Goodness

Preaching and Worship Resources about Goodness

Goodness in Scripture is, first and last, an attribute of God — goodness is not a concept but a quality of the Triune God. Christians can participate in the goodness of God when, having been brought into Christ through baptism, the Holy Spirit provides a living connection to God such that God's goodness overflows into the lives of believers. Note: Christian ethicists sometimes distinguish four senses of the word "good": 1-aesthetic good (something is well-made, beautiful, attractive) 2-moral good (doing an act generally perceived as the right thing to do) 3-saving good (the work of Christ that forgives sins and renews hearts) 4-Christian good (the good works Christians do as a result of union with Christ) "Goodness" as a Christian concept traces all good things back to God alone as the cosmic font of good. God's goodness in this sense is closely linked to God's holiness. Unlike philosophers such as Plato who located "the good" in immaterial forms that exist outside this earthly realm, Christians use God as the standard by which to measure earthly good and moral goodness in its various forms. Goodness shows up in generosity, in kindness, in deeds of mercy, and in helping those who are in distress, because these are all traits of God first of all.

In Scripture

Examples "And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, `The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Ex. 33:19). "Even in their own kingdom, and in the great goodness you bestowed on them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you and did not turn from their wicked works" (Neh. 9:35). "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long" (Ps. 23:6). "A man ran up to [Jesus] and knelt before him, and asked him, `Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' Jesus said to him, `Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone'" (Mark 10:17-18). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law" (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV). "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:3-5).

We can observe from the above that in Scripture, God is goodness personified even as the blessings that come from this God constitute material and moral goodness (God's "goodness" in Canaan was seen in concrete blessings like milk, honey, clean water, good wine). The universe is like a multi-tiered fountain with the goodness of God overflowing down to God's people on earth and from them onto still others. Furthermore, in the New Testament this blessed goodness of God is frequently equated with God's whole reason for launching salvation in Christ in the first place. "Goodness" is sometimes synecdoche for the constellation of God's grace/mercy/compassion/lovingkindness that allowed God to love us and so save us even "while we were yet sinners."

Points to Ponder

As a fruit of the Spirit, goodness is never the achievement of the individual believer. The Greek world attached huge value to arête, to "excellence" and this excellence clung to the great Greek heroes like a badge of honor. Arête was something a person earned through personal valor and courage. But although arête occurs all over the place in secular Greek literature (cf. Homer), the word crops up almost not at all in the New Testament (the Greek agathosune is more common for "goodness"). Where arête is broached (as in 2 Peter 1:3-5) it is connected singularly to Christ. This Christian form of goodness/arête is clearly not a human achievement but a divine gift through participation in Christ. "His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness [arête]. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness [arête]."

Goodness for the Christian, then, is God's grace and mercy flowing through us to others. A good person is a Godly person; the goodness of such a person's actions do not stand apart from God but are of a piece with God. Even our ability to assess something as good (or someone as being full of goodness) depends on our being in touch with God as the standard against which all else is measured.

Philosophically, preachers and others in the church may be aware of the debate — that has raged since the Enlightenment and that has been taken up in more recent times by deep thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Charles Taylor — about whether we can be good without God. Can humans build a concept of goodness — and come to a consensus on what counts as moral goodness — without reference to God? Some Christian thinkers conclude that we cannot be good without God and that if any moral system does succeed at targeting what constitutes goodness and good behavior, that system relies on a residue of knowledge of God whether the architects of the system wish to acknowledge that indebtedness or not. Some even conclude that to remove God from the picture means there is no "bottom line," no sure way to ensure human dignity once and for all.

Goodness and the Triune God Preachers do well to keep the solid connection between goodness (as a fruit of the Spirit) and the Triune God because otherwise sermons on goodness are liable to slip into the moralism of making it sound as though goodness is of human manufacture and that it is, in fact, a Christian's success in generating lots of good behavior that garners the favor of God in the first place. But this reduces God to Santa Claus (it's all about who's naughty or nice "so be good for goodness sake"). Instead we recall C.S. Lewis: "[The Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good but that God will make us good because he loves us" .


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.