(This originally appeared in the May/June 1998 edition of the MCOI Journal)
I was up late, viewing a videotape of an interview with Harvard professor and renowned evolution-apologist Stephen J. Gould. When the tape ended, the television came on, and I was shocked to hear that Princess Diana had been killed in an automobile accident in Paris. I stayed up for awhile and watched part of the somber coverage that would continue unabated to more than a week. So much was said about Diana’s life and death; her marital heartbreak, her rejection by the Royals, he great popularity with the common folk, her work for good causes, her quest for privacy, her vulnerable confessions, and on and on.
It was one of those strange weeks when the whole world seemed to be focused on the same story. But the week got even more strange when we learned that yet another widely loved and acclaimed woman of our times, Mother Theresa, had died of a heart attack at age 87. What a contrast between these two women! One was rich and glamorous, the other rejecting worldly values. Yet, both have already been “sainted” by popular vote.
Diana, it was said, was “born a lady, became a princess, and died a saint.” And those who revere Mother Theresa are running ahead of their church in proclaiming her a saint, so sure are they of her “qualifications.” The Roman Catholic Church has taught for centuries that “saints” are a special class of “holier-than-thou” folks, whose great holiness is manifested posthumously by miraculous signs and wonders. The church has reserved for itself the the right to render judgment on the issue, and this canonization process can take many years. If Mother Theresa is not a “shoo-in,” with all the good works she performed while on earth, what hope is there for everyday people whose idea of sacrifice might be missing Monday night football to visit a sick mother in the hospital?
The folks who are “sainting” Diana are not waiting for postmortem miracles or the sanction of any stuffy, ecclesiastical body to affirm her standing. However, it is obvious that they still hold to the traditional view that a “saint” is a person who is a cut above just plain folks. Not, “holy,” perhaps, but “good” certainly.
It seemed no coincidence to me that Diana and Theresa died within one week of each other. What a contrast they present to us! Mother Theresa was the embodiment of the stalwart saint of generations past, while Diana was the patron saint of the touchy-feely, Oprahn* era. It is safe to say that Mother Theresa presently would not be even a candidate for sainthood if she has been carrying on a public affair with a wealthy playboy. The morality of the old paradigm used to include sexual purity as one of its chief components. But, Princess Di was not shackled by such outmoded, puritanical restraints on her behavior. For a new age saint, morality has nothing to do with chastity. Rectitude is out, vulnerability is in. The economy is good, and the old-fangled, judgmental God of times past thankfully has been “reimagined” to reflect superior, humanistic ideals.
Which view is the correct one? Neither one according to Scriptures. Neither the pious rectitude or vulnerable beauty will buy entrance into heaven. What are the biblical “qualifications” for sainthood? Saints in our church age are just ordinary folks who have called upon the name of Jesus for salvation (1 Corinthians 1:2).
Don’t All Good People Go To Heaven?
Why should faith in Christ be the way into heaven? After all, aren’t there may “good” people who do not believe in Christ? God surely will not keep “good” people out of heaven, will He? No, God most assuredly will not keep good people out of heaven! All good people will be admitted on their good deeds. It says to in the Bible! Paul wrote the book of Romans that in the day of judgment, God “will render to every man according to his deeds.” Those who persevere in doing good will gain eternal life.
That what I call GOOD NEWS. All that anyone has to do to gain eternal life is to persevere in doing good (Romans 2:6-7)! Well then, what does it mean to persevere? According to Webster, it means “to persist against obstacles, to continue steadfastly,” Steadfastly means constantly, constantly means continuously, and continuously means ALWAYS . Aye, there’s the rub – Do you know anyone who ALWAYS has done good? We tend, in our humanness, to think that perseverance means “keep trying,” when in reality it means “not ever failing.” The standard is perfection. You must bat 1,000 your whole life through. One measly strikeout, during your whole career; will keep you from attaining that — no matter how many home runs you subsequently hit. You can talk about being a “good person” all day long, but are you willing to reveal your stats?
