“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17)

I was riding along in a car with three other men on our way to visit a prison. As we drove along, the conversation turned to a man whose name was all over the news that day. This man had been convicted of murder a few years earlier. It had been an unusual case, a sensational case.

The convicted man had been a prominent businessman in his community. He and the victim had been close friends and hunting companions. No murder weapon had been found. In fact, no body had been found. Some wondered whether the alleged murder victim was really even dead. What if he had simply disappeared and started a new life somewhere else? The murder charge and conviction rested largely on DNA tests from a few tiny traces of blood and tissue that had been found in the accused man’s trailer.

The man denied the killing again and again, and it was hard not to believe him. The men riding with me had personally talked with this man a number of times, and they couldn’t help wondering whether he was really guilty. “He is such a nice guy!” they said.

But the events of the past few days had laid any remaining doubts to rest. A makeshift bomb had been found near the office of the prison warden, and it was traced back to this particular man. To avoid being charged, the man cut a deal. He would help police find the murder weapon and the body of the victim if they would agree not to press charges related to the bomb. The police agreed. Just the day before my conversation with my companions, the man led the police to the exact spot where he had buried the body and the gun. He was a nice guy, all right!

A bit later one of my friends in the car mentioned someone else who had been having some brushes with the law. He mentioned that this man had left his first wife, and then had a series of live-in girlfriends–usually he would live at their place and at their expense. However, none of that seemed to bother his first wife. She would still help him out with money and let him stay at her house from time to time. She explained, “He was never mean to me. He’s always nice.” My friend said to her, “What do you mean, he’s nice? He breaks his promises, he abandons you and the kids, he runs around with other women, he gets into trouble, he mooches off of you, and you say he’s nice?!”

After that the conversation shifted to another person they were working with. Once again, the person’s life was all messed up–he had been beating his wife–and once again, my companions mentioned how nice and friendly this man seemed whenever they talked with him.

I said to them, “This is fascinating. We’ve talked about a murderer, and you tell me how nice he is. We’ve talked about a troublemaker who abandons his children and hops from woman to woman, and his ex-wife says how nice he is. We’ve talked about a guy who hits his wife, and you tell me what a nice guy he is too. Hey, guys! Nice is not enough!”

Now, the men I was with didn’t need me to tell them that. They knew it better than I did. They were seasoned Christians and long-time veterans of working with people who have big problems and do bad things. But it was still striking how the word “nice” kept coming up over and over again in connection with people who had done some mighty nasty things. Nice is not enough.

Aren’t We All Nice?

Sometimes I’m amazed at how people who do rotten things can think of themselves as nice people and convince others to think they’re nice. But why should I be amazed? Some of them are “nice.” They may not be good, but they’re “nice.” They smile, they’re fun to talk to, and for the most part, they’re pleasant to be around. Just because they do some terrible things doesn’t mean they don’t have a sunny side to their personality.

And let’s be honest. Just about all of us, even those who are almost impossible to live with, still think we’re pretty nice. One survey of almost a million grade 12 students included a question about their ability to get along with others. 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent. How many rated themselves below average in their ability to get along with others? Zero percent! Every teenager alive is easier to get along with than the average person? Zero percent are difficult to get along with. Amazing, isn’t it, how much trouble that zero percent can cause! At any rate, teens aren’t the only ones who think they’re nicer than average. I’m a nicer than average, and I’m sure you are too. We’re all nicer than average–or so with think.

But somehow in this wonderful wave of universal niceness, we’ve got big problems. We’re all being as nice as anybody could reasonably expect us to be, and yet people are getting hurt, homes are falling apart, prisons are filling up, and lives are being ruined. What’s going on? How can this happen in a world full of such nice people? Either that nasty zero percent of the population is doing a lot of damage, or else the other 100 percent of us need something more than shallow niceness.

If niceness were enough, and if we were all as nice as we think we are, then there would have been no need for Jesus to come to die for us. We’d all be good enough the way we are, or at least we’d be able to become good enough if we just worked harder at being nicer. But the fact is that nice is not enough.

Jesus did have to die. Otherwise nobody could be accepted by God. We needed Jesus to die in order to atone for our sins–which means he had to suffer the penalty our sins deserve. We’re helpless to save ourselves. So the Son of God, out of his great love, came to earth, lived in perfect obedience to God’s law, and took on himself the penalty of suffering which we could never pay. Jesus endured God’s wrath and a bloody death, not because we are such nice people, but because we’re not.

