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New Horizons

Why Be Good?

Dennis E. Johnson

Five centuries ago, the Protestant Reformers confronted a pastoral challenge that is still with us today. Actually, the same challenge confronted the Apostle Paul in the first century. As the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).

The challenge, in a nutshell, is this: “If Jesus did it all, why should I try to be good?”

In Reformation terms, we could put it this way: If we preach the good news of sola gratia, sola fidei, and solus Christus—that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—and if, believing this gospel, troubled hearts are assured of God’s favor on the basis of Jesus’s flawless obedience and substitutionary death, how can pastors motivate them to pursue holiness, “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14)?

In Pauline terms, the dilemma sounds like this:

Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (Rom. 5:20–6:1, emphasis added)

Of course, the Apostle’s answer is the strongest possible negative: “By no means!” (Rom. 6:2). But we must admit that his (and the Reformers’) gospel of utterly gratuitous justification, grounded wholly and solely in Jesus’s blood and righteousness and independent of our efforts at obedience, undermines some potent motivators toward holy living.

Motivated by Fear and Self-Interest

Those potent motivators are fear and self-interest, two sides of the same coin. Fear of arrest discourages lawbreaking; a self-interested preference for freedom prompts compliance with legal codes. Self-interested concern for one’s own reputation fuels fear of others’ disapproval, and the combination steers one away from behavior that threatens to bring shame and toward conduct that promises to enhance one’s image.

Not surprisingly, in Paul’s day, in Calvin’s, and in ours, many pastors, alarmed at society’s drift into sensuality and decadence, invoke the powers of fear and sanctified self-interest to warn people away from the precipice of lawlessness (and its ruinous consequences) and to lure them toward the rewards of morality. First-century Pharisees scrupulously adhered not only to the Law delivered on Sinai but also to traditions developed to build a fence around God’s commands, protecting the careless from trespassing into forbidden territory. Some hoped that the nation’s Torah-keeping might move God to end foreign occupation. The Church of Rome charged the Reformers with propagating a presumption that lulled people into complacency in sin.

Today, much preaching draws from the Bible moral lessons for living. “Fire and brimstone” preaching is rarer than it once was. But kinder, gentler versions of “Christian” behavior-modification still send the signal that the gospel message is about achieving personal and interpersonal wellbeing through “getting our act together.” Preachers explain God’s expectations from the Law or the Prophets or the Sermon on the Mount or the Epistles’ exhortations. When they preach biblical narratives, they highlight exemplary characters to emulate and expose the “villains” to not emulate. Listeners leave with a list of duties (or guidelines, or suggestions) to take home and put into practice.

Other preachers, reacting against the crushing burden of legal obligation and moral example, swing to different extremes. Some ease hearers’ uneasy consciences through esteem-enhancing reassurances that God’s law is not, after all, as demanding as it appears. Their “gospel” sympathizes with the Corinthian church’s motto, “All things are lawful for me”—a motto that the Apostle hastened to correct whenever he cited it (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23)!

Still others uphold the high bar of God’s holy law, stressing that its standard is far beyond the reach of fallen people. Their preaching focuses on God’s grace, on Christ’s redemptive accomplishment for us, and on the assurance that flows from divine mercy. Their listeners leave worship comforted (that’s good) but often complacent in patterns of selfishness and sin (that’s not good). “We cannot keep God’s law,” they reason, “but Jesus did, so we can relax and rest in his achievement, period.”

A Passion for Purity

What we hear in the Bible and in the Reformers, however, is a proclamation of good news that ignites a passion for purity. The true gospel evokes wholehearted trust in Christ; and because this faith is in the living Savior (not mere concurrence with theological concepts), it stirs and empowers believers to genuine love for God and neighbor. To the question, “Why be good?” it offers a deeper, stronger answer than fear or self-interest: Be good for love of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).

The New Testament announces this robust reason to pursue holiness through argument and through narrative. The argument:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…. We love because he first loved us…. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. (1 John 4:10–11, 19; 5:2–3)

The logic is airtight: God loved us first and sent his Son to endure the wrath that we deserve. We who receive such excessive love must therefore love our divine Lover, expressing our love by keeping his commands and loving those whom he loves.

But love-evoked love is not merely a matter of cold logic! In the gospel’s moving narrative, we see a woman, notorious for her sin-stained lifestyle, slipping into the dining salon of an upright pillar of the Jewish community, perhaps one of many onlookers observing a semi-public banquet at which Jesus of Nazareth is the guest of honor. Eyes brimming with tears—tears not of shame but of joyful adoration—she pours perfume on the Master’s feet, showers them with her tears, and dries them with her hair. Why? She has been forgiven much, so she loves much (Luke 7:36–50).

The Reformers preached grace alone received through faith alone in Christ alone, convinced that God’s largesse of mercy evokes a love that pursues holiness with a passion that neither fear nor self-interest can match. Calvin wrote: “It is faith alone that first engenders love in us,” since tasting God’s goodness kindles in us love for God in return. So “the Lord freely justifies his own in order that he may at the same time restore them to true righteousness by sanctification of his Spirit” (Institutes, 3.2.41, 3.3.19, emphasis added).

The Belgic Confession (1561) affirms:

Far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. (Chapter 24)

Heirs of the Reformation preached the same life-transforming truth in succeeding centuries: justification granted freely by God, through faith alone, ignites in our hearts (as no list of duties, threats, or conditions ever could) a passion for purity. In the seventeenth century, Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity and Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification expressed this insight. In the eighteenth, Thomas Boston and other “Marrow Men” called the Church of Scotland back to a gospel-driven pursuit of holiness, over against the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of antinomianism. (See Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ, Crossway, 2016.) Nineteenth-century pastor Thomas Chalmers argued in his historic sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”:

The freer the gospel, the more sanctifying is the gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine according to godliness…. It is only when, as in the gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance … finding that the truest gladness of his heart lies in the impulse of a gratitude, by which it is awakened to the charms of a new moral existence.

In the twenty-first century, some ask if the Reformation is over, or should be. New Perspectives and Federal Visions appeal to those who are disillusioned by “easy believism” and alarmed by Christians’ growing conformity to the sensuality of a paganizing culture. Their plausible theories promise to encourage holy living by suggesting that God’s justifying verdict is bound to take into account believers’ track records of good-faith efforts over a lifetime. But if we want our preaching and pastoral counseling to serve the Holy Spirit’s purpose of effecting heart-deep transformation, we will stand fast in this counterintuitive insight that the Reformers learned from Jesus and his apostles: divine grace freely bestowed on the basis of Jesus’s blood and righteousness alone and the assurance of God’s fatherly smile that such grace engenders are God’s secret weapons to set hearts free from the allure of sin, from fear, and from self-interest, and to ignite a true love for the Lord, a passion for purity, and compassion for others, for Jesus’s sake. 

The author is associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA), Escondido, California. New Horizons, April 2018.

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