When Good Isn’t Good Enough

If former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died the evening of October 22, when I saw him pull away in a bus from Northwestern after defeating the Wildcats, he would have been celebrated as a national hero. One week later he coached his final game, a home victory against Illinois, giving him a record 409 wins for his distinguished career. A few short days later, the long-tenured and widely revered coach lost his job in perhaps the sorriest scandal in the history of college athletics. We’ve grown accustomed to learning that amateur college athletes shaved points or solicited pay for play. But the allegations that a longtime Paterno assistant sexually abused young boys roiled even the hardest sports scribes. Following the 85-year-old Paterno’s death due to lung cancer on Sunday, fans have struggled to make sense of his mixed legacy. In the case of Paterno, it turns out good isn’t good enough in the court of public opinion.

No one can dispute that Paterno did a lot of good in his long, illustrious life, probably a lot more good than you and I can boast. He coached players on how to maul each other on a field of grass, yes, but he also molded generations of young boys of 18 into model men of 22. Those disciples have turned out in droves this week to honor their beloved mentor. Paterno has been lionized for coaching winning teams that also succeeded in the classroom. Sure, he may have covered for some players who deviated from this culture, but his example contrasted with so many other coaches and schools who willingly sacrificed integrity for victory. Not content merely to win football games, Paterno also contributed to Penn State’s improving academic reputation. Indeed, the library bears his name, due to a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign he and his wife spearheaded. They also contributed at least $1 million to build an interfaith student center.

And yet, we’re still debating whether this man should be remembered as a hero or villain. Do we remember a lifetime of good works or one horrible mistake? Paterno’s most famous words might have been, “I wish I had done more.” So do many others. When Paterno learned that trusted former assistant Jerry Sandusky may have been raping boys—in Penn State facilities, no less—the coach did not investigate further. He passed responsibility up the chain of command. But his superiors (in name only) didn’t do enough, either. The abuse allegedly continued until someone outside the cloistered community finally sounded the alarm. All that good–gone in a moment everyone would deeply regret.

“I made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Paterno told Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski in his final days. “But I thought people could see that I tried my best to do the right things. I tried to do the right thing with Sandusky too.”

Sin A La Carte

I’m not trying in this article to determine whether or not Paterno sought forgiveness from Jesus. I have no idea about his spiritual state. I’m merely reflecting on our society’s inconsistent standards for what constitutes a life well-lived.  When you talk to unbelievers about the gospel of Jesus Christ, you often hear them say that they will stand before God on Judgment Day and tell him they tried to live a good life. “Sure, I’ve made mistakes,” they say. “But who hasn’t? I’ve tried to do the right thing. I’ve been good to my friends and family.” You point them to passages such as Romans 3:10, which says, “None is righteous, no, not one.” But everyone knows someone who is less righteous. “At least I didn’t kill anyone.” “I only stole something that one time as a stupid teenager.” “I might have driven drunk a few times, but who hasn’t?” Compared to [insert dictator or serial killer here], we’re all saints.

Unfortunately for Paterno, he committed one of our society’s unforgivable sins. In the public reckoning, he would have been better off cheating on his wife or his taxes. But child molesters and those who harbor them will not find forgiveness in this culture. Same goes for racists, sexists, and homophobes. Ask Mel Gibson. Not even making a movie about Jesus covers a multitude of sins. Our society merely pretends to be forgiving. Fact is, everyone knows exactly which laws can never be transgressed. Call it common grace, if you like.

Against a society that picks their sin a la carte, Christians aim to bring everyone under the full weight of conviction before God’s law. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christians know God’s law indicts all as dead in our trespass and sin (Ephesians 2:1). We join in the hand-wringing over Paterno’s negligence. We pray that justice might be done, if indeed Sandusky abused these children. Following Jesus’ example, we urge, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11) to anyone caught in webs of deceit and depravity. We don’t delight in pointing out wrong, but we recognize the need to heed all God’s laws, not just the ones that match our culture’s ever-changing values. Contrary to popular expectation, this makes Christians more understanding of sin—not that we condone it, but we’re not surprised by it.

