In the introduction to this series, we discussed our culture’s understanding of greatness, which tends to focus on the quality of a man’s profession but not on the quality of a man’s character. What we are after in this series is what it means for the whole man to be great, not just one aspect of his life.
Of course, we are assuming that man’s pursuit of greatness is virtuous, but this assumption is only true if we have a correct definition of what it means to be great. The pursuit of greatness will be a self-destructive endeavor of pride, vanity, and selfish ambition if greatness is not seen exclusively in light of the greatest man who has ever lived, Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must look at the person and teachings of Jesus if we are to understand how to become great men.
The Necessity of Goodness for Greatness
Our starting point will determine what results from our pursuit of greatness, so we must consider where to begin. In Scripture, it seems that the starting point of greatness is the character of a man, his goodness. It is not just about what a man can accomplish, but is also, and more so, about who a man is. We are often concerned with the former to the neglect of the latter.
In the recent film, Oz, The Great and Powerful, there is an exchange between Oz and his childhood friend Annie that reflects this attitude. She tells Oz, who is a notorious swindler and womanizer, that he could become a good man if he wanted to. Oz responds: “Kansas is full of good men, but I don’t want to be a good man: I want to be a great one.”
What Oz doesn’t understand is that a man cannot be great unless he is first good. A man’s greatness is contingent upon his goodness.
As we look at the person of Jesus Christ, we see that his goodness is the foundation for all he does. All of Jesus’ claims, teachings, miracles, and work on the cross would be all for naught if he were not perfect and without sin. His greatness is dependent upon his goodness, and because he is completely, absolutely, exclusively good, all that he does is good.
The implication of this reality is striking: all that a man does flows out of who he is. Therefore, we can conclude that the goodness of a man will ultimately determine his greatness.
God’s standard of goodness is Jesus, who lived a sinless, perfect life. As God himself commanded us, “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev 11:44). The bar is set infinitely high, which is discouraging news for the finite man.
This leaves us with a burning question: how can a man be good?
Attaining the Goodness of God
The answer to this question is the Gospel.
The Gospel begins with the reality that all men have sinned (Rom 3:23), which means all men are dead, evil, and enemies of God (Eph 2:1–3). Isaiah 64:6 teaches us that even the best attempts at virtue, goodness, and character development are ultimately filthy rags in the eyes of God. However, God the Father sent his Son to make right that which went wrong because of sin. Jesus Christ, being fully God and fully man, lived a sinless, perfect life and took on the penalty for man’s sin by dying on the cross. On the third day, he rose again from the dead, defeating death and conquering man’s enslavement to sin. Man can now be “good” by grace through faith. 2 Corinthians 5:21 is crucial to understanding what was accomplished by Jesus: “For our sake he made him who knew no sin to become sin so that in him we might become the righteousness [i.e., the ‘goodness’] of God.”
In regard to our discussion, greatness starts with who a man is in relation to God. God will not consider a man great if he is not good, and a man cannot be good unless he is in Christ. Ultimately, Jesus is the key to the greatness of every man because he is the key to goodness. Trying to be great apart from Christ is as futile as trying to breathe without oxygen.
Sanctification: Growing in Goodness
Though a man becomes righteous by grace through faith in Christ, he still needs to undergo the process of spiritual maturation. This process is called sanctification. We will never attain perfection in this life, but we must be ever aiming for the life of perfection modeled by Christ (1 Pet 2:21-24). God is calling all men who have faith in Christ to live in such a way that they reflect the goodness Christ has achieved for them.
So, how do we grow in goodness?
First, we must kill the vices in our life. We are commanded to “put to death what is earthly” in us and to “put off the old self with its practices” (Col 3:5, 9). All our evil practices (lust, pride, covetousness, idolatry) must continually be killed. Sin keeps a man from being great. Therefore, a man must have a lifestyle of destroying any habit that harms his character and dishonors God.
Second, we must build virtue in our life. We are commanded to put on the practices (faith, purity, love) that reflect the new life we have in Christ (Col 3:10). Virtues are lifelong disciplines that must continually be cultivated. Therefore, we must engage in the exercises, practices, habits, and lifestyles that will help grow our goodness.
Growing in goodness is a two-step process. You cannot just kill sin: you must also pursue virtue. It is as though your continual position on this side of heaven is on an incline. If you are not moving upward, then gravity will push you downward. A man must replace bad habits of vice with good habits of virtue in order to grow.
Spiritual formation and character growth are difficult to appreciate in our society because they do not yield the kind of visible fruit (i.e., results) that people value. But it is important to remember that greatness is in the eyes of the Divine Beholder, Jesus Christ, who is the Judge of the living and the dead. God is not only concerned about what you do, what you are building, or what you are achieving. His primary concern is what he is doing in you, what he is building and achieving: a man who looks like Christ.
Greatness is a life-long journey that starts with goodness that comes through faith in Christ and continues in Spirit-empowered sanctification.