Doing Well and Doing Better

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One little way to undergird our efforts to love as we ought is to recognize moral gradations inside the bounds of good and evil. In other words, the Bible teaches that there is evil, and then there is worse evil. And the Bible teaches that there is good, and there is better. Sometimes we lose this perspective because we believe that falling short of perfection is sin. And how can sin be called good?

Perhaps we define perfection differently than God does. Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But Paul said, “He who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better … Let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let them marry” (1 Corinthians 7:38, 36). So you can fall short of doing “better” and still “do well.” So is less than “better” sin in this case? No. Paul explicitly says that doing less than better in this case is “not sin.”

Is less than “better” a falling short of perfection? Probably, if you define “perfection” in absolute terms. But evidently Paul did not think this way. It seems that “perfection” had some room in it. It seems that when there are several options, several may not be sin, even though one may be better than the other. So we must be careful not to overstate the demands of perfection. Even inside perfection, there is good, better, and best.

The same is true of evil. Inside evil there is bad, worse and worst. This is why Jesus ended one of his parables about the end of the age by saying, “That slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few” (Luke 12:47-48). In other words, hell is not a place of invariable suffering. There are gradations of evil and gradations of torment in hell.

But that’s not my main concern here. My concern here is to caution us about over-absolutizing perfection. I have said often that none of us will attain perfection in this life (Philippians 3:12). That is true. And it is comforting that there is always forgiveness for sinners who bank on Jesus. I have also said that there are many gray areas in life where we do not know the ideal course of action and must choose what we hope will do the greatest good, when we are quite unsure. That, too, is true. It is both frustrating and comforting. We must live with ambiguity, and we are relieved of the burden of omniscience.

But now I am saying something different (not contradictory). Not only will we fall short of what is expected of us often in this life, and not only are there gray areas of ambiguity in the choices that we make, but also (this is the new thing), even when we don’t fall short, we may be doing well, better or best—all of which are not sin. In other words, not only are there gray areas between white and black, but there are shades of white inside of white. And the darker shades of white are not sin (1 Corinthians 7:36).

Knowing this, I say, will help us love as we ought. Think about it.

Growing, little by little, with you,

John Piper