Tuesday, August 19, 2008

You only think you're good ...

Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths. Jesus assumes that nonbelievers in the culture around them will gladly recognize much Christian behavior as "good" (Matthew 5:16; cf. 1 Peter 2:12). That assumes some overlap between the Christian constellation of values and those of any particular culture and of any other religion. Why would this overlap exist? Christians believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, capable of goodness and wisdom. The Biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect non-believers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The Biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation.

Christianity not only leads its members to believe people of other faiths have goodness and wisdom to offer, it also leads them to expect that many will live lives morally superior to their own. Most people in our culture believe that, if there is a God, we can relate to him and go to heaven through leading a good life. Let's call this the "moral improvement" view. Christianity teaches the very opposite. In the Christian understanding, Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. God's grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior.

Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ's work on their behalf. Most religions and philosophies of life assume that one's spiritual status depends on your religious attainments. This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don't believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect."

Tim Keller, "The Reason for God."

I've been sitting on this quote for a while, wondering if a few days would dull my reaction to it. Not so much.

On the one hand, it's nice to see a Christian acknowledge that those in other religions or no religions at all can be as nice, kind, compassionate, and overall as good as Christians.

That may be the only positive thing I have to say about this. What I'm really honing in on is the idea that Christians should expect to find non-Christians better than the Christians. One, because I don't see the New Testament as a whole espousing that view. If you are supposed to be the example for non-Christians, if you are supposed to let your light shine and people see your good works so God gets praised, then Christians should be better. I don't see Paul telling the churches that it's okay if they don't behave as well as the pagans. He tells them to stop behaving as the pagans, and be better, because of their connection to God. God/Jesus is supposed to change said believer for the better.

Two, it sounds like an excuse. Since Christians acknowledge their failure and sin-status, and aren't trying as much to merit anything, this is why non-Christians will behave better than Christians. It's okay for the Christian to be "less than" because that's how the Christian gets accepted by God.

Three, it pretty much reduces the non-Christians behavior to selfishness. Yes, the non-Christian may be better, kinder, morally superior and so forth. This is *only* because the non-Christian thinks s/he gets something out of it from God. It's not because the non-Christian might just think it's the best way to live one's life. No, the non-Christian is just being self-focused.


Mystical Seeker said...

It's funny, but what annoyed me about that passage more than anything else was the offhand reference to substitutionary atonement. Why do so many Christians assume that this doctrine of Anselm's is somehow inherent to the Christian faith?

DagoodS said...

I agree, OneSmallStep—this is another in a long, long line of excuses as to why Christians do not act any better than non-Christians. Why no one can tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian based solely on appearances and actions.

Novel approach, though. What I also found interesting is the lack of influence of a God within a believer’s life. Apparently as a non-believer, I am more moral than the believer. After the believer is saved, though, they can’t even reach the same morality as I!

Article: Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are.

What benefit, morally, is there to being saved? What is the God doing to enrich their morals, if there is not even enough improvement to act like those without a god?

In addition to the numerous scriptures (as you point out) which directly contradict this concept. I wonder how he gets around Galatians 5.

It sounds as if it is up to the humans to do moral acts; and those who believe in a god will actually be worse at acting morally.

OneSmallStep said...


**Why do so many Christians assume that this doctrine of Anselm's is somehow inherent to the Christian faith?**

I also noticed that. The more I see lines like those -- Jesus came to live and die in our place -- the more I see a huge disconnect between Paul's letters, and the Gospels. How often does Jesus speak about taking our punishment, or taking our place? It seems that lines like those should come with a disclaimer: "Rather, Paul says that the Jesus came to live and die in our place."


**What I also found interesting is the lack of influence of a God within a believer’s life.**

The other thing that makes this even more interesting is contrasting it against the idea that Christians are supposed to be perfected through santification, and thus starting to become better people. Yet these quotes I'm provided are almost arguing the exact opposite. The better people are in fact the non-believers.

The other interesting thing I'm noticing about this quote is what it's implying about the truth. The truth about life is the Christian gospel, and thus those who are behaving "better" are deceived in some way, thinking they can earn salvation/heaven.

Does this in turn mean that those who have a firm grasp on the truth are in turn less moral people, because they aren't trying to hide all the negative aspects? Except the truth is supposed to be liberating, and make you free. If the idea that becoming a Christian will mean that you won't be better than your fellow-man, I'd almost prefer people to fake it. At least we'd have a better society.

