Leading Question: How can God expect good things from people who are bad?
When we talk about “goodness” under the heading of “fruit of the Spirit,” several tantalizing paradoxes emerge. We can address these under several headings:
1. Only God is “good” (Matt. 19.17//Mark 10:18//Luke 18:19). When Jesus told the rich young ruler that only God is good, he was making an important point. But how does that “truth” about God’s ultimate goodness affect us? Is that an encouraging or discouraging word?
2. Good teacher, good man, not good enough. The same parallel passages that deal with God’s goodness also tell us a fair bit about human goodness. The man claimed to have kept all the commandments from his youth up. But Jesus still said there was more: Go sell all that you have and give to the poor. Zacchaeus only had to give half of his goods to the poor, and he volunteered this amount. Jesus was pleased (Luke 19:1-9). How did Zacchaeus get off so easily?
3. No human being is good: Rom. 3:10-20. The biblical assessment of human nature is grim. Romans 3 is as pointed as any biblical passage. Given that assessment, what hope is there of becoming good, becoming like God, doing good?
4. God commands sinners to do good: Matt. 5:14-16. Jesus’ words about letting our light shine assume that it is possible for us to do good works, though in the very next chapter he tells us to be sure not to do our good works in order to impress others (Matt. 6:1-4). How do we let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and praise God, without running afoul of Jesus’ command not do our good works in order to be seen by others? When Jesus tells us not to do our good deeds before others, he is pointing to the same truth expressed by C. Lewis: “The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost” – Surprised by Joy, 86.
5. We must be good in order to do good: Matt. 12:34-37// Luke 6:43-45. Jesus is very blunt in noting that good cannot come from evil. If humans are evil, then how can we hope to do good? Interestingly enough, Ellen White’s statement on this issue (“You must be good before you can do good” – MB 128), falls under her comments on Matthew 7:1: “Judge not that you be not judged,” though she also cites Matthew 12 and Luke 6. Her comments are tantalizing:
When a crisis comes in the life of any soul, and you attempt to give counsel or admonition, your words will have only the weight of influence for good that your own example and spirit have gained for [127/128] you. You must be good before you can do good. You cannot exert an influence that will transform others until your own heart has been humbled and refined and made tender by the grace of Christ. When this change has been wrought in you, it will be as natural for you to live to bless others as it is for the rosebush to yield its fragrant bloom or the vine its purple clusters.
If Christ is in you “the hope of glory,” you will have no disposition to watch others, to expose their errors. Instead of seeking to accuse and condemn, it will be your object to help, to bless, and to save. In dealing with those who are in error, you will heed the injunction, Consider “thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” Galatians 6:1. You will call to mind the many times you have erred and how hard it was to find the right way when you had once left it. You will not push your brother into greater darkness, but with a heart full of pity will tell him of his danger. – Mount of Blessings, 127-128
5. That which is good (law) can have a bad effect: Romans 7:7-25. How can the Christian resolve the tension between our hostility to law even though we know that it is good? How can we experience the fruit of the Spirit in that connection, given our natural hostility to that which is good?