The Problem of Good

Luke 9:49-50

John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he is not following with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

Luke 11:23

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

An essential part of the Christian confession is that the human heart is, at its core and on its own, hopelessly sinful and incapable of achieving moral perfection. We enter into covenant with God when we confess our sins and ask for his mercy through Jesus Christ, and we subsequently rely upon the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit to motivate and enable us to do works that are pleasing to God. In our own power we confess that we continue, even after conversion, to be incapable of walking uprightly before God. Moreover, whatever good we do is credited to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is done in his name and through the power of the Holy Spirit that he pours out on us.

And yet, despite our confession of the hopelessness of the human condition, there are undeniably people in the world who do good without confessing Christ. Some of these people do tremendous amounts of good, far more than I or most Christians are capable of doing simply because we do not have the resources to do anything comparable. This would appear to present a problem for the Christian confession, inasmuch as it appears to liberate goodness from Christlike-ness. In other words, if it is possible to do good without following Jesus or confessing him as Lord, then “goodness” appears to transcend “Christlike-ness”. To be Christlike is to be good, but to be good is not necessarily to be Christlike. If this is truly the case, then the Lord Jesus and the faith of Christians is just one among many forces for good. Moreover, it is a force whose existence is not strictly necessary. It can be dispensed with once humanity no longer has need of it to guide them into the knowledge of goodness, or once its negative traits begin to outweigh its positive traits. Christians, and even the Lord Jesus himself, are merely the servants of a transcendent concept of “good”. Once Jesus and his Church become nothing more than the means to a more transcendent end, the Christian proclamation of the lordship of Jesus has been rendered meaningless.

However, Christianity is not nearly so brittle a faith that it cannot encompass the goodness that non-Christians might do. In fact, a biblical Christian faith welcomes the good deeds of non-Christian humanity, not as a challenge to the lordship of Christ but as a tangible demonstration of it. The Christian doctrine of human sinfulness does not preclude the possibility that unregenerate humans might do good, even a lot of good. The doing of good works is built into our nature by our creator. However sinful we might be, we continue to made in his image, and we continue to bear his mandate to be his priestly viceroys to the earth whether we like it or not (Genesis 1:26-27). To some extent, fulfilling God’s mandate for humanity is something we cannot help but do. What our unavoidably sinful nature means, however, is that though we willingly or unwillingly act in ways that reflect God’s image, at the very least we do it imperfectly. At the worst we actively seek to pervert that image through willful wickedness. In any case, a biblical doctrine of human nature and of sin expects that humans will, despite their desperate sinfulness, do good things sometimes.

Because of this, the lordship of Christ is in no way diminished or sidelined by the fact that non-Christians do good and sometimes more good than Christians do. The Christian confession of the lordship of Christ means that whatever good is done is done in his service, even that good that is done by non-Christians. When non-Christians do good, whether they mean it this way or not, they are serving Christ and doing his will. This is in part what Jesus means in Luke 9:49-50 when he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There had been some who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but they were not among those who actively followed Jesus. Jesus’ disciples, concerned about Jesus’ reputation, had sought to control the invocation of Jesus authority. Jesus, however, takes an unusually generous attitude and tells his disciples that whoever is doing good and is not actively opposing them is on their side. Similarly, the Apostle Paul notes in Philippians 1:17-18, “Some proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing they will increase my affliction while I am imprisoned. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” Paul saw that the good that was being done by some in proclaiming Christ, though it was done with impure motives, was nevertheless serving the purpose of glorifying the Lord Jesus.

This principle can be expanded in its application to include any who do what is good in God’s eyes, regardless of whether or not they confess Jesus with their mouth. From a Christian perspective, those who feed the hungry or who care for widows and orphans or who visit those who are in prison or who are peacemakers are serving God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus says in Mark 9:37, “Whoever receives one of these children in my name receives me. And whoever receives me does not receive me but the one who sent me.” In Romans 2:6-16, Paul does not deny the goodness of the good works of Gentiles who have done those works without possessing the Torah, but all, Jew and Gentile, are subject to the governance of the same God and are to be judged by the same standard.

To recognize the good works of non-Christians as (even unwittingly) done in the service of Jesus himself does not short circuit Christian soteriology or the Christian claim that salvation is in Jesus alone. First, central to the Christian confession is the idea that our good works do not in any way earn right standing before God. We are all equally condemned in sin before God. The only way we can be reconciled to God and stand before him without condemnation is through Jesus’ death on the cross, whereby he took on himself the penalty for all of our sins. Even for the Christian, our good works are not the mechanism whereby we are reconciled to God but the faithful response to God’s prior work of reconciliation.

Second, precisely who will be saved from destruction is not something Christians or non-Christians are able to perceive or predict. Judgment is exclusively God’s domain, not ours. If we confess that Jesus is Lord with our mouth and believe in our heart that God has raised him from the dead, then we know that God is faithful and merciful to forgive our sins and preserve us until the day of judgment. But that does not necessarily mean that God has told us for certain that he will not save someone who has not met those criteria (at least, to our own satisfaction). Does this leave open the possibility that God might save some who do not publicly confess Christ in a way that I would recognize? Certainly, and indeed I hope that God does choose to save many, many people that I might not expect. But whomever God does save, he will do so on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection, whether the one who is saved publicly confesses faith in Christ or not. The basis of my salvation is Christ’s work and God’s mercy, not anything I might do or believe.

