If We are Sinful, How Can We be Capable of Doing Good?

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on sin. You can also read Part 1 and Part 3. The prompt given was “if we are sinful, how can we be capable of doing good?”. Submitted May 2016.

In order to answer this question, we must first define the terms used. What does it mean to be sinful? And what does it mean to do good? The popular understanding of the term “sinful” implies that one does bad things, which necessarily precludes the idea of “doing good”. I contend that this isn’t an accurate understanding of sin.

Sin is wilful rebellion against God and His intentions for humanity. To see sin as merely an act is to take a very shallow and superficial view of it. Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:28 that the thoughts of the heart are just as sinful as the actions of the body.

I like to think of sin in terms of the Anglican prayers of preparation and of repentance. Once we have heard the two commandments, we pray, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden…” A few minutes later, we also pray, “I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and in what I have failed to do…”

This is a very powerful statement on the nature of sin. It makes explicit that sin begins with the thoughts, and progresses to our words and deeds (or lack thereof). It reminds us that God doesn’t look at our actions, but at the thoughts and intentions behind those actions.

So, if we are sinful, how are we capable of doing good? The sin occurs in the thoughts behind the deed, and not in the deed itself. Many deeds that we see as “sins” are merely consequences of the thoughts. We might perform a deed which would be seen externally – by other humans – as being a good thing. We might do great things to help others. But our intention behind doing them – even if we are not aware of it – is never entirely altruistic. We always have thoughts of what we might gain from what we are doing, and these thoughts of benefits to the self provide, to a great or lesser extent, the motivation for performing any deed.

God, unlike other humans, sees not just our actions but the intentions behind those actions; our hearts are open books to him, and he knows our desires and sees our secrets, even the ones we hide from ourselves. While we might do good things, and we might think we are doing them for pure reasons, we will always “fall short of the mark”, to use a somewhat more literal translation of the Hebrew verb CTA (“to sin”). Thus, even though humans are capable of doing good in relation to other human beings, we cannot live up to God’s standards.

Sermon Manuscript – 1 Peter 2:11-17

One of my subjects this last term was “Introduction to Preaching”, which culminates in a 20-25-minute sermon based on an assigned passage from 1 Peter. I’m still not entirely down with the idea of women preaching, so all the girls in the class are going tomorrow morning in order to avoid having to preach to men, and I wrote this mostly aimed at teenage girls anyway. This is the full manuscript for my sermon (we’re allowed one A4 page of notes – this is about six pages) and works out to about 18 minutes, so I suppose I’m going to have to ad-lib a bit.

Christians should behave well in a world where they are like foreigners by respecting others and doing good works, so that unbelievers will be able to speak against them, come for faith, and glorify God.

Have you ever felt like you don’t fit in because you’re a Christian?

Perhaps you feel like you don’t fit in at school. At lunch-time, the bell goes, and you head outside with your lunch box and sit down, you say grace to yourself and you get weird looks. Have you ever felt really upset about something and wanted to ask for prayer, but caught yourself just in time when you realised the teacher wasn’t a Christian? Have you ever sat with your friends and listened to them talk about what they did over the weekend and felt different just because your weekend was so unlike theirs?

Perhaps you’re in senior school or in uni, and you’re the only Christian you know there. You have very different opinions to your classmates about a lot of things. You’re never sure how to react when gay rights come up, because you don’t want to offend anyone – or have to deal with the consequences of having your opinion known. You have a teacher who makes no secret of his political opinions, or classmates who just assume everyone thinks as they do.

Perhaps you have a part-time job, maybe as a check-out chick or a waitress. You work in a secular environment. People have strong opinions, and they don’t always match up with yours.

Well, you’re not the first person to feel like this. In fact, Christians have felt like outsiders and aliens in the world for two thousand years. In fact, sometimes the Christians in the early church actually referred to themselves as “pilgrims” and “sojourners”, as aliens in the places they lived.

The letter we’re looking at today was written to Christians living in what is now Turkey, about fifty years after Jesus died. Turkey, which was called Asia Minor back then, was part of the Roman Empire, and they spoke Greek. Some of the Christians were Jews, but others were Gentiles, and most of them probably grew up in that area even before they became Christians. But as Christians, everyone around them knew they were different, and they were a bit suspicious and even tried to attack them for it sometimes.

This letter was written during the time when a man called Nero was the emperor. If you’ve watched Horrible Histories – or even if you haven’t – you’ve probably heard of Nero. He was the crazy one who thought he was a great musician and ended up committing suicide. The Great Fire of Rome happened during his reign, and most historians agree that he probably started it in order to clear land for palaces for himself. But it was a disastrous event, and Nero blamed the Christians for it. After all, the Christians were a little weird. People would probably believe that they burnt Rome down.