Once perseverance has been factored into the mix, the GOOD NEWS doesn’t sound so good anymore. But, when you consider what Paul wrote next, the situation becomes downright alarming! Here’s the BAD NEWS – ” … to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation (v.8). Trust me, you don’t want wrath and indignation to happen to you! Paul went on, “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil … “(v.9).
But wait a minute Joy! Paul wrote about evil people here! Someone would have to do something pretty bad to be called evil, wouldn’t he’? I could say, “yes,” but I don’t like to lie. No, “evil people” are described in the very first chapter of Romans, verses 29-32. What sins are these “evil people” committing? Pretty much the garden-variety sing of all humanity, I would say. Please note that gossip and disobedience to parents are listed right up there with malice and murder, without mentioning which sins are venial and which are mortal. The truth is that ALL sins are mortal sins, and every single person down through history but One is, thereby, condemned.
But Paul didn’t stop with the BAD NEWS of Romans 2. He wanted us to get the picture; to see what a hopeless fix we’re in. So he spelled it out for dense humanity by delivering to us the BAD, BAD NEWS of Romans 3: 10-18. “THERE IS NO ONE RIGHTEOUS,” he declared, “NOT EVEN ONE,” Uh oh. “THEERE IS NO ONE WHO DOES GOOD, NOT EVEN ONE.”
This is a MAJOR problem for self- made saints. There has been only one good man in all of human history, and that man is Jesus Christ. God’s standard of goodness is Himself, and Jesus is God made flesh. Remember the man who came to Jesus and called Him “good teacher” (Mark 10;17-18)? He wanted to approach Jesus as a peer, merely a “good man” among reasonably “good men.” Very significantly. Jesus did not deny that He was good. He would have been lying if He had! But, by asking the man “WHY DO YOU CALL ME GOOD’?” He made the man rethink the issue. Only God is good, Jesus told him. The inference: If I am truly GOOD, then I am GOD in human form and not merely a “good teacher” in a relative, human sense. Jesus’ words should prompt us to ask, WHY do we call Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, or anyone else “good”?
It seems that. whenever we call someone good, we, like the man who approached Jesus, do not have God’s perfect standard in mind but are, in effect, grading on a curve. We mean that one is good when compared to someone “less good” around them.
I bowl with a group of fierce competitors on a Thursday night scratch league. The best in our group is Lisa, with a 200+ average. She’s really a phenomenon She is a bowling machine – programmed to “strike” again and again in relentless succession. She’s the Mother Theresa of Wheaton Bowl. She makes it look easy. The last time I bowled against her, she beat me bv better than a hundred pins over four games. And I really bowled very well, averaging 187 for the four games. The funny thing is, that by some freak accident (not likely to be repeated in this lifetime}, I managed to win one of the games. Lisa was kind of miffed with herself by this, because Lisa’s standard goal for herself does not allow for losing … EVER! Losing is for losers.
Yet, even Lisa does not expect absolute perfection of herself, and neither do the rest of us expect it of her before we will be awestruck. After all, NOBODY’S PERFECT. Nevertheless, even though we do not live up to it nor expect others to, there is a never-changing standard in bowling by which to judge one’s performance. That standard is a 300 game, and smart bowlers know what it takes to achieve perfection in bowling. It’s simple really. STRIKE EVERY SINGLE TIME. PERSEVERE in doing good. Never miss your mark. Do not swerve to the right or the left. Timing is everything, so don’t get to the line too early or too late; and whatever you do, don’t cross the foul line, not even with your little piggy. Keep your head down, and your shoulder up. Reach for the pins. Follow through. Don’t get distracted by the bowler in the next lane. We all know the rules, yet no one keeps them perfectly – because we can’t. So, when we bowl our 200’s, 225’s and our 257’s, we are fairly pleased with ourselves.
