Do your theological nerves cringe when you hear that? After all, we are born in sin, and is anyone really good?
I have a two-year-old grandson and he is the sweetest bad boy ever—a near-perfect child who can be bad to the bone, an adorable disobedient toddler, just like his mother once was (just kidding about his mother). So I have a vested interest in finding theological justification for the goodness in his badness.
I’ll start with the goodness. He loves his younger brother and older sister, he loves his parents, he loves his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. He is affectionate, kind, friendly to all. My wife and I have made our interest in adoption very clear. You want to bottle him up and take him home with you.
Now the bad. Does the concept of disobedience even register with him? To him, “no” means “yes.” “Come” means “run away.” “Don’t” means “do.” To his credit, his disobedience is rarely sneaky, never malicious. He prefers his disobedience in plain sight. (Ah, isn’t he the sweetest?)
Discipline? His parents are still putting their heads together on that one, having already tried everything except calling the police as a way to scare him straight. So, we pray and hope that with age, listening and obedience will come.
When we identify our own greatest problem, sin tops the list. With that there can be no argument, at least among those who take Scripture seriously. But when it comes to knowing other people, sin is not number one. When I am with my grandson, whose sinful tendencies are obvious, I am not thinking about him as a sinner. I am thinking that he is the greatest two-year-old grandson ever, which he is. In a similar way, I know that my wife is a sinner, but I don’t think about her as a sinner. In fact, if you asked me to list my wife’s top two sins, I would be left scratching my head and asking for a few days to think about it.
My neighbor is not a follower of Jesus, but she is really good. Compassionate, honest, caring. If she did something that wasn’t so good, I would say that she is a good person who occasionally does wrong things. But the way it is now, she is a really good person who does really good things. If only I were so good.
Heresy alert? I hope not.
The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (Matt 12:35)
Check. Evil people speak out of evil hearts. Bad people do bad things. But there is a particular context here. Leaders of the people are associating Jesus with Beelzebub. All sin is bad, but some sins are worse than others, and this seems to be particularly bad. I know my grandson is born in sin and in need of Jesus, but given Scripture’s emphasis on how the sins of leaders can be especially serious and destructive, I am not compelled to use this as the prominent lens for understanding him, or my wife, or my neighbor.
Then he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Matt 22:8–10)
Who were these good people who were invited? The twelve, or at least the eleven, were included, and they weren’t so good, at least until after the resurrection. Ordinary people who worked hard, did business honestly, and were kind to those who were weaker were also included among the good. In other words, as you go through life, you will find bad and good people. Some people consistently lean toward the malicious and overtly selfish. I can name a few over the years but not many. In the Old Testament, you made sure you didn’t hang out with them; in the New Testament, you invite them to the same feast you yourself are attending.
The good people in Jesus’ story still need forgiveness every day. Their goodness is never a reason to look down on those who aren’t so good. Rather, good people know they are bad to the bone. Good people need Jesus. And their goodness, of course, is a gift from God. Any goodness we see in other people—and we should be able to see a lot of it—is evidence of God’s mercy and grace. If mountains and oceans can reflect his glory, broken people who follow Christ—and even those who don’t—can also reflect the glory of their Creator.
All this is one application of biblical love. When you love someone, you can always see something good in him or her. Consider the mother whose child actually is bad. You will still inevitably hear a little gushing from her about how sweet her child is. Maybe she is blind to the sins of her child, and maybe her blindness is partly a result of her desire to be seen as good mother—but overall, when a mother speaks about the goodness in her bad kid, we want to smile. She is doing something right, something good, and we want to follow her lead. We want to look more carefully at the child and see what the mother is seeing.
What does this mean for the doctrine of total depravity? Total depravity, I am persuaded, explains much about the human condition. More on that another time. For now, we simply maintain that total depravity is not the sum of our theology. And we set off to admire the good in those around us. This is at the heart of biblical encouragement.
Now, off to see my (very good) grandchildren.