The World’s Half-Truths for Teens Pt.5: “I Am Generally Good”

Several years ago, I received a rap on my door at 6:00AM. A sheriff stood on the porch and yelled in my half-asleep face, “Come on out and see what you did last night.” I had taught a Bible study the night before at a local Starbucks and gone to bed at 10:00PM, so I was confused at his proclamation. He pointed out that my car was on top of the base of a mailbox, and the mailbox itself was three feet from its foundation. The Sherriff then accused me of drunk driving. (After three minutes of common sense investigation, we all saw that my bumper was dented and someone had done a “hit and run” on my car, knocking it on top of a mailbox.)

In those moments where my integrity was challenged, I immediately started to justify in my head how good of a person I considered myself. “I am a youth minister; I teach Bible studies; I’ve never been arrested; I’m nice; I tithe; I didn’t drink until I was twenty-one; I’ve never smoked a cigarette. I waited until marriage, by darn…trump that!” Even though I preach the depth of human sin and theologically include myself in that category, deep down inside in that moment of being challenged, the dirty truth, that I really think that I’m a “good person” based on my merit, came to the surface.

“I’m a good person; it’s not like I’ve killed anyone.” We all probably have heard this one before from a teenager. Helping teenagers understand their sinfulness may constitute the biggest challenge a youth pastor faces, given the humanist sentiments in the world today. The idea of human goodness is a lie. It’s why we all lock our doors at night, and we don’t leave cash on our dashboard.

In truth, man can become good, but the biblical means, by which this occurs, differ drastically from the secular conception. And if teens embrace the secular sense and means of achieving goodness, they will be set up for a life of either misery, denial, or both.

Where is this true?

The incredible reality of the Gospel is that through saving faith in Christ, in the forensic sense, believers become righteous. This means that God imputes all of the “goodness” that Christ earned in his life to a believer. So, in a biblical sense, believers become “good.” It’s not just that our sins are forgiven; imputation means that believers become perfectly righteous in God’s eyes through imputation. However, this goodness comes through saving faith and God’s generosity. Not one ounce- an utter and complete zero percent- originates within us.

Where is this false?

The world’s conception of human goodness comes through the merits of a person’s actions or mainly through the absence of atrocities. Teens, convinced of their moral adequacy, will justify their goodness by pointing out that they don’t do hard drugs, make racist remarks, or commit acts of violence. Meanwhile, they may point to acts of charity, kindness to other, or community service as further proof of their righteous. (Let’s be honest, in our sober moments, we all think we’re pretty darn good. I know how deluded I am, deep down inside.) They fail to understand that to be good in God’s eyes requires one to be completely perfect. Imperfection equals badness. Period. Man can gain no righteousness by his or her own efforts. They look internally for goodness, rather than externally.

What’s the problem?

Buying the lie that we are good or can become good out of our merits is a miserable place to live. It’s a life of intense pressure. This belief requires that a person try very, very hard all of the time to be perfect to maintain this good. The alternative is to live in utter denial as one tries to somehow justify his or herself in comparison to others, rationalize their sins, or overlook them altogether.

Not challenging kids presupposed belief in their inherent goodness sets them up for burden or denial, neither or which is…..good. Pointing them to the goodness that comes externally from God through imputation sets them free.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years at the Church of the Advent, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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