For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Bad People That Do Good

“How is it that my friend is so nice even though he doesn’t believe in God? He is always helping and encouraging other people. He is a better neighbour and friend than many Christians I know!” 

It is a question worth pondering and exploring biblically. The work of the Spirit in the life of a Christian should result in growth in characteristics like love, peace, and joy (Galatians 5:22-23). The results of living according to the flesh are things like anger, malice, and greed. When we encounter pleasant and helpful people who don’t know Christ is seems at odds with what the Bible teaches. That’s confusing enough, but it also leads to what seems to be a significant moral dilemma regarding the justice of God in sending “nice” people to hell. It also raises an important question about the the basic nature of human beings. Are we basically good or bad?

Our culture is dominated by a secular humanistic philosophy of life. The secular answer is to dismiss the idea of God as antiquated and that fear of his judgment causes needless guilt in people’s lives. The humanist sees mankind as inherently good. His philosophy says that evil behaviour in individuals or society is a result of trauma, lack of education, improper use of power or wealth, etc. According to the humanist, healing and advancement in learning are the solutions that will lead to an ever-improving civilisation. The result is a culture that banishes the idea of God and celebrates the goodness of man and the advancing libertinism of human society.

The Biblical understanding of humanity is far different and is much more consistent with the reality in which we live. In college I had an final examination which asked one question: "Has man's basic nature changed since the beginning of history? Document." I was taken aback by the question, but after a moment's reflection it was apparent what the right approach would be: The answer is "no" and the documentation was every war I could think of. Those wars continue today. The only thing that stops a widespread world war like we had twice in the last century is the reality that our weaponry is so destructive it would end all life on the planet. There would be no winners. No, the Bible paints a much more accurate picture of the human condition than humanism. We are not basically good. It is more nuanced than that.

What the Bible teaches about the nature of man

The Bible teaches that men and women are valuable because we were created in the image and likeness of God. The implications of this are massive and would take a long time to explore, for now I will say that it means that every human being is precious. This includes people from every race and creed. It includes the Nobel Prize winner and the human trafficker. Whatever they might do or say, the importance of every human life should not be underestimated. We are valuable because we are image-bearers.

At the same time, the Bible teaches us that we are sinners. Sin is easy enough to define as a violation of God’s law. Jesus summarised the whole moral code of the Bible in two simple sentences. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Sin is the violation of either of these commands. While the secularist refuses to accept the first sentence because he rejects God, he generally agrees with the second: we should love one another. 

He must also acknowledge that he has violated the law of love. We have all failed to love. This failure to love is not the result of lack of education or past trauma. The educated and the well-raised violate the law of love just as much as everyone else. In fact, we often violate the law of love with the complete understanding of what we are doing. The problem is deeply rooted. It is hard-wired into us.

The Bible teaches that it is because sin has radically affected the human condition. This sinfulness infects everything that we do. It is in our nature (Ephesians 2:3). We are slaves to sin (John 8:34). Every part of who we are has been infected and tainted by sin. Our minds, our emotions, our desires, our bodies, and our wills have all been affected. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things and Paul reminds us that nothing good dwells in us (Romans 7:18).

Our thinking is so twisted that God needed to spell out what things were not in keeping with the foundational law of love. This is a large part of the purpose of the 10 Commandments. If you love someone, you shouldn’t murder them. You shouldn’t steal their stuff. You shouldn’t lie to them. It seems simple, but the locks on our doors and the passwords on our computers are ample proof of how far we are from keeping the law of love in spite of our advancements in education, political theory, technology, and the like.

We are valuable because we are created in the image of God, yet have become completely tainted by sin. If by “good” we mean something that is good according to true standard of God’s opinion, we lack any spiritual good in ourselves. This means that there is nothing that anyone can do that is spiritually pleasing to God (Romans 8:8). It may seem like some people do good things, but with clear vision Isaiah wrote that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). We all are completely unable to do anything that will make us pleasing to God (Psalm 14:3; Psalm 143:2). 

It is only through the Spirit applying the work of the Cross to our lives that we can be saved (Ephesians 2:8-10). Without the salvation available only through Jesus Christ, everyone will be condemned for their sin.

What about the "good" people who don't believe?

In the opening chapters of the Bible, we read of the first sin and its consequences. The Lord told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of God and evil, “because in the day you eat of it you will surely die (Genesis 2:16). Yet when they did not eat of it, they did not immediately die. They were banished from the Garden and they suffered under the curses of God for their sin until they died many years later.

This introduces a concept that theologians call “common grace”. Common grace refers to the blessings that God gives to everyone in spite of their sinfulness. It doesn’t bring about salvation in the lives of those who receive it, but points to the goodness and mercy of God.

This is perhaps most clearly seen in the creation. Jesus reminded us that God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45). While creation has been subjected to decay and thorns and thistles often mar our harvests, the Lord sees that we receive our food in season. He does this even though we are worthy of immediate destruction (Psalm 145:10-20).

His common grace is also seen in the intellectual world. We have been given the world to enjoy and have dominion over. This involves our minds as we seek to learn about and understand how the creation works. The discoveries of science and their application in technology are due of God’s common grace. They are the result of his mercy and abundant love toward us. This includes the development of arts which seek to communicate through music, colour, theatre, and writing. We were made with the capacity to communicate and a deep desire to be fascinated by beauty. That skilful people make things that move us is a sign of His common grace toward us.

Common grace also explains why people are not as evil they could be. Romans 2:14-15 tells us that our conscience bears witness to the truths of God’s law. While we often violate it and it can become seared, the fact that our conscience at times pricks us puts restraints on our conduct. It can cause us to establish standards of conduct, both personal and corporate, that are similar to God’s law. For example, theft, murder, and rape are almost universally seen as wrong and governments enact laws agains them. Doing good to others is often taught as the right thing to do.

God also shows us his common grace in allowing us to work together to solve the problems facing society. With consciences that at times identify wrong and want do something about it, we reflect something of the character of God. Common grace allows people from various backgrounds to form associations to combat poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, and the like. This includes the formation of governments designed to benefit society in many ways including the punishment of evildoers.

Common grace is the reason that sinful people can do things that are “good”. In fact, they can do some pretty amazing things. They help neighbours, they fight human trafficking, and work to establish justice. We should rejoice in these manifestations of God’s common grace. But these things will not put them in good standing with God. We cannot do enough good things to result in our escape from eternal condemnation because of our sinfulness.

So How Do We Act?

We have already seen that our most righteous deeds are like filthy garments. The Bible teaches us that everything that does not proceed from faith in God is sinful (Romans 14:23). Every unbeliever who does good by society’s standards is still an enemy of God (Romans 5:10) and is by nature a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). The blessings that God has showered on them are designed to lead them to repentance and their continued rejection of the gospel will only result in the further justification of their eternal condemnation (Romans 2:4).

We should enjoy the common grace of God that manifests itself in so many ways around us. Whether it is the showers that water our garden, the cheerfulness of the clerk at the store, or the technology that we use every day, each of these is a reminder of the goodness of God in spite of our sin. The sin problem is the most important issue each of us will face. We dare not ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist. 

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