Truth Revealed

By contrast, our unbelieving neighbors regard themselves as more tolerant. They suppose themselves to be morally superior to judgmental Christians with our exacting, unrealistic standards of holiness. But the reality of the situation reveals itself in a case like Paterno. No good is good enough to wipe away his sins from the record of history as judged by his peers. He could never recover. The first paragraph of his obituary tells the story. Richard Goldstein wrote in The New York Times:

Joe Paterno, who won more games than any other major-college football coach, and who became the face of Pennsylvania State University and a symbol of integrity in collegiate athletics only to be fired during the 2011 season amid a child sexual abuse scandal that reverberated throughout the nation, died Sunday in State College, Pa.

Paterno’s fame revealed his great sin of omission, something he left undone. Examine yourself. What have you left undone? Or what have you done wrong, your sins of commission? What if they were revealed to your neighbors, your family, the media? Would you fare any better than Paterno? Truth be told, no one can withstand such scrutiny. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” 1 John 1:8 reads. Furthermore, we deceive ourselves if we think we do not sin in such a way that would bring such shame if exposed.

Apart from the gospel of grace, there is no hope. You will find no redemption in the faux tolerance of an unforgiving society. Yet if Jesus can forgive the very men like Paul who cheered his crucifixion, then he can forgive you, too, no matter what lurks in your past. Your good is not good enough. But his is. As Tim Keller often says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

  • Andy


    Its amazing how wrong everyone outside the PSU community is about this story. Joe did not harbor a child molester. He got a very ambiguous report from a graduate assistant coach and did exactly what the university protocal told him to do. He reported it, not only to his immediate supervisor as required by law, but also to the vice president of the university that oversaw the Univeristy Police (A real police force by the way, not just glorfied Security Guards). Its not Joe’s fault that they saw no need to further investigate. By the way, Sandusky was banned from bringing kids on to campus after that fact and there is no evidence of any further molestations until Sandusky met “Victim #1″ while volunteering at a high school 30 miles away from Penn State. Joe action likely did prevent further abuses. Also, Remember that Jerry Sandusky was not just a bored retired coach who hung around the University to attempt to relive his glory days. He was the founder of a very large charity to help disadvantaged youths. His reputation as one who helps children was immpeccable. Anyone hearing of an indiscretion by Jerry for the first time would naturally think its just a misunderstanding. If Paterno really wanted to cover this up, he would have never told Curley and Schultz in the first place.

    Remember that Paterno did not witness anything, and the laws are drawn up to keep child abuse investigations confidential and to prevent parties that are not directly involved (like Paterno) from personally investigating and compromising the rights of confidentuality for the victim and due process for the accused. Think of how many times, people are charged with crimes where it appears they are clearly guilty but end up getting off due to a technicality or tainted evidence.

    Even if Paterno did pull a Jack Bauer and get Police involved on his own, it is still unlikely Sandusky would have been nailed right there. Child rape is one of the most heinous of crimes, but the Bill of Rights still pertains to the accused, and we just can’t lock someone up and throw away the key because “there’s a chance he may have raped a child”. In the 2002 incident, there was minimal evidence, no victim identified, and McQuery was very unsure of what he just saw. When Sandusky was first investigated in 1998 (There is no evidence whatsoever that Joe Paterno knew about this investigation), there was an actual victim, Police were involved and the DA still did not press any charges. In fact, when
    Sandusky was finally arrested, it was not until approximately 3 years after the grand jury investigations was started when the Clinton County high school student first went to the police.

    Joe Paterno was great man who did many great things for the univeristy, for the community and people in general. Its worth noting how he handled his unjust firing with complete class and insisted that Penn State students focus on praying for the victims rather than get outraged over him. Its too bad the media could show any of this class and made Joe a scapegoat just so they could have thier big story.