So it is in life as well. We don’t compare our performance to God’s standard of perfection, but rather to someone’ s we can match or even beat. Conveniently, there are some very unsavory characters we can look at to feel better about ourselves (murderers, rapists, thieves, politicians), and we rely on our consciences to tell us where we fit in the pack.
Don’t Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide
However, human conscience is not a reliable guide. Recently, there was a case in the news of a young couple who murdered a girl who had come between them. Zamora, the young murderess, hit her victim over the head with a dumbbell weight, and then her gentleman friend shot the girl in the head. Should they be censured by society and, perhaps, punished for these “mistakes?” Well, Zamora is praying for another chance at life. She explained, “We are not bad people. We were young, in love, and not thinking straight.” Incredible! We have come to a place in our culture where even murderers cannot see themselves as evil at all, but only misunderstood, or victimized by youthful emotions.
Even mass murderers who have sanctioned rape and torture do not necessarily consider themselves to be bad people! Pol Pot was interviewed by the Associated Press last October. Pol Pot, if you recall, was the Cambodian dictator who recently died. He was responsible for the death of between one-and two-million of his own people in the 1970′ s and the torture of countless others. Was he sorry? Not Pot. He defended his ordering the executions of his political opponents, although he did admit that his regime had “made mistakes.” “But my conscience is clear” he said. “You can look at me … Am I a savage person?”
Is the Pope Catholic? Yes. PoL you are a savage if there ever was one, even if you do look just like somebody’s brother. I am one “kettle” who doesn’t mind calling Pot black, I guess. Yet, Pot impressed me with his insight that his best chance for escaping the judgment of the world and any consequent punishment for his crimes was to get us to look at him. Why is that? Human beings make most of their judgments by what their eyes tell them. Nevertheless, the problem is that one’s character, whether good or evil, is not stamped upon one’s features, and we are notoriously fooled by the way folks appear to us!
A few months ago, the feds located a Nazi concentration camp guard named Michael Kelnhofer, who was living in Kansas City. He had slipped by, unidentified, for years. If people are as good at assessing character as we seem to think we are, why didn’t someone see the evil lurking here? According to the newspaper accounts, Kolnhofer was a “friendly man” who shared the vegetables from his backyard garden and enjoyed the company of the neighborhood children. Can anyone who is kind to children be a “bad” person? Did Kolnhofer enjoy the company of the children in Buchenwald? More to the point, did they enjoy his company? Likely not. One of Kelnhofer’s neighbors said she felt bad when she heard the news, because he seemed like such a “nice person.” I guess she didn’t know that lots of “nice people” participated in the Holocaust. Another ofKolnhofer’s neighbors flatly stated he did not believe the accusations because, in his words, “He was too quiet, too neat, and too clean.” The man does not know his history. “Neat and clean” were practically job requirements for Nazi killer/torturers. The “quiet” may have been added on in later years, as contemplation of eternity set in.
Back to Romans
Well, back to the BAD, BAD NEWS of the book of Romans. Paul wrote in Romans 3:19-20 that, because we do not meet the righteous requirements of the law, all of us are accountable to God. We all are silenced – there is nothing we can say on our behalf. We cannot point to the greater misdeeds of others as any excuse, because it doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference who is further from the mark. If God were to leave it at that – that the good will be blessed with heaven while the bad will be tormented in hell – none of us would have any more hope than Kolnhofer since none of us are good, and all of us are bad. We can neither earn heaven nor avoid hell by anything we have done or can do.
Jesus is not only fully God, but He is fully man as well. Jesus alone, out of all humanity. is truly good, sinlessly perfect. Think of the life He lived on earth in the context of the passage we’ve been looking at in Romans chapter 3. Jesus was righteous, He had understanding, He persevered in doing good – steadfastly, constantly, continuously, and always. He deserves heaven, and He is, in fact, the only person who does. Yet, He left heaven in order to rescue the helpless likes of you and me.
That is why I call Romans 3 :21-26 the GOOD, GOOD NEWS. Paul wrote that there a is a “righteousness from God” which we can receive by faith alone, without regard to our deeds. God has offered to give us, as a free gift, the very righteousness of His Son. In return, we give Him the only thing we have to offer Him – nothing. That’s a good trade, friends, so please do not neglect to receive God’s gift of righteousness.
A gift offered can be a gift refused. What do we do with this righteousness once we do receive it? We put it on, just like a beautiful garment, and “wear” it. When God looks at us from that day forward, He sees us “clothed” in the righteousness of His Son, and He credits that righteousness to our account as though we had earned it ourselves. God’s Son already has been voluntarily punished for our sins, so we are released from captivity when we take God up on His offer. Furthermore, not only are we released from bondage, but we who were enemies of God are now at peace with Him.
Romans 5; 1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
Candles In The Wind?
After Diana’s burial, our newspaper headline proclaimed that Diana was “AT PEACE, AT LAST.” A chill went up my spine as I read that and wondered if it was true. Is Diana at peace, I wondered? Well, that depends upon where she is. Is she in heaven- as many just assume? Or has Diana, perhaps, just ceased to exist?
Rock star Elton John broke all sales records with his new version of “Candle In The Wind” which he sang at Diana’s funeral. The song espouses the view that human beings are like candles — they briefly burn and then are snuffed out by the wind. The “person” is gone while only their legend lives on. This is a very common view today among secular people. On the other hand, as we already read in Romans 2: 9, after the judgment there will be tribulation and distress for those who have done evil but have not received Christ’s righteousness by faith. “Tribulation and distress” doesn’t sound like some peaceful annihilation to me.
The more you study human history, the more you will agree with King Solomon that there really is nothing new under the sun. This “candle in the wind” view is not a new one; King Solomon detailed this view in the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, in giving the view of worldly wisdom, stated that “all share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifice and those who do not … Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:2-5). Their candle goes out.
Is Solomon expressing the godly viewpoint in this book? No, not at all. The same man who strongly advocates wisdom throughout the book of Proverbs proclaims in this essay that wisdom really is no better than folly, since the same fate – death – awaits both the wise man and the fool (Ecclesiastes 2: 14-16). He wrote in Ecclesiastes 10: 19 that “money is the answer to everything;” yet, in Proverbs 11:4 he wrote that “Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.” What’s with the contradiction? There is none. Solomon is contrasting the hopeless secular outlook with the eternal perspective. We all must deal with what our eyes see “under the sun,” and then we must decide whether to believe our own eyes or believe in God. All of us have to contend with the injustices we see here in this life. We see the good die young and the evil man prosper, or at least cheat the hangman as did Adolph Hitler. Think about it. lf this life is all there is, Hitler cheats the hangman for all eternity. Justice will never be served if our lives are merely candles in the wind.
The view Solomon detailed in the book of Ecclesiastes is the prevailing viewpoint of our time. Life is hard, painful, and full of injustice, and then you die – and the good die young, so you better “grab all the gusto you can get, cause you only go around once.” This is what reality looks like “under the sun.” But that is not the view that has been revealed to us from “above the sun.” It is written in Hebrews 9:27 that, it is appointed unto men to die, and then face judgment. Paul wrote that men or women who die knowing Christ do go immediately into the presence of God (2 Corinthians 5 :6-8).
My friend Bill recently died after a battle with cancer. Bill is a real saint – not a self-made, so-called saint – but the genuine article. I’m not waiting for a miracle to attest to it. He did not count on his rectitude or his goodness to recommend himself to God. He wrapped himself in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and by faith he stood. I’d known Bill for 30 years, and I remember how happy I was that night 23 years ago when he believed and received Christ. But let me tell you, the happiness I felt that night cannot compare with the sheer comfort and joy I have now, knowing that Bill is with the Father, where we will join him someday. I hope and pray that you will be there too.
Love to all,
*Oprahn: Pertaining to, deriving from, or being of Oprah.