receive salvation. Because the very next verse states, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). In other words, we’re to work out the life of Christ that He has already worked in.
There’s another reason our works – our character, behavior and deeds – are important. Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Some of us are more than eager to share our good words, passing along concepts and truths we’ve learned during a sermon, reading a book, in Sunday school or during a Bible study. But as the adage reminds us, if our works don’t speak as loudly as our words, the less said the better. Or as Pastor Joe Aldrich put it years ago, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”