    God Bless JoePa

    • Ron Jung

      Thank you Andy. It seems that everyone wanted JoePa to do “more” with hearsay. I guess not acting “more” on hearsay is a sin?

  • brookeandjonathan@gmail.com

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I sent it on to my family who are huge Paterno fans. I pray the grace and mercy preached will soften their hearts to the gospel.

  • http://dustinsmetona.wordpress.com Dustin


    Thank you for sharing with those of us outside the PSU community some things that most of us have not heard about Paterno. I appreciate the insight and confess that what you’re sharing has never come to my attention.

    In regards to Collin’s article, it still carries a great deal of weight because he’s primarily writing about our society’s response to Paterno. He’s not dissecting all of the details regarding the scandal, but showing the “plausibility structures” that our culture abides by in judging moral failure. On that point, this post is incredibly strong.

    Thanks again for your insights. And thank you to Collin for this humbling article that God has used for some much-needed self-examination on my own part.

  • Pingback: When Good Isn’t Good Enough « Savoring Christ in Southern California()

  • Robert Kingsley

    Thank you for this most excellent article. The difference between living a “good life” and the Gospel is what those of us who try to justify ourselves in the eyes of society and God need to read and to hear from the pulpit of our churches.

    Isn’t it the truth that our society picks and chooses which sins are good, which sins can be tolerated, and which sins are unacceptable. Society views sin as acts, whereas Scripture tells us it is a condition of our heart, one with which we are born. One of the aspects of this fatal condition is that we want to be our own savior and to “earn” our way to God’s approval.

    None of us can ever do enough to justify ourselves and atone for our sins. That is exactly why we need a Savior – and we have one in Jesus. As Tim Keller said, “Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died!”

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com hannah anderson

    I’ve long wondered how our society’s having pet sins and generally not understanding forgiveness leads to the need for and actually enables cover-ups. From what happened at Penn State to every political scandal you’ve ever read about, one lesson for us is that where true grace is missing so too will be true repentance and reconciliation. People simply can’t confess their failures if they have no hope of forgiveness.

    I’ve also wondered how this dynamic plays out in our sub-society of the Church and Christian culture. Not much better in my experience. Perhaps then, one of the most counter-cultural things we can do as Christians is to exemplify public confession and public forgiveness of sins through Christ.

  • Jack

    Consider this, Sandusky was fired and put to trial for his crimes and Paterno (RIP) retired in disgrace. How often does that happen in the Catholic Church?

    By all means, continue to gloss over the fact that justice was served when it came to a football coach, but brushed under the rug when it concerns the priesthood.

    • http://nohappinesslikemine.blogspot.com Heather E. Carrillo

      I think the article would apply to the priesthood as well.

      Great article, Mr. Hansen. Lots to think about!

  • J.C. Derrick

    Outstanding piece.

  • Pingback: Bits & Pieces (1/25/12) | Better Things Ahead()

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I think we all have regrets and things that we have done we are ashamed of.

    Our Lord fogives us those things. We still pay a price, however. The law (God’s law) will not be mocked.

    But in Christ we can start afresh each day. I pray for all those affected by this terrible scandal and crime and I hope one Day in Heaven, it will be like it never happened.

  • http://www.charlesspecht.com Charles Specht

    When I think about Joe Paterno 50 years from now, I will always remember the “incident” first over any of his football accomplishments. I don’t care how successfully a person coaches or abounds in their trade or industry…if you do little to stop what happened to those young boys, that’s all I need to know about you.

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      By the grace of the gospel, we’re not defined by our most heinous sins but by the righteousness of Christ. That’s my hope for Joe Paterno in a society that offers no hope for redemption to anyone who commits one of our selective cardinal sins.

      • Robert Kingsley

        Amen, brother!

