How is faith in Christ different than aiming to be a morally “good person?”
Last night, I was prompted by one of my dreams to wrestle with the difference between faith and general good ethics.
In my dream, I was walking down a sidewalk towards a crowd. A short, greyish black haired woman, approached me, hesitating. She tried to speak twice, but was so intimidated that I sat down on the sidewalk as a gesture that she was welcome to join me.
She explained that she noticed something different about me. She was currently into New Age philosophy and witchcraft. I began to explain that the thing that was different about me is that I know Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
When I finished explaining, she told me that she had always made it her goal to carry the heart of Jesus. Growing up, her father had wanted her to be like Jesus. I could see that she was doing her best to be like Jesus. She embraced the marginalized and was so friendly. Still, there was something missing.
By then, various people had gathered around us, listening. I offered to give them a glimpse of what it was like to know Jesus. We all held hands and prayed. Some people started to experience the power of God. I remember that I was shaking so hard it was like being in the spin cycle of a laundry machine. Eventually, I was moving so fast I could no longer feel I was moving. I could only hear a hum. The people all around me were overwhelmed by the power of God.
I woke up realizing that it is actually easy for most people to be a little bit like Jesus. I’m sure we’ve all met people who were not Christians, but were relatively generous, thoughtful, and kind. And to be fair, most people can imitate 2-3 aspects of Christ’s character relatively well on their own strength. However, when it comes time to separate the true from the counterfeit, without true internal transformation, when we face challenges, we discover that we aren’t usually as nice as we think we are.
While being nice is of some value, Jesus of Nazareth’s life was so much more powerful than a modern model of “A Good Person.”
Unlike over-friendliness, Jesus discerned good and evil. He hated what is evil and held fast to what is good.
This means he had boundaries.
He accepted sacrifice and challenges.
If Jesus only flattered, encouraged, and celebrated, he would be essentially useless to you and I. He would have no power to save us, because he would not have needed to die.
And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.Luke 4:6
There would be no real difference in the world between people who knew him and those who did not.
Realistically, a Jesus who is only friendly and easy to accept has no good news to share. We all know what it is to flatter and please others. And we all know that it feels good to receive other’s approval, even for the wrong reasons.
You do not have to read the Bible for long to realize that Jesus of Nazareth was not just trying to be a “good person”.
Knowing and following the real Jesus of Nazareth will make you realize very fast that you cannot be a truly good enough person without God’s help.
Faith vs. Counterfeit
As I have just said,
Most people can imitate 2-3 aspects of Christ’s character relatively well on their own strength.
If we dare admit it, the aspects of Christ’s character that we as individuals person are most likely to imitate probably depend on the values of our cultural context. For example, if you are from the American Great Plains Midwest like myself, you will probably admire Jesus’ honesty and warmth.
Even if I was not a Christian, I could quite easily convince myself that because of my Christlike (lol) honesty and warmth, I am a good person. Believing in my own untested goodness may even convince me that I deserve nice things in Heaven and on Earth.
But what happens when I come across situations where my character is tested?
Personally, I can tell you even recent moments of testing where I avoided conflict (yes, me too, still). Or, where I have equivocated and put on being fake nice when it would be easier to say a gentle “no.”
This may seem low stakes, but ultimately the point is:
In order to live up to what I perceive Christlikeness to be, on my own strength, I have to fake it.
If you rely on your own strength, there comes a point where your strength runs out. And in those moments, like all sane human beings who have run out of capacity, most of us resort to faking it, for there is nothing left. We know we are supposed to be good. We may even be disciplined in forcing ourselves to go through the right motions, white-knuckling it until we’ve gotten more sleep, substances, or serotonin.
And frustratingly, despite our best efforts, we fail. We are transparently, publicly broken.
And all too predictably, our capacity for goodness seems to go out the window when we need others to be good to us most. During economic disasters, war, environmental crisis, and global pandemics, our capacity becomes very thin. We feel helpless, scared, and very aware of the presence of evil.
Like sweet tea that starts to taste syrupy, shaking exposes our backwards intentions and we realize that all along, we were just looking for approval. If there was an easier way to be performatively good, we probably would have picked that, because true righteousness wasn’t really ever the goal.
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.Isaiah 64:6
We probably shouldn’t be surprised, but to recognize our weakness and tendency towards self deception is scary! God reminds us in Proverbs 4:23 to make sure our motives are straight.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Do you know your heart’s motives?”Proverbs 4:23
Realistically, shaking and our earthly circumstances are just a foretaste of our works being tested. As we stand before God on Judgement Day, we know that all of our works will be tested.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.2 Corinthians 5:10
Only what was done out of a desire to unselfishly serve Jesus will remain.
In the end, doing good works and pursuing moral goodness is ultimately useless before God, because his level of righteousness is so completely Holy that the only way you can measure up is by letting him fill the measure for you.
A man just starting out in faith and the hope of Christlikeness will do better on judgement day than someone with an entire life-time of self-motivated “”good works”, because their source and motive was off. You must have the genuine article, and that only comes by faith.
A Better Way
Realistically, we need help. We reach a sobering and healthy moment where it’s easier just to admit that we cannot reach the goal of goodness by ourselves.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”Isaiah 6:5
We must be transformed through the inside out. Through our faith in Jesus Christ, we can draw upon God’s strength is us not just to be a goodish person, but to model beauty, goodness, courage, justice, discomfort, joy, peace, generosity, and so many other divine character traits. Beyond just receiving the Holy Spirit and having the opportunity to be changed, we have the honor of sharing the genuine goodness of Jesus with the world.
Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.Daniel 12:3
The Holy Spirit tests and purifies our motives.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.Hebrews 4:12
Through difficulty, we are transformed to love only what God loves and stop trying to endlessly live for others’ approval.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.Galatians 1:10
As we change and increasingly know who we are in Christ, we know that the only way we can measure up is by letting Jesus be our measure. Letting Jesus be our righteousness and transforming help is what it means to put your faith in him.
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.1 Corinthians 1:30
Obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.1 Peter 1:9
No Changes to the Standard
The criteria for God’s approval is Christ, and hallelujah that we cannot change his standards!
We are better off not trying to lessen the standards of God. If we tried to change his righteous standards to make them easier for us to meet, that would mean:
- There would still be some measure of evil in the world (check Hebrews 10:10)
- Christ would have only died for our partial transformation (Would he be only partially dead?)
- The only spotless lamb we had available to redeem the sins of the world has already died
Luckily, Christ died so that we would have complete deliverance from evil, not just partial remission.
“He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”Ephesians 1:20-21
For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has torn down the dividing wall of hostilityEphesians 2:14
Inevitably Righteous by Intimacy with Christ
So how exactly do we measure up to Christ?
As you walk closely with God, you will organically let God have more access to all the areas of your life, out of love for him. As this process continues and you walk it out day by day, you get more comfortable resting on God’s strength instead of your own. Over time, it builds up until you’re quite different than you were one month, one year, several years, or decades than you started. We should always continue to press into God, not necessarily to become perfect, but because he’s wonderful. He is the most fun to be around and the best teacher. He always has answers, and there is always more. As we continue on in increasing intimacy with Jesus, he makes us more righteous the closer we get to him. Imagine that you are drilling down into the center of the Earth, and just when you’ve thought, “Surely this is as wild as it gets”, there is more. You’d spend your whole life trying to reach the center. If you focus on spending quality time with him and make him your sole focus, the transformation organically happens.
The amount of change can be surprising, and even disorienting. I know someone who was fluently cursing like a Savior at 9 years old and today often doesn’t even feel tempted to curse even when they stub their toes. It has been removed out of their insides by the Spirit of God. I imagine if the person really gave into rawness and allowed cursing back in, the sin could find a way to take root again (providing the devil a foothold). By and large, it’s up to us whether we remain in closeness with God and develop discipline through God’s power to remain free.
There are several ways this can go wrong for people who assume to be following Jesus. The first is not discerning the difference between “being a good person”, and trusting God to justify you. Realistically, this means that maybe you haven’t yet perceived that you need saving. Even if a person has gone to church for years, if they don’t decide to let Jesus be their vindication and righteousness through simple faith in his saving grace, they are just going through the motions. Salvation is an inward decision of the soul and we each have to give God access to our deepest longings. If you know someone who you think fits into this category, don’t judge them. Just pray for them to have hunger to know God as he is and have a deep encounter with Jesus.
Another stumbling block for Christians is to revert back to trying to justify themselves once they get sanctified enough to forget all that God has done and is doing to help. We cant afford to forget that we need God’s mercy for even basic wellbeing, let alone seeing the answers to our prayers and his power here on earth.
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?Galatians 5:7
We cannot afford get too self reliant, because then we ascribe to the Lord things that were painfully the result of our own dumb choices.
When Christians become too focused on performance, people compete. They stop defining themselves relationally to Christ and through the lens of reverence, and make his Church an area of personal pride. Jesus’ Bride is a collective of believers who are called to love and serve him, and love and serve one another. When you allow yourself to anxiously focus on your own actions and others (different than holding people accountable), you are forgetting that your good deeds weren’t what attracted Christ to you. It was your need. He had love to give, and you clearly needed it.
If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.Galatians 5:15
We provide his love no opportunity in our hearts to be poured out on others if we compete with each other.
Usually, we are competing for other people’s praise and approval, something that we have to die to anyways. Listen to what Jesus has to say about people who compete for approval:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”Matthew 6:2
Lord, help us trust you to be our only justification.
If you know someone like this, don’t judge them. Just pray for them to know what it is to rest in God’s finish work, receive his grace as is, and have a deeper sense of identity in sonship.
What do you really want?
If you choose other’s approval and sell the genuine article for the praise of man, you wont be able to delight in the simplicity of depending on the Father and not having to be superhuman. You will be tired and drained without ever feeling satisfied.
If you act superhuman, you will drive away everyone who knows that grace is the only solution, for themselves and others. You will be left with only people who are willing to compete and line up for a race eying their neighbors jealously. You will look for gracious people who can run alongside you in genuine support, but it will be hard to find them. What an awful way rendition of community.
Prayer to Rely on Saving Grace, Faith alone
Lord, you know we need your help just to break even. Without you, we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. We don’t have enough goodness or grace to minister to ourselves, let alone others.
But you saw our need and decided that as we are, human beings are worth saving. Help us to receive your acts of love and your atoning sacrifice on the cross as our only vindication. We trust that by your Holy Spirit, you can change us and make us new. You are the God who constantly wants more for us, and we want more of you. Give us the capacity to let go, the capacity to receive, and the grace to measure up to the full standard of Christ. We want you to be glorified in our lives so that all people will know you as Lord.
Help us identify the ways you are challenging us to go deeper, and help us boldly give you access. We don’t want to hold anything back; our lives are too short. We trust you to finish the good work you started in us and bring us into the fullness of Christ.
Hallelujah that by your own power, you have made all this possible.