This being said, one last vital point that must be made concerning the problem of good performed by non-Christians is that the creator God remains the one who defines what is good. Whatever good a non-Christian may do, it is not good in some sense that transcends the sovereign rule of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is good only insofar as it serves the purposes of the Lord Jesus. What does this mean for us Christians, practically? It means that we are never in a position where we are obligated to follow the world’s lead in defining or doing what is good. Whatever good someone in the world may do, it does not thereby justify their entire life or validate their views on any particular position. Nor does it justify any of their actions that might otherwise be morally questionable. A philanthropist who gives tons of money to fight poverty and disease in Africa does not thereby become a moral authority on issues such as sexuality and abortion. Praise be to the Lord Jesus that this wealthy philanthropist is doing the work of Christ in Africa even without confessing Christ with his mouth, but Christians are in no way obligated to go along with him in his efforts to legalize late-term abortion or to criminalize opposition to same-sex marriage. If the philanthropist is vocally opposed to Christianity, then his good works do not in any way discredit Christianity. Instead, from a Christian perspective, this person is a walking contradiction, someone who serves Christ with his actions but opposes Christ with his mouth. Regardless of his good works, Jesus, as judge of all the earth, would say, “Whoever is not for me is against me.”

All of this means that we Christians do not have to be afraid of acknowledging the good works of non-Christians, or even of thoughtfully partnering with non-Christians in performing some good work. Whatever good is done even by non-Christians is done in the service of the Lord Jesus, whether the one performing good work acknowledges this or not. At the same time, just because someone is unwittingly serving the Lord Jesus through good works does not justify their life or actions in any other sense. Therefore, it is wise for Christians to be careful about who they partner with, to partner with worldly parties only in very well defined arrangements, and not to justify the other actions of such a worldly partner simply on the basis of good works in one area of their life. Christians especially ought to avoid making excuses for worldly partners and even redefining the Christian ethos to match (and justify) a worldly partner.

This is especially pertinent in the realm of politics. Both on the left and on the right, Christians have a tendency to throw their lot in with a political party in its entirety. So Christians who value traditional ideas about sexuality and the lives of the unborn may, in order to justify the political party that supports these things, find themselves endorsing as well thoroughly un-Christian attitudes towards the poor or towards foreigners. They may find themselves turning a deaf ear to the reasonable complaints of minorities about police brutality. They may even find themselves making excuses for the immoral actions and beliefs of politicians who represent that political party. On the other hand, Christians who place a premium on caring for the poor and the elderly, for ending any kind of institutionalized abuse or oppression of those who are in vulnerable positions, such as women and minorities, may, in order to justify the political party that supports these things, find themselves adopting thoroughly un-Christian attitudes towards issues such as sexual morals or the killing of the unborn. They may even find themselves making excuses for the immoral actions and beliefs of politicians who represent that political party. In both cases, what has happened is Christians have unequally yoked themselves to worldly parties for the sake of one kind of good, and, sacrificing a real belief in the lordship of Jesus, have latched onto these parties as their only way to achieve that good. As a result, they find themselves making excuses for the un-Christian and even anti-Christian actions and positions that their partners may do or hold.

This is what we absolutely cannot do. Can we work with the Republican party to protect the unborn? Yes. Can we work with the Democrat party to make sure that the needs of the poor and elderly are provided for? Yes. But our partnership with either party must always be tentative, well defined, and capable of being brought to an abrupt end when that partnership no longer serves the purpose of the Lord Jesus and of his Kingdom. Jesus alone is Lord, and he alone is the one who has the true power and authority to bring about what is the true good of the Kingdom of God. Our response to political forces that would blackmail us into supporting un-Christian acts and positions in order to accomplish some other good must be like Jesus’ response to Pilate: “You would have no authority except it were given to you from above.”

So what am I saying? Christians should in no way feel threatened by the good that non-Christians may do. Humans do good things, meaning things that are good in God’s eyes, because we cannot help but do good things, being made in God’s image and being given an indelible mandate. Inasmuch as non-Christians do good, they are working with Christians in doing the will of the Lord Jesus. Non-Christian goodness does not supplant or negate the lordship of Christ. It confirms and demonstrates it. At the same time, Christians should be careful when forming partnerships with worldly parties to accomplish a common good. Though humans are capable of doing good without confessing Christ, that good is constantly at risk of being twisted into something un-Christian and ultimately not good in God’s eyes. Fallen humanity just are not reliable to do good with any degree of consistency or thoroughness. In particular, Christians should be careful not to subjugate their Christianity to their worldly partners, adopting un-Christian attitudes or positions in order to justify their worldly partners. The proclamation that Jesus is Lord must always be our first priority, and our belief in the absolute truth of that proclamation must be where our confidence resides when doing any good thing.

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