Christian advantage? (2)
Let me sharpen the point I made in the first piece. When I was young I believed that on becoming a Christian my inner world would be transformed and I would no longer wish to sin because I was “a new creation” in Christ and I was “dead to sin” because I was in Christ. All this I was taught and believed on the basis of texts like 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Romans 6:2-7 and on the truth that it was Christ himself who now lived in me and not me (Galatians 2:20). All these texts speak the truth, of course, but they were interpreted as a description of the Christian’s inner moral world (though some claimed there was a “second blessing” we were to seek and that was complete inner transformation).
What troubled me then and what troubles me still (though now for different reasons) is the moral uprightness of millions of non-Christians and the not much better (if at all) moral behavior of millions who truly believe in Jesus.
There are some among us whose lives before becoming Christians were a sink of wickedness; we practiced it and enjoyed the practice. You find us described in Ephesians 2:1-3 and Romans 1:18-32. But while that’s true of us, it isn’t true of everyone. It’s true of every accountable being that they have sinned—there are no exceptions (Romans 3:23) but it isn’t true that everyone outside of Israel or outside of Jesus Christ was a decadent who plunged into evil with delight and fervor. Having described the Gentile world in Romans 1:18-32 in the gloomiest terms possible Paul then said that there were, however, Gentiles who patiently continued in well-doing and that they lived out the things the Jewish Torah called for (Romans 2:6-8, 14-15). [NT Wright holds that the Gentiles in those verses speaks of Gentile Christians. He may be right but I strongly doubt it.] We find people like Cornelius who were not yet in Christ and were not part of the Jewish Covenant but whose conduct had God’s pleased approval (Acts 10).
We’ve all come across people who make no profession of Jesus, who attend no church but whose moral lives are exemplary. Haven’t we all complained against church members that they aren’t as forgiving as many non-Christians we know? Jesus’ question, “What do you do more than others?” could easily have been, “Why don’t you do as much as others?” We’ve all known people who before they came to Christ were models of warm uprightness and integrity; people who forgave quickly, held no grudges, paid their debts cheerfully, worked honestly, loved their families devotedly and in every way showed themselves kind and courageous. They were that way before they came to Christ! How do we explain that? [If you’re a consistent Calvinist as one popular writer is you not only deny that these people do good; you insist that literally everything they do is sinful and morally filthy—quoting texts like Isaiah 64:6 as if Isaiah’s agenda was the same as his. Ignore all that!]
So here’s the non-Christian whose life is exemplary and here is mine in Christ and his moral behavior is better than mine? I have the Holy Spirit, who indwells the Church of God, the non-Christian doesn’t, and yet my life is littered with moral failures while the non-Christian’s is lovely to behold. How is it that he without the Holy Spirit is a morally better man than I am though I have the empowering Spirit—how do you explain that?
We might say, as I have heard said, that all the goodness we see in humans is counterfeit unless it is the goodness we see in Christians? Swallow that if you wish but I’m a Christian and even I feel offended for non-Christians. My neighbor, Martin’s, love for his children is fake and mine is real because I’m a Christian and he isn’t? My honesty in paying my debts is real but Neal’s isn’t because he isn’t a Christian?
Should we say that some satanic or demonic power enables them to live in such a lovely way? Not only do millions of non-Christians not have affairs, it never enters their minds to do so. Should we credit that warm integrity, coupled with the moral sense that they should not—should we credit that to satanic sources?
We should credit all this moral loveliness to God! Paul says that God gives the entire human family life and “everything else” so that it might seek after him and find him though he isn’t far from any of us (Acts 17:24-27). The non-Christian is aided by God in all the many ways that truth is transported throughout the ages and in all the many ways that character is shaped.
Add to that a comparison between a fine, upright non-Christian and the not uncommon Christian who despite having the indwelling Holy Spirit is often mean or bitter or vindictive or smug or heartless in his/her moral weakness and where are we? I know there are millions of non-Christians who are wicked and insolent and abusive—there’s no dispute that they exist but we’re not to allow these to mask the truth that there are non-Christians whose lives are the moral equal (at least) of the lives of “the average” Christian.
Why are we Christians, as far as we can tell, not light years ahead of the host of non-Christians we know of? Why not if we have the indwelling Holy Spirit that gives us the power to defeat temptation and they don’t?
Write me and explain that.