        • Robert Kingsley

          That Amen is to Mr. Hansen…

    • Ron Jung

      Read Andy’s comment above. When the “incident” occured Sandusky had not been on the coaching staff for 3 years. How is this JoePa’s sin?

  • Pingback: Treading Grain » Post Topic » Around the Horn: 1.26.12()

  • Todd

    And yet if you’re a celebrity, you seem to get a walk in many cases. Apparently Acting ability or musical ability allows you some measure of public immunity. Great article.

  • Ron Jung

    Mr. Hansen, what would you have done different if you were in Paterno’s shoes?

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      That’s a good question, Ron. I guess I can only say what Paterno himself said: “I wish I’d done more.” What exactly he means by “more,” I’m not sure, but he was in a much better position to know than you or I am, and he regretted what he did not do.

      • Ron Jung

        I guess my problem is that Paterno was neither guilty nor responsible for the crime, for Sandusky or for the University. He did what was required of him and what he could do. In hindsight we would all want to do more. Why is this a “mistake” or a “sin” on his part. The media has cast this as some failure on Paterno’s part, or a cover up that the coach could have “done something” about and his reputation is being tarred because of ignorance. Read Andy’s comment above.

        • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

          So was Paterno wrong to say, “I should have done more”? I think Paterno grasped that we don’t just sin by commission but also by omission.

          • Ron Jung

            Regret for not doing more, does not mean he is guilty. A sin of omission is not doing what you are supposed to do. Finding out years after the fact that bad stuff did happen and wishing you “did more” does not mean he committed a sin of omission. Maybe you define sin differently.

            • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

              The only people who know for sure whether or not he sinned are God and Paterno. In retrospect he wished he had done more than “what you are supposed to do.” I take that to mean Paterno didn’t think he did the right thing when he had the opportunity. Certainly the Bible calls Christians to an infinitely higher standard than “what you are supposed to do” according to man-made laws on reporting abuse intended to identify legal liability.

            • Ron Jung

              This is the jump I believe has tarnished him. Yes in RETROSPECT, knowing Sandusky did all sorts of bad things. At the time, he did all he could do. He even said he tried to do best for all parties. Remember, it is hearsay that Paterno was working with. If you are going to go public and imply sin in the situation, you need to explain what “infinitely higher” standard he failed at. WHAT WAS HIS SIN? Please tell me so that I and your readers will not transgress in the same way.

            • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

              Ron, I very much doubt that Paterno believes he did for this child what he hopes another person would have done for one of his children of 17 grandchildren. The scary thing about sin is that we don’t always know at the time what we’ve left undone. We don’t know when we’ve failed to recognize Jesus and declined to offer him food, water, and rest. We do the supposedly “right” thing but know we could have, should have done much more. Sin would be much simpler if, as the Pharisees believed, it could be exhaustively categorized in a list of thousands of rules. Thankfully, Jesus died even for the sins we might never know we committed. It was God’s mercy to Paterno and everyone else involved in the situation, both those who sinned and especially those who were sinned against, that someone finally did what no one else would do and pursued the investigation beyond mere technical obligation.

            • Ron Jung

              “Ron, I very much doubt that Paterno believes he did for this child what he hopes another person would have done for one of his children of 17 grandchildren. ”

              Which is what? I know about the grace of God and am thankful. What burden are you putting on us. If someone I used to work with three years ago, was accused in a vague sort of way to me, by an employee, what am I to do? Really. What should I do? Report it to my supervisor? Should I go to the police with hearsay? No victim came to light. The University Police did not see the need to do more than they did. Was Paterno suppose to go vigilante? What obligation did he have to his former colleague’s reputation?

              You state that only God knows Paterno’s sin, yet you and countless others seem so damned sure of his guilt, that this man is forever tarnished. I am not worried about Christ’s covering me for my abundant failures “to do more”, but unless you can tell us brothers in Christ what we ought to do in this specific case, quit speaking ill of another brother in Christ so recently departed.