So the early Christians were living in a society which thought they were pretty weird, and everyone knew they were different. And that’s when Peter wrote to these Christians to encourage them while they felt like they didn’t fit in and that they were hated, and to help them know how to behave.

Let’s read some of what he said. Please turn to One Peter, chapter two, verses eleven to seventeen. It’s just a little book, right at the back of your Bible. If you can find Hebrews, you’re almost there. It’s Hebrews, James, and One Peter. Or you can flip from the back. Revelation is the last book, and then there are four really little books beginning with J – a letter from Jude and three letters from John – and then the two letters from Peter. You need One Peter, chapter two, verses eleven to seventeen. You can follow along as I read it out.

Beloved, I beg you, as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.

Therefore, submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.

For this is the will of God, that by doing good, you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.

Honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

I don’t know how many of you, like me, grew up listening to and singing Colin Buchanan’s songs. One of them is called “Passing Through”, and the chorus says:

Passing through, passing through on the way to heaven;
Don’t let this old world get its grip on you,
God’s children are only passing through.

The first verse in this passage, verse eleven, calls Christians “sojourners” and “pilgrims”. Now “sojourners” is a bit of a long word, but it basically means a traveller – someone who’s just visiting, maybe for a while, but not indefinitely. As Colin says, this means we’re not here for good; we’re just passing through the world on our way to our home in heaven. We shouldn’t let this world get its grip on us, and tempt us to give up our home in heaven in order to fit in here. We should behave well, rather than sinking to the level the world wants us to behave.

But why should be behave well? I mean, we’re here in the world at the moment; surely it would make sense to make the most of that? After all, we’re saved and going to heaven one day, why not just enjoy ourselves while we’re here?

Well, Peter gives us a couple of reasons why. In his letter to the early Christians who are just “passing through” a pagan world, he tells them two reasons they should behave well among everyone who doesn’t believe in Christ.

The first reason Christians should behave well around non-Christians is because then people won’t be able to speak badly about them.

In verse twelve, Peter says that “when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by observing your good works, glorify God”. He says something similar in verse fifteen; “by doing good, you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men”. If you behave well, people won’t be able to say bad things about you. When they try to say something nasty about you, it will end up saying something good about you and praising God.

For example, if you’re at school, and your classmates are making fun of another pupil. You know that you shouldn’t because it’s a bad thing to do, but maybe you don’t realise it’s happening. You’re just having a conversation and someone says something as a joke. Maybe, you know, “Katie’s such a ranger”, and everyone agrees, including you, because she really does have red hair. But then others start making comments, too, and they get more and more hurtful. “Her hair glows in the dark”. “She washes her hair in carrots”. It would be easy to get caught up in it.

But then maybe you stop yourself. You think, “No, this isn’t nice. I won’t talk about Katie like this.” So you stop, and you walk away. Perhaps you even defend her, or ask your friends to stop saying these things. When Katie goes and tells the teacher about it, she says who was doing it, and your classmates will be able to say, “Then she said, then he said, and then she said we should stop.” They can try to incriminate you, and say you were in the group, but when they talk about what you did, it will just end up showing something good.

So Peter tells us that we as Christians should behave well around non-Christians because then when people speak badly about us, it will just end up glorifying God. That’s one reason to behave well. But here’s another one. Peter tells us that not only will people be unable to say bad things about God because of your good behaviour, but they might actually come to believe in Him because of it! That’s right, if you act in a way that glorifies God, you might lead people to Christ without even saying anything!

That’s two reasons Christians should behave well around non-Christians. One is that when they try to say bad things about you, there will only be good things and they’ll just end up bringing glory to God. The second is that non-Christians might be able to see God in your actions and come to Him through seeing what you do.

So, we’ve seen now why Christians should behave well as they live in this society they don’t really fit in with, but how can they do that? How could a Christian behave honourably in the world? What can a Christian do to point others to God with their life? Let’s look at two things you can do to live out your faith.

The first thing you can do is to respect others. I’m sure you’ve heard people tell you to be more respectful before. Your parents have probably told you to respect your elders. But let’s take a quick look at what Peter says about it, in verses thirteen and fourteen:

Therefore, submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.

And he says it again in verse seventeen:

Honour all people… Honour the king.

We were talking about being at school before, and how easy it is to get caught up in what everyone else is saying. You can end up bullying someone because you get caught up in the crowd. But what if that person’s a teacher? At recess, you’re sat around with your friends, and one of them says, “Don’t you think Mrs. Jones is annoying? She has such an awful voice. She talks through her nose.”

