The Sin of Trying to Be Good

by Willard Maxwell Aldrich, Th.D.
taken from the July-September 1938 Bibliotheca Sacra

TRYING TO BE GOOD is commendable under most circumstances. At all times it is better than trying to be bad. Few there are who pursue a path in life definitely avowing evil to be their goal. Few hold as a philosophy of life that bad is better than good; consequently, all will agree that for the most part trying to be good is a praiseworthy aim. Yet there is a circumstance in which trying to be good is definitely evil. Reference is made to the common practice of multitudes of people who attempt to be good enough to win their way to heaven apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. Such folks base their hope of eternal glory on the claim that they are doing the best they can to live by the golden rule, the ten commandments or the sermon on the mount.

I mean to say as emphatically as I know how that if one presents to God as his claim upon eternal life the cleanest, most cultured, kindest and most philanthropic life of which he is capable by working at it all of the time, that God will both reject the claim and pronounce the whole effort to be sinful.

Inasmuch as many of those committing the sin of trying to be good as a way of getting to heaven have derived their conceptions either directly or indirectly from the Bible, and because It is God's Holy Word and speaks with final authority on the subject of personal salvation, Its plain and unmistakable teaching will form the basis of our discussion. Trying to win salvation by being good entails at least five sins which are peculiarly offensive to God. is commendable under most circumstances. At all times it is better than trying to be bad. Few there are who pursue a path in life definitely avowing evil to be their goal. Few hold as a philosophy of life that bad is better than good; consequently, all will agree that for the most part trying to be good is a praiseworthy aim. Yet there is a circumstance in which trying to be good is definitely evil. Reference is made to the common practice of multitudes of people who attempt to be good enough to win their way to heaven apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. Such folks base their hope of eternal glory on the claim that they are doing the best they can to live by the golden rule, the ten commandments or the sermon on the mount.

I mean to say as emphatically as I know how that if one presents to God as his claim upon eternal life the cleanest, most cultured, kindest and most philanthropic life of which he is capable by working at it all of the time, that God will both reject the claim and pronounce the whole effort to be sinful.

Inasmuch as many of those committing the sin of trying to be good as a way of getting to heaven have derived their conceptions either directly or indirectly from the Bible, and because It is God's Holy Word and speaks with final authority on the subject of personal salvation, Its plain and unmistakable teaching will form the basis of our discussion. Trying to win salvation by being good entails at least five sins which are peculiarly offensive to God.

I. The Sin of Failing to Be Good

A certain lawyer stood up and tempted Christ, saying, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Christ's answer turned him to God's requirement of those who would be saved by doing. He said, "What is written in the Law?" The lawyer replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself." Christ said, "Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live" (Lk. 10:25-28). Note the Savior's answer: "This do, and thou shalt live." The requirement is doing or keeping the law, not merely attempting to do so.

The first commandment, which requires wholehearted love for God, is flagrantly violated by the person who rejects the Son of God, the Father's Well Beloved; and, consequently, however much his refinement and cultural attainment and however commendable his character, he has broken God's first and greatest commandment, and all the commandments must be kept perfectly if one is to be saved by being good. What need is there to speak of the holy moral requirements of the law which no one has perfectly obeyed?

God has placed a curse upon those who try and fail to keep all of the commandments: "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in an things which are written in the book of the Law to do them" (Gal. 3:10).

Note that those who are of the works of the Law, that is, trying to be good as a means of gaining eternal life, are not commended for their efforts but condemned for their failure. Such is the only course open to the Moral Governor of the universe where guilt is found and dealt with on the basis of Law.

On one occasion the late Bishop Taylor Smith mentioned the subject of salvation to the barber who was giving him a shave. "I do my best, " snapped the barber, "and that's enough for me." The bishop relapsed into silence until the shave was over, and when the next man was seated the bishop asked: "May I shave this customer?" "No, you mustn't," replied the barber, with a wry grin. "But I would do my best," answered the bishop. "So you might, but your best would not be good enough for this gentleman, " said the barber. "No, and neither is your best good enough for God," replied the bishop.

II. The Sin of Making God a Partner to Our Crime

No thinking person would claim that his goodness measures up to the unflinching requirements of God's holy Law. He recognizes that sin mars his life and that this must somehow be forgiven him.

To expect God to forgive sin apart from the work of Christ is to expect Him to overlook or excuse it without due regard to His holy nature and Law which require punishment for the guilt of sin and reparation for its injury. For God thus to pardon the sinner would be to make Him a partner to the sin, just as a judge presiding over a criminal court would become a partner to crime if he should freely pardon a guilty criminal.

The death of God's only begotten Son was planned and permitted by the Triune God as a substitute penalty sufficient for the remission of the whole world's sin. To expect forgiveness apart from this provision is to make God a partner to sin.

III. The Sin of Making God a Liar

The individual who tries to be good as a means of attaining eternal life does so in the face of very direct and plain statements from the Word of God which definitely preclude such a possibility. The Bible says that man's goodness cannot please Him. When man presumes that it will please God, he is virtually calling God a liar, for God so closely links Himself with His Word that to reject It is to reject God. Will you carefully examine the estimate which God places upon human beings and their attempted goodness?

God's Word plainly states that all men are sinners:

"For there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:22, 23).

"But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin" (Gal. 3:22 cf. Isa. 53:6; 64:6).

