Our naturally prideful spirit needs to be humbled, in recognition that it’s only by God’s phenomenal grace that we have hope.
In Romans 3:10-18 the apostle Paul quotes from a series of six Psalms, a Proverb, and Isaiah, all making this same point. There is no one who is righteous. All turn aside.
Why say it so many times? Maybe so it will actually penetrate. Because, face it, we like to think of ourselves as “basically good” people.
What we do does matter.
Now, there are times we’re acutely aware of our own shortcomings. And there are even times our awareness goes deeper, and we know that “shortcomings” is a euphemism that greatly understates our sin. Take a minute right now, and look at Paul’s collection in Romans 3. It should be sobering, ought to humble us.
And then, consider what Jesus has to say on the subject:
Same message, isn’t it? With the addition that not even Jesus could think of himself as good.
Do you find this dispiriting? In one sense, it’s intended to be. Paul intends that we be deflated, enough that we understand we cannot be good enough to gain eternal life. Our naturally prideful spirit needs to be humbled, in recognition that it’s only by God’s phenomenal grace that we have hope. However, it’s definitely not Paul’s intent that we feel so worthless that we conclude we’re beyond redemption. If that were his intent, the whole rest of the letter would be pointless!
Going on in the chapter, in verse 23 he repeats,
But then he goes on:
Paul’s point in these chapters of Romans is that we may have complete confidence in the redemption, the salvation, the glory we’re called to and promised. But the confidence is not, even in small measure, in ourselves. And another “but”: But that our behavior, our outlook, the whole of our life, must be turned around, transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
Is this a balancing act we have any hope of pulling off? To have total confidence, but not in ourselves? To fully embrace that we are not good, in fact humbled right down to the ground, but also embrace that we are transformed, made just, exalted?
Even Jesus refused to be called good. Yet he also foretold that he would say—to us!—”Well done, good and faithful servant!”
The basis for the commendation, the welcome into the joy of the Lord, is what the servant did. What we do does matter. Certainly Jesus did good, and he even makes mention of it sometimes. Which tells us what we can aspire to. The Lord wants us doing good! We aren’t good. Period. But we can be transformed.
All this is so basic. We’ve known it since we were spiritual babies; it’s the “milk” of the word. Why repeat it then? Well, Paul does, in fact leans hard on it. It must be that we need it.