That might be true. It probably is true. But should you agree? Is it really honouring and respecting the teacher to say that about her?

The Bible says that the authorities that exist are appointed by God. That’s in Romans chapter thirteen. When we submit ourselves to people in authority, we’re doing it for God’s sake, because he appointed those people.

Do you remember when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister? I’m sure you do. It wasn’t very long ago. She came and visited a primary school near here. She says she grew up in Adelaide, actually. Anyway, she’s a ranger, too, like the girl in the story before. Lots of people like to make fun of her for various things. The way she spoke, and the way she acted, her nose and the ever-changing shade of her hair.

I’m not sure anyone really disliked Julia Gillard herself, but they certainly liked to make fun of her. But it doesn’t matter what you think about a politician or a teacher or a pastor or anyone personally, they’re still deserving of your respect. God has put them in that role, and we should respect their position and respect them just as we would respect someone sent by God.

When you’re at school, you should respect your teachers and not speak badly about them, but do what they ask you to do in the classroom. Likewise, at work, you shouldn’t ignore what your boss tells you and complain about him behind his back. If you tell your boss you’re going to have something done by Tuesday, you should do your best to honour that commitment and have it done by Tuesday. That’s just sensible.

So part of respecting other people, part of living out your faith as a Christian in this world, is to respect people in authority. But what about other people? Is it only those in authority or those older than you that you should be nice to?

Not according to Peter. In verse seventeen, he tells us to honour all people. He also tells us to keep our conduct honourable, in verse twelve, and to do good, in verse fifteen. We should respect everyone and treat them well, even if they’re younger than us, or different to us, or even if we just don’t like them.

I’ve been reading from the New King James version, which uses the word “ordinance” in verse thirteen. It tells us to submit to every “ordinance of man”. But other translations say “institution” or even “authority”. The Greek word used is “κτίσις”, which can also mean “creation”. We’re to submit to every created institution we make, or to honour promises and commitments.

When I Googled “honouring commitments”, one of the first links that appeared was “How to Salvage the Lost Art of Honouring Commitments”. Now, I think that’s something of an over-dramatic look at how much people keep their word in today’s society, but it should serve as a good reminder to us that something as simple as keeping our promises and honouring commitments can be quite a good witness.

Honouring commitments is a good way of respecting other people. Here in a university setting, we often find ourselves having to work in groups to complete a project for one class or another. With a lot of assignments due each week, it’s easy to put off work for a larger project, but when you’re working in a group, that’s no so good. You might procrastinate your part in the assignment until the end of the week, because that’s when it’s due, but actually, someone else in the group is waiting for it so they can move on to the next part of theirs. By not honouring our commitments and keeping up our side of the bargain, we’ve let people down, and that’s neither respecting them nor providing a good witness as a Christian.

So now we’ve looked at one thing you as a Christian can do to behave honourably. You can respect other people. You can respect authority and you can respect any commitments you make. Here’s another thing you can do to show your difference and your faith to the world. You can do good things.

Well, naturally, I hear you tell me. Everyone should do good things. You probably already know that it’s nice when people do good things, but unfortunately, people don’t as often as they should. In verse 15, Peter tells us why we should do good things:

For this is the will of God, that by doing good, you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.

He’s given us two reasons to do good things there. We’ve already discussed the first one earlier. When you behave well, you’re nice to people and you help them, they won’t be able to say bad things about you. But what about the other one? Why should we do good things? Because it’s the will of God.

Here’s an example. Remember earlier, when I was talking about the kids at school making fun of a girl with red hair? Perhaps instead of just leaving, or just saying that you shouldn’t be making fun of her, perhaps you could go and stand with her. You could say, “Hey, Katie, how about we go and sit near the mulberry tree and eat there?” You’ll probably make a new friend, and people definitely won’t be able to say you were part of the bullying.

What about that kid at school who never has lunch? She’s a bit of a bogan, and no-one really hangs out with her because she’s a bit weird, but when the eating bell goes and you go outside, she never has a sandwich. You could share yours with her; maybe ask your mum to make extra to share. You know what the Bible says, “I was hungry, but you did not feed me”. Jesus fed the hungry; and God wants you to do the same.

It’s probably easier to follow Jesus’ lead in feeding the hungry and helping the needy when we’re not in school anymore. There are lots of things adults can do, like donate money, or help out at shelters, or get involved in social justice groups. Some like to make a big fuss out of it, and they probably don’t need to. You don’t need lots of attention in order to do something good. That’s not the point of doing it.

