Why Being “Good” Is Sometimes Bad
When Nicodemus, a good man, came to Jesus, he approached Him as a teacher who could help him become even better. But Jesus’ response made it clear that He didn’t come to make men moralists. What He came to do was far more revolutionary…
By Guest Writer David Delk
Executive Pastor of Grace Church & MIM Board Member
Greer, South Carolina
When I was in college, I met a wonderful woman named Ruthie, who I’m happy to say became my wife. During the early months of our relationship, I had an opportunity to be helpful to her and her family. (I was glad to do it for many reasons, including the chance to impress Ruthie.)
Her uncle lived near my family’s house in Atlanta. He needed some help trimming trees in the yard so I grabbed a chainsaw and drove over.
After I had been there a few minutes, I finished cutting up a large limb on the ground and began walking to the next pile of branches. After the second step I felt something brush against my knee.
I was wearing shorts, and when I looked down I saw a large white place beside my kneecap. My first thought was that I had just scraped my knee with the saw, much like asphalt scrapes your skin when you slide on it. I was so convinced it was only a minor problem that I calmly put down the saw, turned it off, and then looked more closely at my leg.
This time I saw nothing but red, and my whole demeanor changed. I knew I needed to get to a hospital immediately. So much for impressing her family!
It’s interesting how our perspective changes our behavior. When we think things are okay, there’s not much motivation to act or change. But when we become desperate, we are willing to make major, revolutionary decisions.
A Visitor in the Night
When Nicodemus came to Jesus in John 3, he came with certain assumptions about who he was and who Jesus was.
Nicodemus knew that he, himself, was a good man. He was a Pharisee. The Pharisees get a bad rap today, but most Pharisees were the kind of people you and I would respect. They took their religion seriously, resisted the Roman influence, cared for the poor, lived by a strict moral code, and worked to restore the nation of Israel.
From Nicodemus’ introductory remarks to Jesus in John 3:2, it’s evident he saw Jesus as a teacher who could help him be an even better person: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Even today, good men often think they can learn something from Jesus. How many times do you hear people talk about the “wonderful moral teachings” of Jesus? There is no reason to believe that Nicodemus wasn’t sincere in his desire to be good. But Jesus’ response showed He wasn’t interested in teaching him to be merely good.Jesus is often looked to as a wonderful moral teacher. But Jesus wasn't interested in teaching men to be good.Click To Tweet
Jesus Turns a Good Man’s World Upside Down
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ compliment with: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
At first, this seems like Jesus is changing the subject. In reality, Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus thinking he needs a teacher to help him do better. Jesus tells him he needs a Savior to transform him from the inside out.
Today, the phrase “born again” is both controversial and misunderstood. Some think it means right-wing political views. Some think it means living by a certain set of moral principles. To Jesus, it meant neither of these things.
Jesus was telling Nicodemus that despite all his credentials, all his knowledge, all his good work, he needed to start all over again. Nicodemus thought he could take what he was already doing and make it better. Jesus wanted him to realize that trying to be righteous on his own was simply another form of rebellion against God.Trying to be 'good' on our own is a form of rebellion against God.Click To Tweet
The Heart of a Moralist
The name for Nicodemus’ perspective is moralism. Moralism is the belief that my performance makes me either acceptable or unacceptable to God. If I do good things, God loves me. If I do bad things, God rejects me (and I need to do more good things to make it up to Him).
At first glance, moralism sounds pretty crass. After all, who would be so bold as to think they could earn their way to heaven? Yet, if we are honest, we will have to admit that moralism is very prevalent in our faith communities and churches today. And a little more honesty will reveal it in our own hearts as well.
How many times have we judged our spirituality by how often we go to church? Or how much we pray? Or how much we read the Bible? Or the service projects we get involved in? Or the state of our relationships?
Please don’t misunderstand. All of these things are good things that God wants us to do. But they are not the primary way with which we should rate our spiritual life. And they are certainly not the standard by which God decides how much He loves us.
God loves us not because of what we have done or will do. He loves us because of what Christ has done. His acceptance of us is complete in the cross. If we have trusted Christ by faith, God never stops loving us and he never rejects us (Romans 8:38-39).
Moralism slips back into our lives because of our rebellious hearts. Just like people try to avoid God through addiction, pleasure, power, success, and relationships, as Christians we are tempted to avoid God through performance. If I can do everything I am supposed to do as a Christian, then I will be a good person. This is just another attempt to justify ourselves and live independently from God.As Christians, we are tempted to use performance not to honor God but to avoid Him.Click To Tweet
Doomed to Failure
Moralism robs the gospel of its power to change our hearts. Moralism also sets us up for certain defeat.
Moralism requires that we establish a code of behavior based on our own best ideas. If by nature we are committed and disciplined, we will have higher expectations for ourselves. If we are more laid back, our expectations will be lower. In either case, we will have in mind a set of behaviors or actions that indicate “righteousness” and success.
Once we allow this to happen, we are doomed to failure. Here’s why—
If we succeed in living up to the standards we set, we become like a Pharisee—self-righteous, arrogant, and complacent. Our success, we come to believe, depends on us, and we have arrived.
On the other hand, if we fail to live up to our arbitrary standards, we become defeated and discouraged. We don’t feel God’s love in our life because we think we have to be worthy to receive it. Since we know we aren’t, we live with fear, insecurity, and anxiety, constantly wondering how we can do better so that we can feel the love of God.
Whether you are a successful moralist or a defeated moralist is not important. Either way, the focus is on you and not on Christ.
The Gospel Destroys Moralism
Why was Jesus so harsh with Nicodemus? Because moralism is the archenemy of the gospel.
Jesus did not come to help us save ourselves. He is not just a “spiritual personal trainer” who coaches us to become spiritually fit. He is not just a teacher to whom we can look for advice and information.
Jesus is a Savior because a Savior is what we really need. The gospel calls us to renounce our desire to be independent from God and cling to Him by faith. It is about forsaking idols—even the idol of our own good works—and worshipping God alone.Moralism is the archenemy of the gospel.Click To Tweet
Without Christ, our righteousness is as filthy rags. But when we walk by faith, His life wells up within us like a spring. We find that our desires are changing so that we want to obey God. Loving others begins to bring a deep joy that selfishness never did. Temptations lose more and more of their appeal as the gospel becomes more and more precious to our hearts.
This is the heart of the gospel: God doesn’t want us to be good; He wants us to be holy. And holiness only comes by faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Let us abandon our moralism and flee to Christ.
THE BIG IDEA: Jesus did not come to help us save ourselves. Jesus came to save us because a Savior is what we really need.
Questions for Reflection and Application
- In what ways does moralism affect you? Why do you think this is?
- Read Galatians 5:1-15. How are you tempted to try to justify yourself by the law? How can you transform that into faith expressing itself through love?