“Guilty, helpless, vile were we, sinless Lamb of God was he. Full atonement–can it be? Hallelujah! What a Savior!” Those words from an old hymn express why Jesus died. Nowadays, though, we don’t like to be called guilty, helpless, and vile. And the word atonement–blood payment for sin–sounds like primitive nonsense. This is what we think when our idea of morality is some vague niceness and our idea of God is some vaguely tolerant “nice guy in the sky.” But we’ll never understand the cross of Christ unless we come to terms with the righteousness of God.

Righteousness Required

The word “righteousness” isn’t very popular. Nice is much nicer. “Nice” is such a comforting word–so general, so vague. “Righteousness” is too firm for our liking, too definite. It deals with clear instructions and commands from God; it lays out a definite path to follow–and that disturbs us.

A newspaper columnist blasts churches that make a big deal of doctrines and commandments. He grew up in a strict religious setting, he says, but he’s not part of any organized religion anymore. He’s fed up with hearing churches talk about grim doctrines like original sin and grim events like crucifixion. He’s sick of churches that seemed eager to oppose heresy and false teaching. He’s tired of churches saying “Do this” and “Don’t do that” and meddling in people’s personal affairs and telling them how to live. Why can’t the church stop being so strict and narrow? Why can’t the church just be nice?

This columnist claims that although he isn’t part of any organized religion, he still believes what he calls “the original teachings of Jesus, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.” If churches would stop talking about sin and about sacrifices to pay for sin, if they would stop pushing their morality, and if they would just stay focused on the wonderful things Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, we’d all be better off, this writer says. His favorite part of the Sermon on the Mount is the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Now, I can sympathize with some of what this man is saying. Churches do indeed have too many arguments and conflicts. Churches can indeed be cold, harsh, and legalistic. No doubt we should all be kinder than we are. And I certainly agree that the Golden Rule is a great guide for living.

But what does the Golden Rule really mean? Does it mean that as long as we try to be nice, as long as we let everybody have their way, everything will be fine? This writer wants a religion where pretty much anything goes, and yet he says he likes the Sermon on the Mount. I can’t help wondering whether he’s read the Sermon on the Mount. He seems to think that once you know the Golden Rule, you should throw out every other rule.

But that’s not what Jesus says. Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

This is hardly a policy of “anything goes.” Jesus doesn’t sound like he wants to do away with every rule. He doesn’t sound as if he just wants us to work a little harder at being nice.

As the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus corrects a number of misunderstandings that people have about God’s law recorded in Old Testament Scripture. He doesn’t throw out God’s law or make it less specific; instead, he applies the commands and shows their fuller, deeper meaning. Jesus says not only that murder is wrong but also that anger and insults can put a person in danger of hell. He says not only that it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage but that it’s adultery even to lust after someone else. Jesus says that if you think divorce is okay as long as you go through the proper paperwork, think again. Even if divorce is legal, it’s still wrong. It’s an act of adultery, unless the other person has already adulterated the relationship. Jesus also speaks against every kind of swearing, and he says that swearing comes from the evil one (see Matthew 5:21-37). Those statements of Jesus are small comfort if you dislike hearing any specifics about righteousness and if you like to think of the Sermon on the Mount as a vague encouragement to some kind of general niceness.

Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states the Golden Rule, but he doesn’t use it to dispense with the Law. Quite the opposite. “So in everything,” says Jesus, “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Jesus doesn’t say the Golden Rule replaces or eliminates the Law and the prophets; he says it sums up the Law and the prophets.

If you want a nice religion so broad and vague that people of every religion–and no religion at all–can agree with it, don’t read the Sermon on the Mount. For in that sermon Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

If you want to agree with everybody, if you never want to think of anyone as a heretic or false prophet, don’t read the Sermon on the Mount. For in that sermon Jesus says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

If you want a religion where everybody goes to heaven automatically, don’t read the Sermon on the Mount. For in that sermon Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Jesus adds that those who don’t build their lives on his words are like a foolish man who builds his life on sand and then has it collapse in a storm, because it has no foundation (7:24-27.

Lip Service

The Sermon on the Mount is not a vague charter for niceness, and neither is the rest of the Bible. The reason so many of us don’t understand why nice is not enough is that far too many of us are simply not listening to Jesus or to his Word. We’re on the wrong road, we don’t have a solid foundation, and we hide this fact from ourselves by believing in a vague, general religion and a vague, general niceness. We know that Jesus died, but we don’t really have a clue why, or what his death has to do with us. We claim to believe the Bible, and yet we don’t know what it says, and we don’t build our lives on it.

