What does it mean to be a “good Christian?” This is a phrase I occasionally hear in the south, and every time it makes me cringe just a little because it isn’t really clear to me just what it actually means. It seems most often used when someone is publicly declaring why they aren’t going to take part in a particular bad action (“…because I’m a good Christian”). But this seems silly. Why declare that you’re not going to do something you know to be wrong? Why not just silently refrain from doing it? Why distinguish yourself as a “good Christian” as opposed to….the other kind? I suppose the reason this irritates me so much is that it seems to be part of a culture that makes a special effort to project a certain image: that of a “good” person. But the irony of that endeavor is that if one does what they know to be right, their actions will speak for them and they need not bother trying to project an embellished facade.
Besides, one whose motivation for doing good is rooted in a concern for their own image is really no good at all, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” The matter of importance is not the condition of our reputation but that of our heart, and attempts to manufacture our reputation without addressing the condition of our heart is like treating the symptoms before the actual disease. If one’s heart is in Christ, he will, by God’s grace, be compelled to do the good works it is impossible for him to do otherwise. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:26).” Why? Because a true faith in Jesus manifests good works as a result. In this sense, the sense in which the Holy Spirit is at work in us, all Christians are “good,” not by anything wrought of our own hands, but we are made good by the Perfection of the One whom we serve, and the use of the term is, at best, an unnecessary redundancy.
I suppose, however, one must first ask what it means to be a Christian. After all, we’ve seen those with blatantly partitioned lives, who seem to have worked switching between their “good Christian” act and their “bad” act into a science; And if Christianity is based on adhering to a set of rules, then it seems to me that the term “good Christian” is perfectly acceptable, given that some people are better rule-followers than others.
But adhering to a set of rules isn’t Christianity at all: it is Islam (“To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward,” Surah 5:9). By contrast, Paul writes to the church in Galatia: “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Galatians 2:16).” It seems very much the case that many people touting the Christian label, or even the coveted “good Christian” label, are in the practical outworking of their faith much more suitable followers of Allah than of Jesus, trying to check all the appropriate boxes on an exam for entry into heaven we’ve all already failed. The term “good Christian” reeks pungently of legalism, and it comes across to me as an attempt to let others know: “I do bad things, but I’m still a good person (whatever that means); And good people go to heaven.” If good people go to heaven, if good people even exist (Psalm 14:3), then I’ve got the wrong Bible.