I would encourage you if have the chance to take some time to read Jonathan Edwards on The Nature of True Virtue.
I say some time because at least for a little, itty bitty mind like mine, it is one of those books that I have to read over and over. When you read the sentence like the fifth time you realize that what he is saying is a whole lot deeper and more important than what you originally thought.
Anyway I think it is a really important work for a number of different reasons. One reason being we are living in a culture where people generally think they are pretty good. If you read Edwards and follow his arguments, and the interesting thing is he doesn’t really use any Scripture directly – it is kind of the Paul in Athens approach – you can’t help but go away realizing how superficially you’ve been thinking about what it means to be good. Another reason being we are living in a culture where more people are actively seek to do things that at least on the surface really are good and we as Christians should think about how we are to respond to that.
Like the other day I was talking about the importance of Christians showing mercy and making radical sacrifices to serve the poor and someone asked me about the difference between Christians making these kinds of radical sacrifices and someone like Oprah Winfrey or even you know what is going on with American Idol and someone like Simon Cowell.
Sometimes I think Christians see people like that with an interest in helping the poor and they kind of think to themselves, then what is it about our service to the poor that makes it distinct? Why should we be as interested in it?
I am finding a whole lot of help in responding to those kinds of questions through wading my way through Edwards.
On the more positive side, one of the things these kinds of actions do is demonstrate that no matter how much people deny it there are actions that are truly beautiful, morally beautiful across the board. While people so desperately want to be moral relativists, in their gut, they can’t.
I think we as Christians can look at the action on the surface and when asked, really use the action itself as a reminder not of the good that is man but the fact that God has made it clear to everyone that there is such a thing as good.
Still and perhaps this sounds a bit more negative, yet I think it is important, we can go on and call on people to make sure they think carefully about what it means for something to be truly good.
Most people will admit that there are certain actions that appear beautiful on the surface but are not really beautiful when you examine them more carefully.
If I give you five hundred dollars that action in and of itself may appear good. And if you just look at it by itself you might go away saying I have truly been virtuous. But if you look more closely and discover that the reason I gave you five hundred dollars was to manipulate you into doing something that I wanted you to do, that changes the way you understand the action.
It’s kind of like if you are listening to a three year old play the piano. They may accidentally hit some notes that sound right every now and then and if all you heard were those notes then you would say that note was very nice, but when you put it together with all the others, you can’t say the piece as a whole was actually beautiful in and of itself.
All that to say when people start asking about how God can judge good people who do such good things we should carefully and lovingly call on them to think more specifically about what it is that actually is good. (Edwards by the way defines virtue as “benevolence to being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in general good will.”) And I think you can find some helpful, logical, reasoned ways of doing that in Edwards book on The Nature of True Virtue. I want to write a little more about this, but time, time, time. You know how it goes.
Plus, you know two side benefits are that it will make you so thankful for Christ because you realize how much you desperately need His righteousness and it will clearly demonstrate to you that without the work of God in your heart, you are totally depraved. (Which actually I think is part of the reason Edwards wrote the book – it was part of a series of books in which he was showing the foolishness of Arminianism.)