The point of doing good things is to serve God and to serve His people. Jesus saw where there was need and worked to fix that without drawing attention to himself. In fact, sometimes he asked his disciples not to talk about it because he didn’t want the attention! But there are lots of ways you can serve people and do good things for them.

Recently, I was at the supermarket, and as I was heading in, I noticed an old lady coming the other way with a shopping trolley. Now, where I live, it can be pretty slopey, so pushing a shopping trolley along a footpath isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, particularly if it’s a full trolley and you’re a little old lady. Her trolley was rolling off to the side, and she was struggling to control it.

I stopped to help get the trolley back onto the footpath and straighten it out. I thought it was only natural; wouldn’t anyone do the same? But the old lady was very grateful. Apparently, not many people would stop to help an old person out on the street. Sometimes it’s not hard to do things for people. Helping that old lady with the trolley took less than a minute, but it meant so much to her.

But sometimes it’s difficult to do good things. You might be tired, or you don’t like someone, or maybe it’s just easier to do something else. After all, no-one’s forcing us to do good things. We’re all free to do what we want.

And that’s just what Peter says in verse 16. Let’s read verses 15 and 16 one after the other:

For this is the will of God, that by doing good, you may put silence to the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.

I mentioned earlier Colin Buchanan’s song “Passing Through”. In the third verse, the song says:

Fix your eyes on Jesus; He frees us from death and sin!
When this world is long gone, we’ll live on to worship Him.

That’s what these verses are saying. Our faith in God and in Jesus has freed us from death and from sin and from the ways of the world. That’s what “liberty” means: “freedom”. Because of God, we have freedom.

But we shouldn’t just use our freedom for whatever we like. Peter says earlier in this letter that God has chosen us, and that the reason we are chosen is so we can praise God. Colin says the same thing in the song: we’re living now to worship God.

And, in using our freedom to worship God, we’re serving him. We’re doing what God wants, and what God wants us to do is to do good things.

People at school think you’re a bit weird, because you hang out with Katie, the girl they tease, and you talk to bogans, and you share your food. They’re not quite sure what to make of the way you behave. The teachers probably like it, though – after all, they’re always telling you about caring and sharing and not bullying. And they think to themselves, “Why is that girl so different? Why does she never tease others, why does she help them out when all the other kids couldn’t care less?”

Perhaps someone will ask you one day; maybe a teacher, maybe another student, and they’ll ask you, “Why do you share your lunch with Ellen?” or “How come you don’t say nasty things when you get teased?” And you’ll be able to say, “Jesus said to help people who need it”, or “God wants us to love and respect everyone.” And by having done good things for people, you have an opportunity to tell someone about God.

So maybe you don’t fit in. You don’t quite fit in at your school, among your friends, or at uni, among your classmates, or at work, among your colleagues. You’re a Christian, and you don’t quite fit in to the world.

But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe you can use your differentness for God. Maybe, by being different, you can make people sit up and take notice and go, “Hey, she’s different. She’s not quite like us. She’s honest and respectful and she looks out for others. Maybe there’s something to her God after all.”

Being different isn’t a bad thing. The Bible tells us that we’re God’s own special people, set aside for a special purpose, and that that purpose is to worship Him. We’re not here for good, and we shouldn’t let ourselves get sucked into all the things the world tempts us with.

In fact, instead of giving into the world and doing what everyone else does, we should try even harder to be good. In the time of the early church, the people around were suspicious of Christians and liked to blame them for things that went wrong. People are still like that today, and we should behave well around non-Christians, because then they won’t be able to speak badly about us or accuse us of things. In fact, when they try to say we’ve done something bad, they’ll just end up glorifying God because there won’t be anything bad to talk about! When non-Christians see Christians acting in a way which brings glory to God, they might even come to Christ.

But it’s not easy enough just to say “Christians should behave well and do good things”. That’s a bit ambiguous. Thankfully, in his letter, Peter has given us a few ways we could do this. The first is respecting others. Christians should respect authority, even secular authority, and Christians should respect other people. Part of respecting other people is to respect any commitments you make to them. We should respect and honour everyone, regardless of whether we like them or they like us. The first thing Peter says Christians can do to live honourably is to respect and be nice to others.

The second thing Peter tells us we can do is more practical. He tells us we should do good things. In fact, Peter tells us it’s God’s will for us to do good things, because people can’t speak badly about someone who’s doing good things. God has freed us, through Jesus, from sin and from death and from the ways of the world, and we should use that freedom to serve Him and do good things for others.

If you’re a Christian, you don’t fit in, because you’re not part of the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.