Why isn’t ‘good enough’, good enough for God?
John Chapman started getting invitations to events where the gospel was explained, after his high-school friend became a Christian. It was at one of these events that John understood that Jesus’ death and resurrection were the means by which he could be forgiven, and he decided to serve Jesus as his Lord and trust him for forgiveness. Having started his career as a school teacher prior to theological training, John was the Director of the Anglican Dept. of Evangelism in Sydney for 25 years. John gives his time to explaining the good news about Jesus to others, and to helping Christians to share their faith.
One of the most common errors made in thinking about Christianity is to mistake good people for Christians. It is possible to be a good person and be an atheist. It is possible to be a good person and be a Buddhist. It is also possible to be a good person and be a Christian. However, having said that, it is necessary to say that it is possible to be good and still go to hell. In fact, hell will be full of good people.
Really good people have several real problems.
Good people are not good enough
The first problem which good people have is that no matter how they try, they can never make themselves good enough for God. It just isn’t possible. Jesus tells us what God is like and he then calls on us to be like him. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
When an expert on the law asked Jesus what he would have to do to gain eternal life, Jesus asked him, “What is written in the law?”. The lawyer answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself”.
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:27,28). But the real trouble is that none of us can really do that no matter how we try. We just cannot make it. Some people, through a valiant effort, make themselves much better than others. But none of us is really good enough.
Suppose we both decide to go to a concert. When we arrive we discover the tickets cost twenty dollars each. We go through our pockets and discover that I have got one dollar and you have eighteen dollars. You miss the mark by two dollars, but I am much further away than that. Neither of us makes it.
It is exactly the same in the supernatural realm. The real trouble is that we compare ourselves with one another and not with Jesus. If I look around for long enough, ultimately I can usually find someone who appears to be worse than I am. However, I would be foolish to think I am good enough. I need to look at Jesus to see just how far short of the mark I really am, and whether I miss by a little or a lot, I still miss out.
Good people are really too good
The second real problem that good people experience is that they are tempted to believe that they are actually better than they are. From there it is only a very short step to believing that they really are good enough for God. Jesus told one of his most penetrating parables about this very thing.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself ‘God, I thank you that I am not like all other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (Luke 18:9-14).
If it hadn’t come from the lips of Jesus we might be tempted to doubt whether it could be true. The Pharisee really was a good man. He was honest in his business, a good father and a faithful husband. He was even religious into the bargain, but for all that, he was a stranger to God and his ‘goodness’ actually got in the way of him coming to God for forgiveness.
The tax collector was sinful and he knew it, but knowing it was his best asset! He admitted it, threw himself on God’s mercy and was forgiven. He wasn’t justified because he was sinful, but because he called on God in trust for mercy. The Pharisee was sinful too, but his ‘goodness’ blinded him to his need. He was rejected, not because he was good, but because he treated God as if he didn’t need him. The real trouble with being good is we are tempted to think we don’t need to be forgiven, well, not much anyway.
Good people are bad news
The real problem with trusting in our own ‘goodness’ is that we set ourselves completely against God’s method of rescuing us. The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the very centre of all God’s purposes for his world. So any method which I might devise to get right with God which bypasses those events, cannot be right. It is possible to be a thoroughly good person and know nothing about Jesus. We could live really good lives today, even if Jesus had not been born or had not died, but when we put our trust in our own goodness we make the message of the gospel, the ‘good news’, irrelevant. In fact, we treat it as if it were a terrible mistake.
God’s plan to rescue us was to send his one and only Son to die for us. Good people say to him, “You needn’t have done that. I don’t need it. I’m OK the way I am”. Then we’re right back to square one again. If we could have made it by being good then there would have been no need for Jesus to die!
Good people confuse us
Good people present us with a problem. A good person’s life is a confusion to us because it seems to be saying, “Being a Christian is irrelevant. I am a good person and I’m not a Christian”. It is confusing because there is something quite appealing about good people and other people are led astray by wanting to be like them. I’m sure they don’t mean to be as dangerous as they are, and would probably be shocked to hear me say so, but they are dangerous.
Suppose your next door neighbour on one side is a lazy good-for-nothing. He regularly comes home drunk, and just as regularly beats his wife and children. No-one will want to pattern their lives on him. Just for argument’s sake, let’s suppose on the other side your neighbour is kind and thoughtful, generous and understanding. He comes to offer help when you are in need even before you ask and nothing seems to be a bother to him. You will describe him as ‘the salt of the earth’. You will hold him up as an example to your children, “I hope when you grow up you will be like Mr. Snooks”. Yet if Snooks is not in a personal relationship with God, he is likely to con us into believing that life with Christ doesn’t really matter much. He may not mean to, but he will.
Others can confuse too
Confusing as these good people are, they are not the only ones who confuse. I am sure we have all been confused by people who claim to be Christian and yet do not behave as if they are. They talk about Jesus yet do not live like him. They are very confusing. My father was cheated in a business deal by someone who was a ‘church’ man. Dad was rightly browned off by that, and said to me, “Do you want me to become like that man?”. “I wish you were both like Jesus”, was my reply. But I know how he felt. You may have been hurt or confused by some people. Try not to let them put you off Look back to Jesus—he is not a bit confusing.
Jesus is not against being good
True Christians who have genuinely surrendered their lives to Christ in commitment and trust should be growing daily more and more like Jesus. They should be getting better. Some of them you might describe as ‘good’. If you asked them why they were trying to live a good life, they would say, “I am so thankful to Jesus for dying for me and for my forgiven sins that I am living my life in a way which says ‘thank you’ to him”.
If you asked them the question, “Do you think God will allow you into heaven because you have lived a good life?” they would answer, “No! God will let me into heaven because Christ has died for me. I have asked God to have mercy on me and to forgive me and because ofJesus I know he will.”
They are the best examples. If you have met someone like that you are most fortunate. However, don’t be discouraged if you haven’t. Jesus is still real and very appealing.
Christians should be good people. If you asked them “Do you try to live a good life to win God’s favour?”, “No”, they would answer, “I don’t need to win God’s favour. Christ has done that for me already and because of him God accepts me.”
“Why do you try to live a good life then?”
“Because I know God likes it—so I do it to show my gratitude to him for receiving me and making me his own.”
There is a real difference between the person who lives the good life in the hope of winning God’s favour and the person who lives a good life because he knows he already has God’s favour. It may be subtle, but there really is an enormous difference.
Good people think they are better than God
The trouble with really good people who aren’t Christians is that they rewrite what God has said.
God says, “You can’t make it on your own”.
They say, “I can make it on my own”.
God says, “Be perfect”.
They say, “Be the best you can”.
God says, “Repent”.
They say, “I’m good enough as I am”.
God says, “You are only acceptable to me because of the death of my Son”.
They say, “My life is acceptable as it is”.
God says, “You need forgiveness”.
They say, “Look at my goodness”.
In the end if I hope that I will be OK because of the good life I lead, I am setting myself up as better than God.
Good people only fool themselves
John says some helpful words for us all. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Nothing is so pathetic as to be self-deceived. If I think I’m good. enough without Christ, then who will be deceived? God? No way! Will others who know me be deceived? No way! They know my shortcomings only too well. I will be the only one deceived.
John gives the solution to my problem, “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
© Good Book Co 1997
Source: John Chapman, ch.11 ‘Why isn’t good enough, good enough?’ from A Fresh Start, Matthias Media (1997) pp153-159 is used with permission. A Fresh Start is published by the Good Book Company and is available from www.thegoodbook.co.uk. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher.