Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. ~Luke 6:35
It seems like, more than most of the other fruits of the Spirit, goodness gets short shrift these days. This is probably the most overlooked of all the fruits of the Spirit, because we’re just not sure what to do with it. For starters, it seems like all the bases of the Christian life have already been covered with virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. What unique quality does goodness add that hasn’t already been listed? We’re not sure, so we don’t talk about it that often.
In addition, those of us who have been trained to think in gospel-centric terms naturally recoil from terms like “good person” and “good works.” We know our Bibles, and we know that relying on our good works will never save us, that all of our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and that in God’s eyes there are no good people– “no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). So if no one does good, what is “goodness” doing in a list of fruits of the Spirit? What place does it have in the Christian life? And how does it relate to our salvation?
Those are great questions. We should eagerly want answers to those questions, because it is to our great detriment that we overlook the fruit of goodness so often. Our thinking in this area is too fuzzy and vague. And as I’ve said before, vague thinking leads to vague living. So before we see how this fruit of the Spirit is connected to the cross, we first need to get clarity on this vital subject. So the first stop on our tour of goodness will be to go to an encounter that Jesus had with a particular young man, in which Jesus redefined goodness for that man and for us. Jesus’ redefinition of goodness will be crucial to our understanding of this forgotten fruit.
The story of the rich young ruler’s conversation with Jesus must be important, because Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record it, and each of them include unique details that fill out the story and the definition of goodness. Matthew begins the story in chapter 19 by setting up the question of definitions.
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? And Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
This young man, whom Luke identifies as a “ruler,” was obviously interested in the question of goodness, and how it relates to eternal life. Even though he was deeply religious, moral, and well-off (as we’ll see when the story continues), he felt his lack and came to Jesus to find out what was missing. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
Those of us with gospel filters immediately see red flags going up with this man’s question. We know that no good deed could ever earn eternal life– “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16)– and so it’s obvious that this guy is deeply mistaken at the most fundamental level. What’s surprising, then, is how Jesus responds to him.
Jesus, as he seems to always do, looks straight through the man’s question to the man’s heart, and responds to what is really there. And what Jesus saw there was a critically flawed definition of goodness. “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good,” Jesus responded. This was a gentle way of saying, “You’re asking the wrong question. Don’t ask how you can be good for God; you should be asking what his goodness has to do with you.” And yet Jesus, in his gentleness, gives the man his answer. And again, it’s not the answer we expect. “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
Uh oh, Jesus. Haven’t you read Romans and Galatians? Don’t you know we’re saved by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9)? Don’t worry; Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He sees the man’s flawed definition of goodness and, after gently pointing him to the right question, says, “Okay, we’ll go with your question.” Jesus is about to uncover what’s going on in this man’s heart.
At this point, Jesus’ strange answer has tipped us off that something is going on here, and that he is about to say something profound. Sadly, the young man is still as clueless as he was at the beginning. He has totally missed Jesus’ gentle redirection, and is drawn right into Jesus’ leading question.
He said, “Which commandments should I keep?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”
Jesus continues playing along with this young man’s misconceptions, but is about to completely devastate his definition of goodness. To the man’s silly question of which commandments are necessary for eternal life (as if we could pick and choose), Jesus obligingly lists off commandments #5-9 from the Ten Commandments, and their summary from Leviticus 19:18.
The man responds by saying that he has kept all these, but knows he still lacks something. Of course, we could rightly question whether he has in fact perfectly kept all these commandments in all their forms, but Jesus has a different agenda. He is about to press much deeper.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. ~Mark 10:21-22
Before we look at Jesus’ devastating reply, I just have to point out one unique detail that Mark’s account captures. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” I love the heart of our Savior on display here. Jesus is about to blow this man’s categories out of the water, but he isn’t trying to trick him– he wants to rescue him. Jesus loves this man– this foolish, confused, idolatrous lost man. So don’t hear what Jesus says next as harsh; hear it as love.
Jesus looks into this man’s heart and sees what this man has failed to see; namely, that his real, functional god is money. Thats why, when pressed to identify commandments, Jesus listed all the horizontal commandments– how we are supposed to treat each other– but intentionally left out the most important one. What Jesus is saying is, “Yes, you might have kept all those. But what about the first one commandment? ‘You shall have no other gods before me.'” And so Jesus puts his finger square onto the idol in the man’s heart and says, “What about this?” He presses the man to surrender his wealth in order to expose what his real treasure, his real idol, really is. And the man, confronted with the terrible truth of what real goodness looks like, turns away. He would rather have his money than have Jesus.
The man’s failure to embrace real goodness helps us to see what goodness really is. Goodness isn’t first and foremost about loving your neighbor, or not stealing or cheating or lying, or being a nice person. Goodness isn’t first about what your duty is; goodness is ultimately about what your delight is. Goodness means treasuring God above all things. This is what Jesus was pressing him to do: let go of the lesser treasure which had left him lacking and embrace the highest Treasure that would fully and finally satisfy, namely, Jesus himself.
