Monday, December 8, 2008

The Reason for Good

I have very much enjoyed Tim Keller's The Reason for God, so the following complaint ought not to leave anyone with the impression that I disagree fundamentally with anything the book says.  Still, I don't think I'm just being nit-picky when I make this complaint.

In Chapter 11, entitled, "Religion and the Gospel," Keller lays out the classic evangelical reasoning for doing good works, as opposed to the supposedly Pharisaic view:

In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we already received because of Christ.  While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us.

This is great and everything, but I have two problems with it.  One is simply a common sense problem.  I tend to sympathize with my atheist friends who point out, "Why can't one do good simply because it is good?"  Indeed, it sometimes feels just as trite to try to please God out of gratitude as it does to try to earn God's favor with good works.  Gratitude is wonderful, but it really is only one the many emotions that drives us in our Christian life.

The second reason is that I honestly don't see the Bible itself put such a great emphasis on this gratitude bit.  Honestly, most of the time you see that good works are motivated by reward.  See, for instance, the words of Jesus countless times in the Sermon on the Mount.  But even in Paul, who for some evangelicals is thought to teach nothing ever except justification by faith, you see how good works are done in order to gain a reward:

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.  Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Corinthians 9:23-24)

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?  Is it not you?  Yes, you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)

For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life... (Romans 2:6-7)

The way some people talk about Paul, you would have thought the answer to Paul's rhetorical question in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 was going to be, "Nothing but the blood of Jesus!"  While that is a great song, and true as far as it goes, Paul doesn't say that, and in fact he really seems convinced that his good works (namely bringing the Thessalonians to Christ) will be cause for boasting when the Lord Jesus comes.

Well, I suppose one could take all of this biblical data a little too far if one is not careful.  But it does suggest that gratitude as a motivation for good works might not be sufficient.

The way I have come to see it is more in terms of Jesus as a true political leader (after all, we do call him "King," do we not?) and as such, he brings a certain vision to his reign over the world.  Think of our own political system.  Some people really think Barack Obama is the Messiah or something.  Why?  Is it not because they think he's promised them the right direction for America?  Is it not because he's going to bring us "Change"?  The hope is that by following his plan, all will now be right with the world.

Only God is the real thing.  Jesus Christ is the true Messiah, the one whose vision of the world actually is all it's cracked up to be.  His notions of power, goodness, love, justice, and truth are all exactly what we need them to be.  His rule will be as described in all those amazing prophecies like Isaiah 9:2-7 and 11:1-9.

So why do we do good works?  I think it is honestly for reasons similar to the reasons people went out and volunteered for the Obama campaign.  Change is coming.  A new vision of the world is here.  This is what human beings are made for, and this really is what drives us.  When Paul talks about boasting before Jesus Christ, I think the sentiment being expressed is, "Yeah, the King is now here, and I had a part in his campaign!"

Jesus Christ's campaign isn't a campaign for votes.  It is more of a military campaign, in which all evil will be vanquished.  To be part of that is exactly what we were made for, and when you start to think about it in these terms, there's no reason to really ask anymore, "Why do good works?"  This is simply what we were made for; there's no denying the attractiveness of it.

Change is coming.  God is here.  We, through our actions, can be part of His campaign to take over the world.  Or we can continue to be those rebels who get overthrown.  The core message of the Bible seems to be, take your pick--either way, God is going to win.


  1. Jameson, I always love to hear your thoughts. You articulate what you are thinking very clearly. Your comparisons to the recent presidential election brought your point alive to me. Nice work!

  2. Jameson, I always love to hear your thoughts. You articulate what you are thinking very clearly. Your comparisons to the recent presidential election brought your point alive to me. Nice work!

  3. Right on, but I still think it would be awesome if we got real swords and everything.

    Ok, I probably couldn't even pick up a real sword, better stick with the metaphorical stuff then.


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