              Maybe a story about how jumps to judgement can KILL a man.

            • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

              All right, Ron, I think this conversation is over now that you’ve accused me of killing Joe Paterno.

            • Ron Jung

              Let me first say my last comment was written in a state of frustration and I should not imply you in his death. Forgive me.
              Second, your article, in terms of what you were actually saying is very good. We sin in thought, word and deed daily, even when we don’t realize it. Thank God for grace!
              Third, in your comments, you are correct that we cannot make a list of rules to do to make us right.
              My frustration comes because Paterno was a great man- a great man of faith (yes, Catholic, but a broher in Christ)and there are so very few great men. No one has yet to say what Paterno could have done, except “more”. He is a humble man and said he could have done more rather than justify himself. When word of Sandusky’s arrest came the media created a narrative to damn him. The outcry against him based on a false narrative caused his firing, and I think contributed to his death (IMO).
              Your article assumes the narrative given in the media. If this happened to a Reformed leader, I assume much more care would be taken regarding the narrative.
              One commenter even wrote: “I don’t care how successfully a person coaches or abounds in their trade or industry…if you do little to stop what happened to those young boys, that’s all I need to know about you.” Thank you for contributing to the narrative of our dear brother’s reputation.

  • http://www.ubfriends.org/ Ben Toh

    As Stetzer wrote, Paterno’s name will always be associated with “coach,” “fired” and “abuse.” It made me ask the question, Should one mistake define Paterno’s life and legacy? http://www.ubfriends.org/2012/01/joe-paterno%e2%80%99s-one-mistake-defines-his-life-and-legacy-should-it/

  • http://NA Bill Blancke

    Interesting read. It sparked a couple of thoughts I wish to share.
    I say AMEN! that none of us could stand up under that kind of scrutiny. I stumbled upon some images the other day that took me too long to close. I would be so ashamed if anyone else found out that I lingered there. I said some words last night that would make a sailor blush – oh wretched man that I am. So, I agree that those of us who have been redeemed and desire Christ like character know too well that belonging to Christ does not mean our hearts are pure, it means we desire pure hearts and as best we can we submit to and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
    I also think it is sad that a man who devoted so much of himself to good character building would at the end of his journey, the last memory of him if you will, is one of a man caught in a scandal of this sort. It certainly serves as a warning to us all to finish strong and always be on guard.
    For me the horror of it is that I imagined what it must have been like for those boys. A man of such imposing size and authority abusing them. It is heart breaking, and in a sense I do blame Joe P. for not personally seeing this through. I wonder, if he had walked in on this would he have turned it over to his superiors? And is that not what he did? Did he have no instinct to confront Sandusky or investigate? In my mind he was like Saul who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen.
    Lastly I want to make sure that we all know, God’s love is unconditional, but his forgiveness is conditional. We must confess and repent before he forgives. John 1:9

  • Pingback: Collin Hansen on Joe Paterno’s Legacy | Denny Burk()

  • Pingback: Unfortunately for Paterno, He Committed One of Our Society’s Unforgivable Sins! « Pray for Revival!()

  • Pingback: Collin Hansen on Joe Paterno’s Legacy | Time For Discernment()

  • http://i-never-fail.blogspot.com Craig

    When I share the Gospel, too many folks trust in the scale of good and bad for their eternity – good post – thanks…

    I came to your blog from the church relevant site top 200 list. They have created a tremendous forum for finding new blogs that impact people.

    I hope my blog can be an encouragement to you also.

    I write it for encouragement and motivation daily.


    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to watching the connections grow!

  • Pingback: There’s No Reviving Paterno’s Legacy | Denny Burk()

  • frank

    Is this article suggesting that a person who lies gets the same punishment from God as one who rapes children? It struck me that this is what the writer was implying. Perhaps I misread it. A god who can’t see the difference between those two sins and punish differently is inferior to his creations.