Clearly Christian, Part 3: Is Christianity About Being a Good Person?

By Ricky Beckett, GUG Contributor

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

This is part three of Ricky Beckett’s Clearly Christian series. Be sure to check out part one and part two as well!

An older girl holds an umbrella over a younger girl.
While the desire to be a good person is an admirable desire, this is not what Christianity is about.

Now that we have covered the basics of the Age of Confusion we live in, we can finally start with the first confusion about Christianity, which is, “Christianity is about being a good person.” This is hardly surprising since everyone seems to be obsessed with being a good person (just take a look at New Year’s resolutions – a whole tradition focused on self-improvement!).

Rev. Sutton explains the confusion well: “Our culture likens Christian faith to a spiritual weight-loss program. Our culture thinks that rather than seeking to shed a few extra pounds, Christians are seeking to shed moral imperfections. You join a church for many of the same reasons you join a gym: you want to improve yourself and be a better person” (Sutton, 33). Even worse, some people think if you’re a good person, you’ll go to Heaven.

While the desire to be a good person is an admirable desire, this is not what Christianity is about. It’s about Jesus — His life, death, resurrection, and ascension for you. What do the Scriptures say about the goodness of people? Quoting from Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3, St. Paul is rather clear: “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

The Scriptures are clear: you’re not a good person. This is quite convicting – maybe even offensive. After all, everyone thinks they’re a good person. Everyone thinks all the good they do outweighs all the bad they’ve done, or if it doesn’t, then a single grand act of goodness is enough to cancel out all the bad. But this simply is not true. Because of original sin, as far as God’s weighing scales are concerned, the good you do can never outweigh all the bad you do. 

Remembering the 6th principle of interpretation from part two of this series, this is the Law, and the Law offends — it kills. Yet the Scriptures are also clear about the Gospel, about the Good News, which gives life: Jesus is truly good for you. You’re not a good person, but the Good News is the Gospel of Jesus Christ did not come for good people, but for bad. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). If you’re a sinner — and we all are — this means Christianity — the Gospel — is for you. This means Jesus is for you. Therefore, even as you struggle with a particular sin, you know Jesus is for you rather than against you. Let’s look at two Scriptures.

Mark 2:14-17 states, “And as [Jesus] passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ And he rose and followed Him. And as He reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and His disciples, for there were many who followed Him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that He was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to His disciples, ‘Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

We will deal first with the group of people called tax collectors. In the second Scripture below, we will discuss the group called sinners. The Jews did not consider tax collectors to be good people. Taxes were heavy upon Palestinian citizens and tax collectors were known for money laundering the peoples’ taxes. Even objectively speaking, tax collectors were not good people, but Jesus came for them, too, and He called tax collectors like Levi/Matthew to follow Him. The first Gospel in the New Testament was written by a tax collector! Jesus has likewise called you to follow Him as His disciple despite your checkered past.

The second text is Luke 7:36-50. This is the well-beloved account of the sinful woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears. Simon the Pharisee says, “If this man were a prophet, He would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner” (v. 39). After telling Simon a short parable to teach him a lesson, Jesus forgives the woman’s sins and says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (vv.48-50)

Sinners are not good people. To sin means to transgress against God’s Law, which fundamentally means we are not good, but evil. This means every person is a sinner. Now, in 1st-century Judaism, being a sinner was more than just committing actual sins. To them, a sinner was someone outside God’s covenant or someone who sinned their way out of God’s grace. Yet Jesus came for such wicked people. There is not a single sinner who is outside God’s grace — even you, as Jesus demonstrated quite clearly here and throughout His entire earthly ministry (John 8:1-11 is another great text to read on this).

The point is this: Jesus did not come for good people, or to make bad people good through moral perfection. He came to bring God’s kingdom — God’s salvation — to broken and dejected sinners like you and me. No sinner is above Christ’s redemption.

A seed grows out of the palm of someone's hand.
Jesus did not come for good people but for bad people, for sinners.

Good, Bad, or Both?

But what about good works? Don’t Christians do good works? This is a loaded question, and I will do my best to answer it as succinctly as possible. The shortest answer is: yes, Christians do good works, which flow from faith just as good fruit is produced from a good tree (cf. Matthew 7:17-18). When discussing good works, we should always begin with Baptism. 

As a baptized Christian, you are fully good, yet sometimes you sin. The term we Lutherans use for this is simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner), a paradox Scripture maintains. As Sutton explains, “Through faith in Christ Jesus, His righteousness is credited to us [justification by faith]; we are made perfect, but only because He is perfect (Romans 4:13-24). His good works are the only thing truly good in us; we have nothing to boast about other than Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

Christ makes bad people good. Not kind of good. Not barely good. He makes us fully and entirely good. Yet, we recognize we are fully and truly bad apart from Christ Jesus. We are by nature dead, infected, incapable, and rebellious until the end of our earthly lives. Nothing good can dwell in us apart from the goodness of God” (Sutton, 42). Jesus makes the tree good, which is bound to produce good fruit; but sometimes, because our sinful nature still clings to us, we produce bad fruit here and there.

St. Paul describes this struggle of the Christian life in Romans 7:15-20“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the Law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

What Christian among us does not struggle as the great Apostle Paul struggled? Yet notice what he says. He is essentially saying the culpability of sin is no longer credited to you, but to the sin itself. Sin in a Christian is like a disease (the Lutheran Confessions call original sin “spiritual leprosy”). When someone has a disease, do we consider them bad, or the disease to be bad? It’s the disease that’s bad. So it is with sin in the Christian. 

The disease of sin might still cling to you for dear life and cause you to do bad things even though you don’t want to, but because of Christ, God no longer sees you as bad, but simply the sin itself. Therefore, Paul concludes this section, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 8:1). As we saw in part two, because you have been baptized into Christ, having died to sin, you are no longer condemned. Yet the Old Adam is a good swimmer, so he clings on for dear life, and it is the Old Adam that was drowned in your Baptism that remains condemned, not you.

An outstretched hand tries to save someone who is drowning.
A Christian is considered good because of what Christ has done, not anything Christians can do.

To succinctly clear up the confusion, no one is good. Jesus did not come for good people but for bad people, for sinners. This means Christianity is not about being a good person, but about Jesus Christ, who came to make bad people (sinners) good; not through moral perfection, but simply through His body and blood. A Christian is considered good because of what Christ has done, not anything Christians can do. Nothing we do can ever amount to the goodness of Jesus Christ. 

Why do Christians do good works, then? Not to earn our way into Heaven (for Christ has already paid that price for us in His body and blood), but simply because our neighbor needs them. What could God want with our good works that Christ hasn’t already done more perfectly a thousand times over? It is not God who needs them, but our neighbor. As the Lutheran Confessions put it, “[Faith] does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them… This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace [faith] makes people glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith” (Formula of Concord Solid Declaration IV, 11-12). 

Know, therefore, “that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

About the Author

Rev. Garrick Sinclair Beckett, also known as Pastor Ricky, is Associate Pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and is also campus pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Chapel located on the Central Michigan University campus. He is a graduate of Concordia Seminary (M.Div.) and received his bachelor’s degree from Concordia University-Ann Arbor in Christian Thought and Theological Languages. He served three years in the Army prior to seminary and is married to his wife, Emilia, who emigrated from Finland. What makes Pastor Ricky a “geek” is his affinity for video games, literature, and anime. 

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

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