Everyone operates with some definition of the word "good." As far as I can tell, such definitions are usually arrived at without explicit thoughtfulness and usually involve moralistic criteria. We think people are basically good if they seem to care a bit about others and minimize expressly harmful activity. So, humanitarians are good and murderers are bad, and people who get a lot of speeding tickets are basically good, if a little rambunctious. But one problem with defining "good" in moralistic categories is that everyone has, at least, slightly different categories. For one person, twenty speeding tickets is heinous; for another, it is not such a big deal.
Defining the good in moralistic terms also makes it difficult for us to understand why the God revealed in Jesus Christ is displeased with those whom we think are basically good but have no faith in Christ. It is hard for us to imagine that God is displeased with an agnostic orphanage worker. But scripture says, "whatever is not from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23). So, if an action does not proceed from faith in Christ, it is sinful and displeasing to God, even humanitarian work. What is going on here?
The problem is our definition of "good." The word should not be primarily defined in terms of morality. As we have seen, this creates a crooked standard. Rather, the "good" should be defined in terms of what is pleasing to God. Romans 8:5-8 is helpful. In these verses, Paul describes the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. "Flesh" is Paul's word for humanity apart from Christ and in sin. "Spirit" describes those who have come to new life in Christ. The flesh and the Spirit are antagonistic and wage war against one another. Ultimately, Paul says, "The mind set on the flesh cannot please God" (8). This means that anyone who is not in Christ and in whom the Spirit of God does not dwell is entirely incapable of pleasing God. He looks upon their works and is displeased, if not angered. Why? Because their works do not proceed from faith in Christ. Their works are not the fruit of his indwelling Spirit. No matter how moral their lives look to us, they are not acting out of love for God in Christ. Thus, they are displeasing to God. They are not good.
This passage helps us as we reorient our definition of "good." Something is good only when it is pleasing to God. It is not the apparent moralism, or lack thereof, that makes something good or bad. It is not apparent altruism or humanitarianism. Goodness depends on whether or not God is pleased. And God is pleased only by the life lived in his Son Jesus Christ.
This makes sense if salvation is only by grace through faith. If God were pleased with works and actions performed by the unregenerate, his approval would not be based on the person and work of Christ but on the morality of our behavior. This makes the cross of Christ unnecessary.
A whole lot more is riding on our definition of "good" than we normally realize. If "good" is to be understood in moralistic terms, then Jesus is unnecessary and the gospel is a sham. Rather, as we evaluate what is good in the world and in our culture, let us evaluate it as God does. Our question should be: Is a particular action the fruit of the Spirit and born of faith in Christ? If so, then it is pleasing to God and good. If not, it is as a filthy rag to him.