I have a getting-on-my-hobby-horse moment from time to time. I suppose for the world it’s almost a Don-Quixote-tilting-at-windmills moment over the use of the word ‘good’. I’d like churches to have big notices on the sides of their buildings ‘Good people don’t go to heaven’. Serious. I hope it would make people stop and think.
I hear it as a defining criterion about people who have died and also about people who don’t attend worship that they are ‘good’ – with its implication that, at times of death, heaven is their new address. If anything is salvation by works then this notion – you certainly don’t need Jesus at all – of ‘being good’ is it. So when I read this quote (from the 1930s) recently I smiled.
The Christian is one who has forever given up the hope of being able to think of himself as a good man. He is forever a sinner for whom the Son of God had to die because by no other means could he be forgiven. In a sense we can say that he has given up the effort of being good. That is no longer his aim. He is seeking to do one thing and one thing only – to pay back something of the unpayable debt of gratitude to Christ who loved him as a sinner and gave himself for him. And in this new and self-forgetting quest he finds that which – when he sought it directly – was forever bound to elude him, the good life.
No two motives could be more distinct from one another than these two, yet it is the commonest thing to find them confused. How ready we are to take Christ as our pattern and teacher only, using the words of the Gospel, and yet never allowing ourselves to face the experience of forgiveness at the foot of the Cross – the humiliating discovery that, so far from being like Jesus, there is literally no hope for us at all except that he has forgiven us. There is a whole universe of moral and psychological difference between saying, ‘Christ is my pattern and if I try I can be like him’, and saying, ‘I am so far from goodness that Christ had to die for me that I might be forgiven’. The one is still in the world of legalism and its centre of attention is still the self. The other is in the world of grace and its centre of attention is another to whose love it is our whole and only aim to give ourselves. The one must always lack what the other increasingly has, the spontaneity and whole-heartedness that comes when there is the whole force of an emotionally integrated life behind action. – Lesslie Newbigin (1937) ‘Christian Freedom in the Modern World’ cited in Forum Letter, Vol. 44, No 2, Feb 2015. — GS