One of the most important tools essential for proper biblical interpretation, or indeed for the interpretation of any book at all, is to recognize that not all words are used exactly the same way in every instance. This principle is not difficult to master, because it is regularly and intuitively understood. When, for example, someone says “you can reach me on my cell,” we automatically choose the proper definition of the word “cell” from a list of various interpretive options. Since the context above is communication, not biology, or criminal justice, the reference to the word “cell” is correctly perceived to refer to a cell phone, rather than to a living biological cell, or to a prison cell.
This is certainly the case with the biblical use of the word “good.” For example, take a look at the different uses of this word from Paul’s letter to the Romans. First, in his discussion of our relationship to the governing authorities found in chapter 13, the apostle writes that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval…” Conversely, Paul writes that if you do what is wrong, “be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” This is all fairly straightforward, and can be directly applied to our lives today.
There is a problem, however, if we are not flexible with our understanding of the word “good” because earlier in this same epistle, Paul wrote that there is “no one who does good, not even one” (3:12). Misapplied, this could be interpreted to mean that no one is capable of obeying the ruling authorities at any point. It might also be presented as a contradiction of sorts. First Paul tells us that “no one does good,” then later in chapter 13 he commands us to do exactly that which we are incapable of doing. How is this possible?
The solution to this apparent contradiction is to recognize the two different contexts that the apostle has in view. In Romans 3, the perspective is of God’s infinite holiness, and from this view even the good things we do are seen as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). This is why God’s holy prophet Isaiah cried out “I am a man of unclean lips” when confronted with the terrifying vision of God’s holiness and majesty (Isa. 6:6). But in Romans 13 the context is civic righteousness. It is the goodness that can be observed by the governing authorities, by one’s employer or neighbor. From the divine perspective, we cannot do good because the stain of original sin clings to everything we do. But from the human perspective, there is much good that we can do. For example, it is a good thing to obey the speed limit, to help someone in need, to perform wellon a test, etc. (see Paul’s comments to this effect in Rom. 5:7, 12:21, 14:21). Though these are good in an outward and visible sense, this type of goodness is not meritorious in the eyes of God.
The heavenly perspective on goodness is quite clear from the teachings of Jesus himself. When, for example, the rich young ruler asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” one of the things Jesus said in response was, “No one is good except God alone” (18:18-19). So in Jesus’ view, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama simply do not measure up to his standards. But more importantly, neither do the holy patriarchs, prophets, and apostles of the church. In fact Jesus’ statement is a classic assertion of his own divinity, for unless Jesus himself is understood as God in the flesh, then according to his own words, he himself should not even be considered good.
Elsewhere Jesus also says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11). Typically we think of a man who provides for his children as “a good father,” and we are not wrong for doing so if by “good” we are thinking of civic righteousness. But, again, there is another perspective at work here. God with his inscrutable judgment sees not only our actions, but our motives. He sees our inmost thoughts and knows us better than we know ourselves. This is the perspective at work when he characterizes those who provide good gifts for their children as basically “evil.”
So at the end of the day we must be careful to evaluate which standard of goodness is in view. From the perspective of the city of man, one does not even have to be a Christian to be considered a good person. All that is required is outward conformity to the particular standards of a given culture. From the perspective of the city of God, however, not even Christians themselves qualify to be called good. But those who do trust in Christ, though they are personally and inherently unworthy, are granted a totally free pardon by the “Good” Shepherd who laid his life down for the sheep (John 10:11). And before he sacrificed himself, this good shepherd also sanctified himself for our benefit (John 17:19). In this way, those of us who are evil may be presented as if we were perfectly holy and righteous (1 Cor. 1:30), and those of us who are wicked may be declared just in his sight (Rom. 4:5). So in the end, Christians need to turn away from their good works as well as from their evil deeds in order to trust in Christ alone who presents us holy and acceptable in God’s sight, both by his holy life and sacrificial death.