The broadest definition of goodness is this: the proper valuing of all good things. Goodness is the correct ordering of our values system. It is the moral capability of judging the worth, the inherent goodness, of other things correctly, and responding to them rightly. And since the highest, best, most valuable Reality in the universe is God himself, goodness recognizes this and orders all its values accordingly. This means that while goodness has a horizontal dimension in how we relate to all the values we encounter, it is first and foremost a vertical virtue; it has to do with how we value God. Goodness treasures God above all things.
GOD IS GOOD ALL THE TIME; ALL THE TIME GOD IS GOOD
Now here’s where things get really interesting. Remember the first thing that Jesus said to the rich young ruler? “There is only one who is good,” meaning God himself. God is good– we say that a lot (“God is good all the time; all the time God is good!”), but I suspect that we have no idea what we’re saying. We are especially quick to credit God’s goodness when things go well for us– “The weather worked out well for my trip; God is good! That financial need was provided for; God is good!” This is revealing. I think that most of the time when we say God is good, what we’re really saying is, “God values me!”
But remember what goodness is: goodness is the treasuring of God above all things. That definition doesn’t just apply to our goodness; it applies to God’s as well. God’s goodness means that he always recognizes and responds perfectly to the relative worth of all things– meaning that above all things, he treasures himself.
God is good; this means that unlike the rich young ruler, he is not an idolater and perfectly values the infinite worth of his own glory, person, and character. God is good; this means that he is unswervingly and unfailingly committed to upholding the worth of his glory. God is good; this means that his highest treasure is not you; his highest treasure is himself.
Does that rub you the wrong way? Does it make God sound arrogant, self-centered, and selfish? If I said that your highest treasure was yourself, that would certainly make you arrogant, self-centered, and selfish. But that’s because goodness means valuing God above all things. For God to be good, he has to value himself above all things. If he doesn’t, he’s an idolater, he’s not good, and he’s not God. Our hope of God being good hangs on him valuing himself above all things.
The fact that God always acts for the preservation and upholding of his own glory is actually, when we look at it closer, good news. This means that whatever God does is not based on worth or merit in me, but on the worth and merit inherent in himself. His worth and worthiness never changes, and if that’s the basis on which he treats me with kindness, then his kindness will never change either. That’s good news.
Isaiah 43:25 points us to this gospel of God’s goodness: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” The foundational reason that God decides to look at your sins and not count them against you is because of his commitment to himself.
Ezekiel 36 is one of the central promises of the New Covenant, in which God promises a new work of grace in which he removes all the sin of his people, transforms their hearts to love and serve him, and to never turn away from doing good to them. This is the new covenant that Jesus bought with his blood (Luke 22:20). What is the ultimate reason for the new covenant? Is it because God considers you so valuable, or because he considers himself so valuable? Read to find out:
It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you…
The reason that you, believer, have been bought with the blood of Jesus, cleansed from your sin and idolatry and given a new heart and a new spirit, is not ultimately for your sake, but for the vindication of God’s holy name. God has acted in salvation out of his own goodness– out of his supreme valuing of himself.
Lest you misunderstand, let me be clear: this is the definition of God’s love. God’s love is not him making much of you, but him freeing you from every obstacle of sin and idolatry so that you can joyfully make much of him forever. God’s love is him giving you what will fully and eternally satisfy you: himself. And, in being fully and eternally satisfied in him, we will give him the glory that he deserves. As John Piper famously says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” For him to be committed to anything less than the maximum display of his glory would ultimately be unloving.
We can see this connection between God’s goodness and his treatment of sinners even more clearly in Psalm 25:7-8.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
Note the foundation of the prayer for mercy; it’s not “forgive my sins according to what I deserve,” or “according to how much you value me.” It’s not even what we’d expect– “forgive my sins according to your love.” No, it’s “forgive me for the sake of your goodness.”
The foundation of mercy is asking God to act for the sake of his goodness; in other words, to act in accordance with upholding his worth and glory above all things. God is seen as most glorious, most loving, most powerful, most beautiful, when he rescues sinners from wrath by taking their place, dying for their sins, rising triumphantly, and infallibly bringing them into everlasting joy in his presence. If you are forgiven, it is because God is good, and values himself above all things.
God is good; therefore he instructs sinners, Psalm 25 tells us. That’s an interesting logical argument, isn’t it? What’s the connection? Here’s how it works: God is good, which means he treasures himself and his glory above all things. God is glorified, and seen as powerful, wise, and compelling, when he takes sinners like you and me (who have despised his worth and pawned off his glory for the trinkets of this world) and transforms us into devoted followers of Jesus. The world has no answer for how this transformation can take place. The only answer is, Jesus Christ is mighty to save. In rescuing, transforming, and instructing rebels, he is put on display as supremely glorious.
I would encourage you to pursue a fuller understanding of the God-centeredness of God; seeing this truth in the Bible absolutely changed my life as I came face to face with a supreme God who is exalted, transcendent, and glorious, and yet glorifies himself most by stooping down to rescue people like me. John Piper, in particular, has helped me greatly in seeing what Scripture so clearly teaches. I’d recommend his books God is the Gospel and Desiring God for further study. I’ve also included a list of texts at the end of this chapter in order to jump start your own study of God’s Word in this area.
A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
So what does all of this have to do with the fruit of the Spirit, goodness? This is supposed to be a study on how to live out the Christian life, after all. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that. Remember I said at the beginning of the chapter that we needed clarity on what goodness really is. We’ve gotten that: Goodness is the proper valuing of all other good things, and therefore is ultimately the treasuring of God above all things. That’s a definition we can now start to get practical in applying.
Furthermore, we’ve gotten a glimpse at how this connects to the cross: it is God’s goodness, his upholding of his own infinite value, that moves him to display his glory in the salvation of sinners. Now let’s go to our Cross Connections text and see how these two pieces amazingly come together. Here’s Luke 6:35 in context:
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from who you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
One interesting thing to note: in commanding us to love and do good and lend and be merciful to those who don’t repay us, Jesus actually appeals to our values and our desire for gain. Three times he asks, “What benefit is that to you,” if your standard of love and goodness is the same reciprocal standard the world uses. In asking that question, he’s appealing to our desires, and saying, “You want to benefit, right? You want to find gain and value, right? You’re going about it the wrong way.”
So what is the benefit that Jesus is enticing us to embrace by living lives of sacrificial love? Verse 35: Love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.
Jesus holds out a two-fold promise: a great Father and a great reward. Of course, when Jesus says, “Do good, and you will be sons of the Most High,” this doesn’t mean that the way to be a child of God is to treat other people well. We don’t get into God’s family on the basis of our actions; John 1 says, “To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Faith is what unites us to Christ and makes us children of God, not our actions.
No, what Jesus is saying is that when we act in sacrificial love and goodness, we are being “a chip off the old block,” so to speak. We are looking more and more like our Father in heaven. Just like a little child mimics everything he sees his parents doing, Jesus is calling us to mimic the mercy of our Heavenly Father, as his dearly loved children. Children of God act like their Father, not in order to get into the family, but because they are in the family, and because their Father is so worthy of emulation.
That brings us to the other motive Jesus holds out: reward. “Love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.” This isn’t an invitation to naked self-interest (like, if I’m a nice person, God will bless me). This isn’t karma, and this isn’t the prosperity gospel. If Jesus’ motivation of reward was an appeal to self-interest, it would contradict the very thing he commanded: do good. Doing good is acting based on God’s supreme worth, not on yours or someone else’s.
So how does Jesus’ offer of reward fit with that? It’s important to see that Jesus’ motivation has two parts, which are really two sides of the same coin. “Do good, Your reward will be great, and you will be sons of your Father.” In other words, “Act and think and feel according to God’s supreme value, and that supreme value will be yours to enjoy more and more, and the more you enjoy his worth, the more you’ll look just like your Father.” The reward is that we get what goodness is looking for: a fuller experience of and delight in the infinite value of God himself. And the more we taste and see that glory, the more we will be transformed into the same image (2 Corinthians 3:18), more and more resembling our Heavenly Father who perfectly values his own glory.
Therefore, Jesus’ call in Luke 6:35 to love, do good, lend, and be merciful, and his accompanying promise of reward, is the same thing that Paul is talking about in Philippians 3:7-8:
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…
Paul considered the costly sacrifices on the road of love to be worth it, because every choice to expend himself and his resources for the sake of Christ’s call only brought him into a deeper experience of fellowship with Jesus. When he considered everything that the command, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return” might cost him, and everything he would gain by simply knowing Jesus better, he gladly said, “Gain!” and chose whatever would bring him closer to Jesus.
This is the heart of what goodness looks like: believing that Jesus Christ is the supreme value in the universe, believing that to know him is “surpassing worth,” and then making choices based on that valuing. No matter the cost– whether loving your enemies means simply taking their abuse without retaliation, or whether it means laying down your life in Saudi Arabia to bring the gospel to them– Jesus promises that the dual reward of more intimate fellowship with him and greater conformity to the Father’s heart will always, always be worth it.
The real question of goodness, then is, do we really believe that? Do we really believe that simply knowing Jesus better is worth any hardship, any sacrifice, any cost, and that the way to know him better is to embrace those hardships, sacrifices, and costs in the cause of loving others? If goodness ultimately means treasuring God above all things, then what goodness will look like on a daily, horizontal basis will look like what our Father did for us: sacrificing, going to any length and any cost, to show mercy and kindness to our enemies. It will mean turning the other cheek, giving away our possessions, and spending ourselves in kindness– not because the people we are trying to love are so worthy of our efforts, but because God is so worthy of our efforts, and every sacrifice brings us closer to him. Do you really believe he is worth it?
Father, There is nothing and no one in the universe more valuable than you. You are the most glorious, most beautiful, most worthy Person in the universe, and I want to know you more. Help me to see how precious you are; help me to taste and see how deeply satisfying you are; give me greater glimpses of your glory that thrill my soul; and send me out in the cause of sacrifice where the deepest intimacy with you is found.