It seems an important part of Christianity for most Americans is “good works.” Christians are most often judged by non-Christians in terms of their good works. Christians judge themselves in terms of them–they’re better Christians than others if they empirically have “more” good works; they feel better about their personal relationship with God if they feel they have a sufficient amount of good works flowing from their lives. And Christians often judge themselves against non-believers in terms of good works…as the Pharisee prayed, “thank you God that I’m not like that sinner.”

Since this is a blog about lived theology, and at times I know my posts are difficult to connect explicitly with what it means to live our theology, I thought I might offer a post on “good works” which might be considered the epitome of “lived” theology, but all in a effort to point out that it’s really pretty much impossible to call any of our works good, at least from our limited human perspective.

As American’s, or let’s just generalize even further, people living in the West under the heavy influence of the humanist desire to believe that at the core every person is “good”, we work very hard to maintain or establish the truthfulness of our goodness. How often do you hear on TV for example, the statement from those accused or found guilty of crimes, “I’m not a bad person”? It seems pretty common these days. How often are our own personal “good deeds” but a posturing for a pat on the back?

In a recent sermon, I used a line by G. K. Chesterton. The editors of a newspaper asked various intellectuals to contribute an answer to the question “what’s wrong with world?” I used this reference in an effort to reframe the nature of the question “why do bad things happen to good people?”, the topic of the sermon. From the very start, the question itself is problematic because it simply assumes, right in line with Western culture, that people are good (of course, this question would admit some people are bad, but on the whole, it supposes most are not). Chesterton’s response to the newspaper editor’s question causes us entirely to reinterpret the other question about bad things and good people. He wrote a very simple response to the editors:

Dear Sirs,

A response to your question, “what is wrong with world?”

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G. K. Chesterton

In full humility and theological accuracy, Chesterton’s response is one we should all embody (which is part of what I mean by lived theology). His response is especially fitting for Western culture today and Christians in particular who are caught up in a moralistic life of piety which forces them to be vitally aware of what they consider their “good works” and those of others. First of all, Chesterton calls into question the existence of a good person–can one even be found? His answer to the editors should carry some weight with us, because as a Christian himself, he answered from within the Christian tradition–he is a sinner and he admitted it. He did not say that he is a sinner AND a good person. For him, as for theology, the two don’t go together.

This brings us to my major point: if we can’t say that we’re good people, can we even say that we do good works? The answer is, simply, NO. Sorry to disappoint you. But let me see if I can be a little more convincing.

In his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther wrote in Thesis 3, “Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” (see also Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross, an exposition on the disputation)

Now, this ought to cut to the heart for all of us who have our infinite ways of measuring and comparing our self-worth and “goodness” in terms of our own supposed good works and those of others. Luther plainly tells us, whatever we think we’ve got right, we’ve probably got completely wrong. Why? Well, from a spiritual perspective, most of our good intentions (you know, those things that pave the way to hell) at doing good works are looking for some sort of response of affirmation (either personal or from someone else). “Look at that. See what I just did. Now there’s no way of denying how much I love you…or God…or how good of a Christian I am.” Don’t want to admit that this is a true characterization of who we are and how we think deep down in that sinful heart of ours? That’s being a theologian of glory.

How about some more to try to convince you? Try this from the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who from my reading, at least in this passage, is simply reflecting the same attitude from Luther’s thesis quoted above.

[T]he man who really knows the Word of God, as this man comes before us in the biblical promise, can understand himself only as one who exists in his act, in his self-determination. The Word of God comes as a summons to him and the hearing it finds in him is the right hearing of obedience or the wrong hearing of disobedience. Whether it is finally the one or the other is not, of course, in his hands. For that, obedience or disobedience in his action, he cannot resolve or determine himself. As he decides, as he resolves and determines, he is rather in the secret judgment of the grace or disfavour of God, to whom alone his obedience of disobedience is manifest. (Church Dogmatics, I.1, T & T Clark, 200-201)

What Barth is highlighting implicitly here is the hiddeness of God, and also the fact that God alone knows as well as determines what is good. In God’s hiddeness only, is the knowledge of our obedience or disobedience. There alone is the truth of the goodness or lack thereof of our works. Which works are good? Whose works are good? We can’t say…only God can.

So why strive to be good people, good Christians, or do good works? Well, maybe that’s a bad question again. Maybe we shouldn’t do any of those things.

But what about the importance of good works–isn’t that what lived theology is also about; aren’t good works important, as noted in James, that they are the fruit of faith?

In the end, good works are important to the extent that they provide a witness of God and are used by Him as a means of grace, both in revealing Himself and His caring for creation. But, from all that I’ve argued, it seems that any of our personal efforts to live that pious life of good works are doomed to fail. We could never judge for ourselves whether or not we’ve been successful in doing so! Whatever works we have done or will do that might be called good are, from our limited human perspective which knows not the mind of the hidden God, accidental (even if they are brought about by the Spirit, but again, that’s not something we can definitively discern). So what do we do in order that that good works might still emerge for God’s purposes AND so that we also might not be so concerned about them that our emphasis on being good people/good Christians/good-work-doers that our efforts are perverted into a pietistic Pharisaical moralism?

Cling to Christ. Our vision must always be reverted back to Him. He is the only One who can be called GOOD because He is the Embodiment and Arbiter of all Goodness. Our vision must not be interrupted by a self-check to make sure we’re doing good in comparison to that other guy, or according to the false measures we’ve come to believe about God’s love for us being directly proportional to our good works. Cling to Christ and all those concerns fall away. Cling to Christ and embrace the fact that WE are what is wrong with world, that we are NOT good, that the goodness of our works (if there is any) is known only by God and used for His purposes and we’re better off because it–there is no fear that our goodness and usefulness could ever become another place of idolatrous worship in our lives. Cling to Christ and His Goodness–be a theologian of the cross and live your theology under immeasurable grace.