Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Goodness, What a Paradox! Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, we have looked at and partially explained the paradox presented by Biblical affirmations that certain people are good, in light of Jesus' thrice-repeated statement that only God is good. We have explained this by relegating man's goodness to a secondary and dependent reflection of God's own goodness. God alone is the source and fountain of any and all goodness that exists.

But how does God's goodness get into us? How can we receive and reflect His goodness? How can we become partakers of it to the extent that we can be called "good"? And how can we practice Biblical balance on this issue? Let's look at the Scriptural examples of good people for some clues...

GOOD PERSON #1 - Joseph of Arimathea

Luke 23:50-52 And a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God; this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

GOOD PERSON #2 - Barnabas

Acts 11:22-24 The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

In both cases, there were inward and outward evidences of faith. Joseph's inward evidence was that he was “waiting for the Kingdom of God.” The outward evidences were that he “had not consented to” the council's decision to kill Jesus, and he offered Jesus a decent burial in his own tomb. Barnabas was inwardly “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” and he outwardly evidenced joy, encouragement, recognition of grace, and evangelistic zeal. Both of these “good” men had clear testimonies of faith according to the Scriptures. They became good by grace through faith, and not by works or merit.


In part 2, we discussed man's dependence on God. Taking it a bit further, dependence can be divided into two related concepts. There is the objective fact of dependence, which is NEED. And there is the subjective response to dependence, which is FAITH. After all, what is faith but a voluntary dependence on God, and a willingness to receive what He gives us? Our need for God is a fact; faith is an acknowledgment and response to that fact, in light of the full sufficiency of God, Himself, in His character, acts and ways.

Sin is the opposite of faith. It is a refusal to gratefully receive the good that God gives, and it is a rejection of that good. Sin leaves us blind to God's goodness. It is an attempt to find good within ourselves apart from Him. “And whatever is not from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

When God grants repentance, our hearts begin to see the futility and emptiness of sin. We begin to loathe sin and HUNGER for God's goodness. Hunger is a KNOWLEDGE OF EMPTINESS and a NEEDY DESIRE to be filled. As we desire God's goodness, seek His goodness, and receive His goodness by faith we become filled with His goodness. “He has filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1:53) ... “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.” (Psalm 107:9) ... “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). Through faith, God's goodness fills us. Notice that the good man Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” From the very beginning, it has been God's intention to fill human beings with nothing less than Himself. He does not fill us because we are good, He fills us to make us good.


Notice these two very similar verses:

Matthew 7:11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

Luke 11:13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?

NOTE: Jesus makes a sweeping generalization about all of His listeners: "You are evil." The message is directed to His followers, among others, and yet He makes no distinction whatsoever. All are evil. By nature, we are depraved, and if we follow the sinless Son of God we will have to face ourselves. Some would see this as terrible news. But Christ so embodies the remedy for our sin that believers can receive these words with surprising joy and gratitude. These words are TRUTH, and they have the power to show us our need for Christ. They awaken us from our false sense of personal and inherent goodness and move us to seek good outside of our natural selves. All people are well served by Christ's enlightening phrase, "You are evil."

In these verses, “What is good” is parallel to “the Holy Spirit.” That is, the Spirit Who indwells and fills believers, for “we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (I Cor. 12:13)

We are characterized by that which fills us, as the book of Romans illustrates in three places:

Romans 15:13-14 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.

This passage refers to believers, and says they are full of goodness (Greek AGATHOSUNE, the noun related to AGATHOS).

Romans 1:28-29 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness ...

This passage refers to fallen humanity, and says they are filled with all unrighteousness.

Romans 7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh ...

This verse is found in the middle of Paul's testimony of struggle with sin. Paul is aware that indwelling sin is not good, and he says so, but notice that he immediately qualifies the statement by saying, “that is, in my flesh.” Sin dwells in his flesh, but Christ dwells in his spirit, so he is not utterly devoid of good. In one sense he is filled with sin, but in another sense he is filled with God! Is it any wonder there's a struggle going on inside him? And do we think we are any different?

Because we cannot be perfectly and purely filled with God in this present life, believers are never perfectly and purely good – at least not yet. Presently, there is always a mixture in us. We are saints who are sinners, redeemed people who are partly filled with God and partly filled with sin. However, by faith we partake of God's goodness and share His virtue. To the extent that we are filled with what is good, we are good.


Seeing that God's goodness is primary, and ours is secondary, we must make a deliberate choice regarding emphasis. What Scripture emphasizes as primary, we should also emphasize as primary. It is not wrong to call a believer with a solid testimony a “good person”, but it is improper to emphasize human goodness more than divine goodness. It is also dangerous to ignore the balancing truth that believers are still sinners, and could only be full of evil apart from God's intervening grace.

We must heavily contrast God's goodness and man's depravity. When speaking of believers, we must consider their faith-based goodness in Christ and also the residue of depravity that remains in them. There is no Scriptural account where any believer calls himself a good person, but there are plenty of occasions where believers humbly refer to themselves as sinful or unworthy. This is especially true when they have encountered a revelation of God. So, in practice, the insistent rant of “Christian” psychologists who advise us to tell ourselves we are good people is directly contrary to Scripture, not because there is no goodness in us but because this is NEVER the focus of New Testament teaching.

Overall, there is much more Scriptural emphasis on believers “doing good” than “being good”. Some of today's liberal Christians have famously said we should focus less on being “right” and more on being “good”. This is a category mistake, similar to saying a work of art should be less painted and more picturesque. One depends on the other, and both are at the discretion of the artist. Not that we have to be right about every detail of doctrine, but we need to know and believe the essentials of the faith. Let's have no more of this nonsense about trying to be good. The real need is to magnify the goodness of God, and conform ourselves to it in thought and deed. Doctrine versus practice is a false dichotomy. God expects us to be fully devoted to BOTH, as Paul commanded in I Timothy 4:11-16, Prescribe and teach these things ... show yourself an example of those who believe ... give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching ... do not neglect the spiritual gift within you ... take pains with these things, be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things...” Do you see the way Paul flips back and forth between doctrine and practice in this passage? Biblical practice flows out of Biblical doctrine, proves Biblical doctrine, demonstrates Biblical doctrine - but it never replaces doctrine. It never makes doctrine irrelevant. And practice that is not firmly grounded in doctrine creates a void that is likely to be filled by error. Faith is demonstrated by deeds, but it comes from hearing the Word.

When speaking of unbelievers, we should bear in mind that they are fallen, depraved, sinful, and devoid of goodness – but also that this depravity is not absolute or irreversible. It is only because sin separates the unrepentant from God's goodness that unbelievers are “not good”. It is only by being filled with God's goodness that believers are in any sense good. Keeping this balance will help us to view ourselves and others properly and Biblically. It reminds us that in some senses we are no different than unbelievers, and the real difference is a result of God's working, not our own merit.

In part 4, we'll examine a few more pertinent Scriptures on the topic of divine and human goodness. May God's Word and Spirit guide us.

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