I had an experience recently that made me, for the first time, understand the difference between being good and following Christ. God prompted me to apologize to someone, but not just apologize, apologize and tell that person I was apologizing because I am a follower of Christ and in this particular encounter, I had not represented Christ well. This was the hardest thing God had asked me to do. I could apologize, I've done that many times. It is noble, shows character. But to say I was sorry to this particular person, an adversary, and to explain why? No. This was not something I thought I could do. Doing it the way God asked would be to divert attention from "how good I am" to apologize, to something else entirely.
I had wondered before whether there is really a difference (and what it is) between doing good things (being good) and following Christ. I know there are millions of people out there who are not followers of Christ who do good, indeed, dedicate their lives to help the poor and bring justice for the oppressed. They apologize when they have offended someone or acted in the wrong. Yet, God's word says that unless you confess faith in Jesus Christ, you are not saved and will not spend eternity in fellowship with God. This is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, fact to understand, at least from my perspective. Is it really the case that all of the good non-believing people in the world would not find themselves living eternal life, while those who have done what we consider very bad things their whole lives, but in the end turn to Christ, will be in paradise one day?
The way I understand Scripture is that when God created us, we were in fellowship with him. We lived in perfect peace and joy in his presence. He created us in his image and with the ability to freely choose to obey him or not. And then we decided we wouldn't obey him and instead sought to go our own way, sought to gain wisdom that was not intended for anyone but God. (Genesis 2-3) Since that time, God has been seeking to get us to turn back to him and be again in perfect fellowship, peace and joy with him. God's redemptive plan, it is called. That is, God's plan to get us back into relationship with him.
God first set forth the law (the Ten Commandments). (Ex. 20:1-17) If one obeyed the law, one would be in right standing before God. (Deut. 6:25) But once the law was revealed, it became clear that we could not keep it. And with each trespass, God required repentance and a sacrifice to redeem, or buy back, the right relationship with him. There was so much disobedience to the law, though, that all the people did, it seems, was to constantly sacrifice to get back to right, only to fall away again the next minute, or hour, or day. In other words, nothing we could do (other than complete obedience to the law, which we were incapable of) could make us forever right with God. This inability to make ourselves right with God was part of God's redemptive plan: "The law was added so that the trespass might increase." (Rom. 5:20a)
Then, God sent Jesus Christ, God in human form, to obey the law for us and to be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. "The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 5:20-21) While on earth, Christ obeyed the law perfectly and yet offered himself as a sacrifice to redeem our (not his) relationship with God. Christ was sacrificed despite having committed no transgression so that we could be forever in right relationship with God (Matt. 20:28), if only we repent and believe. (John 3:16-21) No longer would sacrificial offerings be necessary. Grace is what was (and is) offered. A free gift for us to accept. No more striving, no more climbing. When Jesus resurrected, he told his disciples: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt. 28:18-20) Here, Jesus revealed to us what role we have in God's plan.
I recite all of this because it reveals the difference between being good and following Christ: to do good for the sake of goodness, to draw attention to yourself or your goodness, or to make someone else feel good momentarily does not lead anywhere in the long run. To do good as a way of revealing Christ to others, to get them to turn to him and repent in order to be reconciled with God, fulfills your purpose in God's redemptive plan. Jesus said: "[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:16)
As Oswald Chambers said:
"Goodness and purity ought never to attract attention to themselves, they ought simply to be magnets to draw to Jesus Christ. If my holiness is not drawing towards Him, it is not holiness of the right order, but an influence that will awaken inordinate affection and lead souls away into side eddies."
Beware if your good acts result in someone saying: "What a good person you are! I am so impressed!" That is you becoming greater. But, the goal is that "He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:30) To do good in order to draw others towards Christ is the purpose; Christ alone leads to eternal fellowship, peace and joy with God.