Anonymous said...

People were taught by Jesus to turn the other check, love those who hate you, forgive your enemies (all in the context of being perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect). Also in the Lord's prayer it says simply "forgive us our debts as you (Father) forgive us our debts." There is no pre-condition of acknowledging an atoning sacrifice for these debts to be forgiven. If the atonement concept were true, that would mean that the Father is not playing by the same rules as Jesus taught us to follow to be "like your heavenly Father". You would also think that there would need to be an undeniable demonstration of regeneration and santification in this life here on earth (to bear fruit unto eternal life).

Samanthamj said...

Very interesting... and frustrating. Yet another example of circular reasoning.

I was just thinking about the old "moral/good/Christian" vs "non-moral/bad/non-Christian" BS recently when a co-worker assumed I must be a Christian because she thought I was a "good" person.

It's bothersome how her view will totally change of me once she realizes I am not. And, irriating as well that I will go from "good" to "selfish, and bad" or "confused and in denial" in a moment based solely on the proclamation of my religious beliefs.... and in spite of anything else she previously observed.


Anonymous said...

Paul's self-appraisal changed throughout the course of his Christian life. He went from being the least of the apostles to the least of saints and finally the worst of sinners. Undoubtedly Paul was probably increasingly more moral than his pagan counterparts, but his evaluation of himself became increasingly worse (or accurate) as he realized more and more the depths of his own sin. This resulted in a higher view of others and a lower view of self (outside of Christ). There's nothing wrong with Keller's statement.

OneSmallStep said...


Your argument depends on Paul being the author of all letters attributed to him.

That, and Keller didn't say it's a matter of the perception a Christian has. He said that a Christian should expect non-Christians to behave better, because most follow a religion that believes one's status is a result of one's actions. Therefore, non-Christians will behave better due to their religious/culture affiliations.

Keller didn't base this on self-appraisal, or how much awareness one had of one's sin.

Anonymous said...

Paul wrote the letters.

If the majority of religions base their acceptance/value on how morally upright they live their lives or how closely they can align themselves with their particular religious code, than it makes complete sense to say that many non-Christians will lead morally-superior lives (if only in a pharisaical sense) than most Christians. Christianity is not based on works but grace. Granted, that idea is widely abused and misinterpreted, but it still makes sense that most Mormons, for example, will lead morally-superior lives than most Christians, because their religious code demands it of them in a wholly different way than Christianity. Christ calls us to pursue righteousness in all things but not doing so does not cause us to lose our standing before Him. Therefore, many abuse grace and place lesser value on pursuing righteousness which is an entirely different problem. The Keller quote makes sense.

Mystical Seeker said...

Paul wrote the letters.

Well, I guess that settles it, then.

OneSmallStep said...


**Paul wrote the letters.**
There are many schools of thought as too how many of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by him.

Are you saying there's nothing wrong with Keller's statement based on your first comment, or your second? Because they're arguing for two different methods of support, one of which is not supported by Keller's statement.

I'm not sure you've grasped why I had disagreements with Keller's statement. What I see him saying is that it's okay if non-Christians behave better than you, and yet I don't see that reasoning anywhere in the Bible.

And even in this statement: "than it makes complete sense to say that many non-Christians will lead morally-superior lives (if only in a pharisaical sense) than most Christians."

So it makes sense that more non-Christians than Christians will feed the poor? Pursue justice? Protect the widow and orphan? Visit those in prison? Give a drink to the thirsty? Help those who are sick? Even if it's only in a selfish sense, there's still more good fruit compared to the Christian?

Is that what you're truly saying? And if so, do you see Paul or Peter or James agreeing with you? If this is truly the case, then what radical change is God's grace producing in the Christians? Where is the death to sin and life to Christ? Where is the loving one's neighbor as one's self, or the faith proven with works? Where is the fruit of the Spirit? Where is the love that Jesus claimed his followers would have? Where are the sheep, in contrast to the goats?

Do you see Paul, or James, or Jesus, saying that it makes sense that non-Christians will feed the poor, or help the sick, or protect the helpless more than Christians will? That the non-Christians work-righteousness system will produce more morally-superior behavior?