God's Word plainly declares that unregenerate men cannot please Him nor enter into His kingdom:

"Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:7, 8). "Flesh" is used in an ethical sense, referring to the rebellious heart, darkened mind and impotent will of those who have not been born again by the Spirit of God. All men are by nature living in the "flesh" because "that which is born of the flesh is flesh" (Jn. 3:6).

God's verdict with respect to men's doings is recorded in Romans 3:12: "There is none that doeth good, no, not one. " This refers to good in the absolute sense as required by God's Law. It is not a denial of what we commonly call "good deeds." The Bible plainly declares that death is the only wage which unregenerate man can earn from God in the words: "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23).

However cultured and refined a man may be, if not a believer in Jesus Christ, he is still "flesh," and, as such, is not subject to the Law of God, cannot please Him and consequently lives in a state of separation from God, which is spiritual death.

To presume to earn eternal life by being good in the face of these plain declarations is tantamount to calling God a liar. This explains why our efforts at being good are sinful rather than commendable.

IV. The Sin of Rejecting Christ

Jeremiah speaks of Israel's twofold sin in forsaking God and His salvation and in attempting to work out their own salvation: "For My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13).

The sin of trying and failing in the attempt to catch and hold the water of life in broken cisterns of good works has already been mentioned. Let us now consider more particularly the sin of rejecting Christ, the fountain of living water.

The Bible plainly declares that salvation is offered to men exclusively in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me" Jn. 14:6). There is no other door into God's sheepfold. Jesus said, "I am the door of the sheep" Jn. 10: 7). There is no other name given among men whereby we may be saved: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Christ said, "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). Isaiah wrote some six hundred years before Christ's birth, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). Because Christ died in our place as our substitute, fully satisfying God's holy wrath against our sin, God is able and willing to grant forgiveness through Christ. See Acts 13:38, 39.

In view of the fact that God has declared all men sinners unable to save themselves, and in view of the further glorious fact that He has provided a Savior, think of the presumption and sin of the one who rejects God's provision and goes about to seek salvation by trying to be good!

It is with special reference to rejecting the testimony concerning God's Son that the Scripture speaks of men making God a liar: "He that believeth not God hath made Him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of His Son" (I Jn. 5: 1 0).

Seeking salvation apart from Christ by trying to be good involves the sin of rejecting light, that is, spurning holiness and truth in its perfect and absolute manifestation as revealed in Jesus Christ, the light of the world (Jn. 1:4; 8:12), and as made available to us in the way of eternal salvation through Him. To reject Christ is to reject light. "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light" Jn. 3:19).

Trying to be good instead of accepting Christ as Savior involves the sin of rejecting love. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" Jn. 3:16). To reject Christ is to spurn God's gift of love. What sheer folly to believe that God, in love, will forgive the sins of those rejecting Christ, Who is God's offer of love and channel of forgiveness!

The underlying difficulty with those who strive to crash the gates of heaven by trying to be good is the fact of human pride. The cross of Christ is humiliating, leveling; it is God's conclusion that all are worthy of death and none good enough to merit life. Self-righteous pride is a sin of such offensive character that it is found listed in Scripture along with the unspeakable sins.

Counting the blood of Christ an unholy thing may also be laid to the charge of the one rejecting Christ in favor of seeking eternal life by attempted keeping of the Law (cf. Heb. 10: 29-31).

The sin of disobedience in its highest and most flagrant form is committed by the one rejecting Christ and trusting to good works to save him. The Gospel involves a command to be obeyed: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,, (Acts 16:3 1). For those not obeying the Gospel there is the awful prospect of God's flaming vengeance (2 Thess. 1:8).

V. The Sin of Believing Satan's Lie

Satan's lie is to the effect that man can make himself like God. That soul damning lie found its first expression in human history in the garden of Eden. Satan enticed our first parents to sin with the promise, "Ye shall be as gods [Elohim] " (Gen. 3:5). From that day to this, forms of that lie have served as heavy artillery in Satan's warfare against the human soul. In Romans 1:25 men are described as changing "the truth of God into a lie." It is Satan's lie to which reference is made, and in this case its form is that of worshipping and serving the creature more than the Creator, that is, putting the creature in God's rightful place and in this sense making him like unto God. Satan's lie involves changing the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man (Rom. 1:23).

When men try to be good as a way of earning salvation, they unconsciously, if not consciously, try to match their goodness with God's goodness; and, since they are frail and sinful human beings, they must attribute to God their own characteristics, thus changing His glory to conform to their own sinful nature.

The lie takes on a more wicked form in the proposed deification of man in apostate Christianity called Modernism [liberalism]. This is a form of Satan's lie and a natural outgrowth of Christ-rejecting people trying to gain heaven by being good. The sin of believing Satan's lie will reach its climax and reap its reward when men bow before the Antichrist as the representative of deified humanity. Because they have not loved the truth, "God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thess. 2:11, 12).

The ultimate aim of God's great redemptive program is to display throughout all eternity the riches of His grace in the salvation of undeserving sinners. God's grace is not only unmerited; it is opposed to merit. For one to seek salvation by working for it is to utterly thwart God's desire to give it to those who acknowledge their ill-desert and accept His gracious gift. If the granting of salvation in any way recognizes human goodness or works, then God is involved in debt to give it as a reward; and hence, it is no longer of grace. Paul says, "But if it be of works, then is it no more grace" (Rom. 11:6).

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5), that is, to the one who trusts Christ alone for salvation, Go grants eternal life "that in the ages to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7).

To try to be good as a way of securing life is diametrically opposed to God's plan. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9).


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