In one survey, ten percent of the people thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! They don’t know their Bible or their history. Noah built an ark; he didn’t marry an Arc. Joan died in a fire; she wasn’t saved from a flood. Such an error may seem comical, and it only affects 10 percent of the people, but it’s part of a problem that’s more serious and more widespread: the problem of not knowing God’s Word or how it applies to us.

The same survey found that the vast majority of people say they believe the Bible and believe Jesus is God’s Son, and 85 percent agree that Jesus was born of a virgin. I’m glad they believe those things. But the majority of these same people also believe that sex before marriage is okay– even though the Bible plainly says it isn’t. Although they believe Jesus was born of a virgin, they refuse to believe that God requires them to be virgins before marriage and to be faithful within marriage. They claim to believe the Bible, but either they don’t know it, or they reject what it says when it applies to their life.

That kind of religion is empty lip service. As Jesus himself put it, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).

Too many of us believe God created the world the way we believe Edison invented the light bulb. He did it, but so what? We’re glad to have a world, just as we’re glad to have light bulbs, but we’re no more eager to know God than to know Edison.

Too many of us believe the Bible is true the way we believe an encyclopedia is true. It contains lots of information, and it’s generally correct information, but so what? We’re no more eager to read the Bible than to read through an encyclopedia.

Too many of us believe Jesus died the way we believe Abraham Lincoln died. He was a great man, and some bad guys plotted against him and killed him, but so what? We don’t believe Jesus died to pay for our sins, any more than we believe Lincoln died to pay for our sins.

What it all comes down to is this: far too many of us don’t really take God seriously, and we don’t take his righteousness seriously. We ignore the Law and the Prophets, so we don’t know what righteousness is or why it matters. Instead, we think of God as “the nice guy in the sky,” and we measure ourselves and others in terms of general, shallow niceness.

But nice is not enough. Righteousness is what counts. Righteousness matters more than anything. That’s a recurring theme in the Sermon on the Mount. Already in the fourth sentence of the sermon, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6) A bit later comes the statement: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Even in the part of the Sermon where Jesus talks about dealing with worry, he says, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

God’s Indispensable Law

Nice is not enough. Righteousness is what we need. We can’t dispense with the law of God or declare it irrelevant.

One purpose of God’s law is to restrain wickedness, even in people who don’t love God at all. Just knowing that there are definite standards of right and wrong, and punishments for those who violate that standard, helps to restrain sin in some cases. However, when we sentimentalize God, ignore his Law, and forget his righteousness, we no longer feel the pain of conscience or the fear of punishment, and all restraint is gone. We sin and we don’t feel too bad about it. We meet people who violate all sorts of divine laws, and conclude that they’re still pretty “nice.” We end up with a society of nice liars, nice adulterers, nice cussers, nice drunkards, nice drug addicts, nice thieves, nice baby aborters, nice AIDS transmitters, nice wife beaters, nice murderers. That’s what happens when we have no standard beyond a phony niceness. God’s law no longer restrains evil.

Another purpose of God’s law is to drive us to Christ. The Law shatters my illusions and shows me my sin, and thus it shows me why I need Jesus and his death on my behalf. I can’t hear the Ten Commandments, and I certainly can’t hear the Sermon on the Mount, without realizing how often I break God’s law and how miserably I fail to be righteous. If I’m to have any hope of eternal life, I need a righteousness that is not my own but that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the righteous life I could not live and died the death I deserved to die. He did all this so that God could declare me righteous and so that, with the help of his Spirit, I might meet the righteous requirements of God’s law (see Romans 8:1-4). Nice is not enough. I need the righteousness that comes only through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

And once I trust the Savior, nice is still not enough. I need God’s Word to guide me each step of the way. I no longer live under the Law, in the sense that I have to be perfect or perish. I no longer live under the penalty for breaking the law. But I do need God’s law revealed in the Bible to show me how to live as a child of God. In need God’s law impressed on my heart by the Spirit of Christ. Without knowing God’s law, I may think that as long as I’m a nice guy, I’m pleasing God. But all of us, even those of us who truly love God, are so good at fooling ourselves–we all think we’re nicer than average–that we need clear guidance on what displeases God and hurts others, and on what pleases God and helps others. God’s law provides the guidance we need.

I’m all in favor of niceness–if it means true kindness and doing the right thing in love. But the way we use the word nice these days, nice is not enough. I need righteousness. You need righteousness. We all need righteousness. That’s why Jesus came and died for us. That’s why we need to put our faith in him. That’s why, with his help, we need to do what he tells us in his Word. Nice is not enough.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.