THE PROFOUND POWER OF TRUTH
So, here’s the question: How does it come that many non-Christians live lives as gallantly and as uprightly as many Christians?
I’m going to ignore what I judge to be nonsense—the nonsense that non-Christians can’t and don’t—ever—do the right thing. There’s a sick theology [many of the people that hold it are lovely, gentle and kind people—they live better than their religious beliefs], a sick theology that says non-Christians because they are non-Christians don’t really love their parents, spouses, children, friends and such. I don’t have the time, energy or interest right now to talk about non-Christians like Lydia [Acts 16] or Cornelius [Acts 10] whose lives were beautiful before they were offered the gospel of Jesus.
Nor am I interested in developing at length the point one more time that no one—not anyone at any time in the history of the world—earned life with God or that God ever required it of them. God gifted Adam and Eve with life—they were supposed to live that gift out as a gift!
God gifted even the blessed and sinless Lord Jesus with life with him. Jesus never thought he earned life with God; he never thought he had to! Life with God is a gift, always, ceaselessly a gift. It was a gift to Jesus and he lived it out as the Holy Father’s gift.
If there’s a single hair in our head that claims we earn life with God or that he called us to earn it we ought to pluck it out and burn it! Life with God begins with grace, is sustained by grace and is completed by grace! Without the utterly free grace of God exhibited in, through and as the Lord Jesus no one has life in fellowship with God!
“Life” with God is more than biological existence, it’s more than forgiveness of sins—it’s a relationship of hearts, it is holy friendship with and obedient response to the Sovereign God. By God’s very nature the “life” that he offers must be of a certain quality. The gift he gives is of that nature and a heart that exults in evil and contempt of God cannot experience it. Light cannot fellowship darkness and God cannot give to and enjoy peace with impenitent God-haters.
Back to the question: How is it that many non-Christians live lives as gallantly and uprightly as many Christians?
There is much I’m not sure of but I am sure that the moral/ethical structure and response of God's elect people ancient and more ancient had a lot in common with the non-elect. That is, much of what the elect conceived of as "the right thing to do" was common to the non-elect nations [you who have time or should make some time for such things, do some reading on this
in Ancient Near Eastern Texts; read of the laws of pagans like Hammurabi,1 the Mari tablets or [perhaps especially] the Laws of Eshnunna.]
Moral uprightness didn't begin with Abraham nor did it begin at Sinai. [You might think it worth your time to look at the pieces on The Torah that are on this site.]
Those in the Abrahamic family who were doing what was right were doing right before God linked doing right to his covenant with Abraham. Their prior doing right now became, in addition to what it was earlier, a storying instrument. Israel would then say to those in other nations who were doing what was right: "We do these things in Yahweh's name and in pursuit and promotion of his purpose." Not everyone in the non-elect nations was a moral jerk and while they believed [characteristically] in the gods as rulers of their world and had certain rituals and festivals to please the gods, they didn't love their wives and children and husbands and parents because the gods had delivered divine rulebooks. [This is complex—not obscure just complex—and it needs developed.]
Jews who would end up living among other nations would find themselves doing the same things the non-elect were doing. They'd love their children and such as the pagan citizens would be doing—often no better and no worse. They'd be facing the same illnesses, disappointments, worries and fears as the Babylonian populace would be facing and they'd learn how to "handle them" in the same ways as these Babylonians.
The Jews who were doing what was right would correctly be thanking God for the ways and means by which they endured. The Babylonians who were doing right would mistakenly thank the gods for the ways and means of successful enduring. Both would owe God the thanks though the non-elect wouldn't know it; but the desire to do well, to patiently continue in doing what is right would be there in both Jews and non-Jews.
God wasn't doing magic to enable the Jews to do [sometimes perhaps poorly and in a desultory fashion] what many Babylonians might be doing better. The non-existent gods weren't helping anyone so we know God was helping the Babylonians as well as Israel
Since God rejected the Babylonians and all other nations as his elect People we know he wasn’t helping Babylonians to live uprightly via a covenant relationship with them. To be elect or non-elect had nothing to do with moral excellence. God didn’t reject the Edomites or any other nation because of immorality [see Romans 9:10-11] nor did he choose Israel because of its moral uprightness [Deuteronomy 9:6; Exodus 34:9].
Israel's wisdom literature tells us that God uses all kinds of ways to enrich, stabilize, empower and make his people devoutly wise but he didn’t do it by magic. See Proverbs 1:8-9 and chapter 3, for example. Children are urged to pay attention to the advice of upright parents. We're not to think because that's true of Israel that it wasn't true of Babylonians and Egyptians. God didn't give them the Story or the experiences that were part of the Story he gave peculiarly to Israel but he gave them everything else that was fine and lovely [do note Acts 14:16-17; 17:24-28]. The non-elect weren't utterly destitute of his truth. Increasingly the human family suppressed the truth of God that was in the world [be sure to see Romans 1:18-19] but to say it was utterly obliterated from the planet is nonsense. To claim that only Christians know what is honorable is nonsense! To claim that non-Christians cannot and do not live as honorably as some Christians do is obviously false.
