Services and events in the Church where testimonies are shared are always an exciting time. They are a great reminder in our lives to see how God has changed someones heart to come to faith and repentance. As terrible as it sounds – if we’re going to be honest with ourselves – when the time comes to listen we start internally comparing testimonies in our head. When we hear a story of an ex-con who was addicted to 34 drugs simultaneously and robbed a bank while being involved in every major crime and gang syndicate, we are moved to tears. We love those testimonies. In the shadow of those stories, we tend to turn a deaf ear to those who say, “I was a good person, I just never knew Jesus until later in life.”
What happens then in the life of new Christians – or even those who have been Christians all their life – is they start to think less of their testimony and ultimately less of themselves. Somehow we equate being rescued out of extremely terrible situations by Christ as meaning those people are meant for more than the Christian with a “normal” background and a “normal” testimony. Somehow, our “normal” and “good” backgrounds convince us that we’ll always take a back seat to those who have been rescued out of more “intense” situations.
The Bible has a lot to say about people with “good” backgrounds who have always done “good” things. The Apostle Paul wrote about it often. Before becoming the great Apostle that we know him as, Paul was a great guy by worldly standards. Here is what he had to say in regard to his “good” background and his “good” works:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. – Phil 3:4-6
Paul was the man according to society’s expectations. What would someone like Paul look like to us today? He would be your civic, upstanding and good-tempered citizen. He would be involved with the PTA and volunteer at the homeless shelter on the weekends. He would be involved in politics and give money to charity. He would go to his kids soccer games, and take his wife out on dinner dates. He’d be a “good” person.
But that is where the pleasant story ends, because Paul’s description of himself in Philippians doesn’t stop there. He continues on and says this:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Phil. 3:7-11
Here’s the funny thing about the Gospel of Jesus Christ: it’s not only acknowledging and asking for forgiveness for your bad deeds. More importantly – and definitely more difficultly – the Gospel of Jesus Christ demands that we repent (that is, ask for forgiveness and turn from) of our good deeds. Why? Because it is by our good deeds that we seek to make ourselves right with God and the universe without acknowledging Christ at all.
I want to focus on Paul’s use of the word rubbish in this passage. This is one of those times where we translate the word in a politically correct way, almost ignoring how the original audience would have heard this word. You know how when a baby eats something intolerable to his stomach, and a couple hours later he explodes in his diaper? That’s what the word for rubbish means. It’s POOP. All of our good works, every single one of them, are poop. Filthy, nasty, stinky poop.
Paul knew that he only had two options; either rely on his good works – or rely on Jesus. The two are incompatible. The gospel + anything equals nothing, and therefore any reliance on our own works is an offense to God. Our self-righteousness is a skewed and distorted reality. We weren’t meant to do good deeds simply for ourselves or for others. Good deeds are meant to be done in context of a love for God and a love for his people.
The problem with our good works is that they are a means by which we seek to earn favor with God, or think of ourselves as right with the universe. We see them as a means by which God or the universe will owe us. Everything we do, our good works especially, were meant to be done in context of a union with God. Our good works are meant to be an extension of God’s love for his people, instead they end up being an extension of our own self-righteousness.
You see, when we reject the cross of Christ and say things like “I’ll go to heaven because I’m a good person,” or even telling people that you can be good without Jesus – that is a damnable offense. God never intended for us to do anything apart from him. Since we are all idolaters at heart, God had to demonstrate the ultimate act of love for us in order to bring us back to him. It wasn’t just our admitted bad deeds that killed Jesus, it was all of our attempts to do good on our own that put the nails in his wrists.
If you really want to stay far away from God, you don’t do it by being really bad – you stay far away from God by being really really good.
I love the way author Tim Chester puts this concept:
A cross-centered life means an inevitable and resolute rejection of all self-confidence and self-righteousness. The life of Jesus shows us humility, but his cross humbles us. At the cross we see the full extent of our sin: when we get the chance, we kill our creator. The cross leaves no scope for human boasting. Instead our only “boast” is Christ Jesus, our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
When we come to realize that Jesus died to rescue us from our bad works and our desperately failed attempts at good works, we realize that a divine miracle takes place in the heart of every regenerate sinner. This is why we rejoice at even the most “normal” or “best” of persons who become a Christian. There is no such thing as a “normal” testimony because there is no such thing as a “good” person.
Praise God for redeeming a nasty, poopy person like me. I thought I could do it all on my own, but I can’t do anything apart from Jesus. Even my best deeds apart from Christ are formed out of my self-righteousness. Praise the King for showing us what true humility looks like, and allowing that to become my true motivation for the good that I seek to do.