Imagine a drowning man. Head barely above the water, arms flailing, his efforts to reach the shore growing feebler by the minute. You watch, helpless, unable to swim yourself, and discover to your great surprise that one of your friends is standing beside you. An experienced swimmer, he watches calmly as the man begins to sink. You feel your confusion and frustration mounting. What are you doing? Don’t you see this man is drowning? Then, just as the drowning man drops his arms and ceases his yelling, you hear a splash. Strong, swift strokes—and within seconds your friend is gently laying the man down on the shore.
Watchman Nee, one of the most influential Christian labourers for China in the twentieth century, shares this experience in his book The Normal Christian Life. Nee recalls his indignation, and brusquely telling his swimmer friend, “I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do. Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more.” The friend replied: “Had I gone earlier, he would have clutched me so fast that both of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself” (110). Nee tells this story to illustrate a biblical point: Man cannot save himself.
In his article, “So That No Man May Boast,” Danny Sutkowski tackles the question of man’s goodness and its relation to salvation. Where is the place for goodness in the story of the drowning man? Might there be a failure in communication between denominations of the faith during such discussions? Danny addresses these questions helpfully, and in order to understand what follows here, I highly recommend reading his first. In this article, I would like to provide a response from a more Reformed perspective. It is my hope that this article would complement Danny’s and provoke further discussion.
Now, Danny spends a good deal of time clarifying the meaning of the word “good.” Some of this is, I think, unnecessary. If we were to define a “good man” as one good in the eyes of God, I agree entirely that no such man would ever be in hell. But must a Calvinist, being such a one, always define a “good” man as one good in the eyes of men? I see nothing distinctly, fundamentally Calvinist in the usage of the word. That said, I appreciate Danny’s caution. If there is to be any discussion on “the goodness of man, and how that relates to the divine plan of salvation,” we must agree over the meaning of goodness. Accepting Danny’s “objective definition,” that is, good in the eyes of God, we can happily begin to tackle the issue at hand.
“To say a man is good, even if only to a degree, is to undermine the saving power of God and heretical by Calvinist teaching.” I am going to take this statement of Danny’s and make it the jumping-off point of my response. I do this because Danny raises a very important question in the matter of salvation. Is God’s saving power at stake in the way that we have defined the good man? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that Danny’s definition of the “good man” actually underscores and heightens the role of God in salvation. Let’s unpack that idea.
We have agreed that any talk here about the “good man” depends on God’s definition of goodness (i.e., good in God’s eyes). According to this definition, the question we must ask is not whether there will be good people in hell, but whether there are any good people at all! Danny writes, “Anything that is said to be ‘good’ must be good because it is good in the eyes of God. So by this definition, a ‘good’ man is one who obeys and follows the Lord, and, per the message of the Gospel, will achieve salvation.” In saying this, Danny implicitly equates God’s definition of a good man with such a man’s obedience and pursuit of the Lord. Very well—Jesus says something very similar in Matthew 5:19-20: “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (ESV). Alright. The good man must obey all, and his righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Let’s make a simple syllogism and see how our good man will fare in reality:
- All good men obey and follow the Lord.
- No one obeys and follows the Lord.
- Therefore, no one is a good man.
That second statement sounds very familiar. In fact, it’s based on Paul’s letter to the Romans, which quotes the Old Testament psalms:
None is righteous, no not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one. (Romans 3:10-12, ESV)
In an astounding prophecy of the Messiah, Isaiah speaks similarly: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6, ESV). I should, perhaps, amend my previous statement to say that one Man did, in fact, obey and follow God, and that is the Lord Jesus himself. According to the agreed-upon definition, Jesus is the one good Man. We can push this point a bit further. If there were good men in this world, they would go to heaven when they died. Why, then, did Jesus have to come? To save the rest?
Earlier I claimed that our definition of the “good man” actually underscores and heightens God’s role in salvation. I say this because we have seen that under our definition, no one (but Jesus) can stand. This puts the world in a tragic position. If no one is good, if no one seeks for God, if it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, what in heaven are we to do? In the words of the disciples, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25). Jesus replies: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In short, Danny has raised the bar of goodness—indeed, he has raised it to the very level of God! Having fallen short, we depend on the grace of God through faith, and we glory in His utterly sufficient and life-changing salvation.
Now, I want to make clear that I agree with Danny’s statement that man participates “in sanctification” (emphasis added). There is a place for obedience. There is a place for growth. But there is no place for any good man but Jesus. It is here, in particular, that a clarification of my theology would be helpful, because I distinguish sanctification from salvation, while Danny does not seem to. Any further discussion on our role in salvation ought, perhaps, to begin here. I believe that because I could never be good, Jesus lived the only good life in the eyes of His Father, and then died and rose again so I could live in Him. Having been saved by faith, I live in Christ and in such newness of life that I can only respond in love and obedience to the one good Man who saved me.