[Have you noticed that hard-liner Calvinists who [in keeping with the creed] claim all non-Christians are God-hating rebels worthy only of ceaseless, eternal and conscious torment—have you noticed that they treat them otherwise? They hire them and fully expect honesty. They hire them to look after their children or nurse their elderly parents or treat their illnesses if they are hospitalized? Have you noticed that they react angrily if they aren’t treated well by workers in restaurants and elsewhere as if these “abusers” could do anything about their behavior? What nonsense we can believe. We say of someone that he is morally straight-jacketed at birth that it’s impossible for him to behave in honor or compassion unless God works a moral miracle on him and then we rage against him because he doesn’t act in honesty, honor or compassion because God hasn’t worked that miracle on him!]
Moving on. It’s no mark of special wisdom to observe that America has suppressed the truth of God; but what do we mean when we say “America” has suppressed the truth of God in unrighteousness? Do we mean that every citizen of the USA is a moral degenerate? No one in America lives decently, generously or patiently except Christians? Are we to believe that all the senators and members of congress are decadent villains and that all the laws they promote are without exception corrupt and are meant to generate moral villainy?
Say they’re non-Christians if that’s the case! Say many of them are essentially self-serving and roguish if that’s the case! But, bless me, we’re to believe that the Hebrew-Christian scriptures and good influence hasn’t shaped Americans [or whoever] to some degree and at some level?
Has everyone who is now a Christian lived a life of moral degradation until the day when by faith they placed their lives in God’s hands to be his servants? Have they not in their tens of thousands lived [not sinless lives but] lives of love of parents and what is honorable prior to their becoming Christians? Of course they have! During those years the magnificent God was at work in them; during those years though they hadn’t made a personal commitment to God in and through Jesus he maintained a commitment to them as his created children.
There is a grossly distorted system of doctrine that claims that everyone who has not given his/her life over to Jesus is totally depraved and wholly in favor of all that’s evil and wholly opposed to all that’s good. This doctrine is a system and that view is necessitated by other parts of their system. Because that specific view is held it means that all the goodness and kindness and self-sacrifice we see in the world is not only not good—it’s positively sinful! Ask John Piper and his ilk—he’ll tell you that’s his conviction.
How does God promote, generate and sustain faith and love and honor and all the virtues in this life of ours?
The first thing we need to remember is this: It is God who does it! It doesn’t matter how many instruments he uses—it is God who does it.
Secondly, we need to remember that God is the one who initiates and sustains such a work—humans don’t! Humans didn’t create themselves, didn’t determine their nature as human beings and don’t exist “in and of themselves.” Humans can’t breathe by themselves so you know they can’t think or live or believe “in and of themselves”. If people come to believe in the Lord Jesus it is because—many obvious things—someone brought the gospel to them and the truth of the gospel drew them to God. Humans don’t draw themselves—the presented beauty, grace, power, goodness, holiness and love of God drew them [see John 12:32-33].
Listen, humans don’t exist “in and of themselves.” It doesn’t matter than many think otherwise. They exist within the will and purpose of God toward the human family.
Then there’s this. God by his gospel [Old Testament—Hebrews 4:1-2 as well as New Testament] has gathered around him down the centuries men and women who have borne witness of and for him and through their lives and their Story have shaped entire nations and their convictions. In this way God has shaped cultures that have admired and lived out virtues and changed nations for the better. Such people enable hosts of people to look skyward and say, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky shows his handiwork.” Such people, following their Lord [Matthew 11:25] make this massive universe a home and stamp it: THE HOLY FATHER’S PLACE.
Some believers speak as if they alone know what sin/evil is. There is ugly “Christian imperialism” here. Not only is it ugly it is counterproductive because wiser believers know that Hebrew—Christian teaching has shaped nations so that they too recognize evil when they see it. It’s true that slavery in many brutal and sophisticated forms exist today near and far but no one doubts that the best face of America [or wherever] will no longer stand for pre-Wilberforce or pre-Martin Luther King days.
It doesn’t matter if it were true [and it isn’t true] that only Christians urged the abolition of slavery—the fact is that millions in the general populace stood up and said, “No more!”
Truth embodied in people, embodied in people shaped by truth is powerful and beautiful and Transformative. All truth is God’s truth and God has given truth into the hands of humans—Christians and non-Christians alike. God gifted non-believing scientists—medical and otherwise—with truth that has blessed his world. They may be few and far between but there have been non-believing scientists, social workers, manufacturers, teachers and others who devoted their time, energy and health and finally their lives in pursuit of truth. This is the work of God. The source of all truth that is truth is the magnificent God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who rejoices in all his works—including the human family.
So, it’s God, God’s doings, God’s loving initiative that we learn through God’s Story that climaxes in Jesus that enables us all to live with honor. As part of his Purpose God choose [and chooses] out ordinary, run-of-the-mill people, morally no better and no worse than other people, to bear witness to the truth of all that.
So, that’s it! Truth—that’s the entire story?
No! God and the truth about God, that’s the entire Story.
So it’s nothing but teaching? [That was Augustine’s complaint against Pelagius. “What you offer is nothing but teaching,” is a fair summary of an aspect of Augustine’s argument. In the course of the long argument Augustine came up with his distorted message that was systematized by Calvin and expressed as a creed in the Westminster Confession.]
How does it come that some believe the truth of God and many don’t? This is a profoundly interesting question for another time but whatever the answer is, we’re not to dismiss the power of God and his truth. We can deny the incredible nature of a mother’s love for a child because the child holds her in contempt.
There’s more than one form of “power”.
(1) See: http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/Hammurabi-Prologue.html