It’s a simple question.
But it’s a hard question too. Often, I’ll hear a discussion about Christianity that eventually centers on Christianity as “doing good” or “having a high moral standard” and then immediately shifts to the rebuttal of “I can live a moral life without God. So why do I need Christianity?”
Ouch. How do you answer that? Why DO you need Christianity if you can be good without God? What’s the point? If we can live a moral life without God, why WORRY about Christianity? I have seen this stump more than one believer, who then has to reply with something they pulled out of nowhere. Suddenly, the discussion takes a turn straight for the garbage can because at the end of the day, the believer is not equipped to answer the two questions being posed:
- Can I be good without God?
- If I can be good without God, what is the point of Christianity?
I vividly remember our home church we led in Monroe. We were studying 1 Thessalonians, and I asked the group what made Christianity attractive to these believers in Thessaloniki. There was silence, and then someone decided to answer
Well, you see Christians, and they’re just different. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t use foul language. They live different. They care about one another, they don’t support things that are evil.
The person who volunteered this up as an answer was REALLY proud of himself for doing so. And in his mind, that was the essence of being a believer.
The good kids club.
Only open for admission when you’re ready to be good.
I rolled my eyes inside my mind. I couldn’t obviously do it to the people, but i could feel my eyes staring back at my own brain, searching for what in the world would make someone feel like the power of the Gospel is in making you not drink or smoke or swear. If that’s all the Gospel is good for, we have issues.
Why? Why would someone think that? I can’t cite specifics because I don’t have them, but certainly, somewhere in the church’s history, things got screwy. At some point (I’m pointing a finger at the Holiness Movement personally), we lost the message of the Gospel. The Gospel was no longer good news to sinners, it was good news to overachievers. The Gospel didn’t change your life, it cleaned your life. And now you and your little sanctified self can go out and make the world a better place since you are no longer heathen. And what’s worse, now that the Gospel is the enabler of your holiness, anything that takes away from your holiness you need to hide from other people. The mechanism here is easy to understand. If your good deeds (and by extension your lack of bad deeds) is a reasonable indicator of your holiness (and therefore obviously God’s opinion of you), then there is simply no way to be honest without letting your fans (God included) down. So now we have to toss out authenticity as well. Once this happens, we’ve created the impression that the Gospel makes people able to be good people, and if we fail at it we need to cover up our failures and be hypocrites. And… VOILA… you have the Christian hypocrite.
I’ve struggled with it too. I remember my belief system for a long time was pretty simple: I’m not as good as Billy Graham, but I’m nowhere NEAR as bad as a guy like Jeffrey Dahmer. And so I’m probably not one of God’s FAVORITE people, but it should be ok, because I’m pretty sure I put some good into the world.
YIKES. And that little quote really WAS something that ran through my head. This isn’t me being funny. It’s a by-product of the “Gospel as Self-Improvement” model of Christianity. If we can’t reach the bar, we just change it a little, and hypocrisy be damned. No-one needs to see my shortcomings and no one needs to know how far away I am from God’s standard, because if they find out I’m pretty sinful, I must not be a believer and I’m a bad person… and so on and so on.
What’s the Gospel for? If I can’t live up to the standard of the Gospel, and being a Christ Follower doesn’t make me effortlessly turn into a new person who is morally superior, then what. Is. It. FOR????
I tell my wife this. She probably gets tired of hearing it, and she’ll probably read it here and say something to me about saying it again, but this is important. Like, H1 heading important:
JESUS did not come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive.
That’s it. That’s the Gospel. If Jesus came so that you could do good deeds, and you could be a “good person,” we’re all in deep… deep… trouble. The fact is, His death on the cross had nothing to do with equipping you to become a wonderful, great, amazing, morally superior person. That atheist guy sitting beside you at work? You are not morally superior to him based on you being a believer. The Muslim guy ordering a donair in front of you? Same thing. Look all around, and soak in the glory that Jesus’ atoning death on the cross was not payment to help you become a moral overachiever. It was to bring you and everyone else who trusts in Him back to spiritual life! Turning His death on the cross into a “Jesus died to make me good” deal is doing nothing more than tossing out the atonement for the sake of making you feel like an overachiever.
I’ll bet you need proof, don’t you? You probably need someone that you think is an outstanding Christian guy saying “I struggle with sin and it’s really messing me up,” don’t you? Because I wouldn’t make a statement like that without bringing the heat, here we go:
 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,  but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV)
These are the words of the man that every Gentile believer can thank for introducing them to God. His name was Saul, or as you know him, Paul. This is not the moral lecture of the man who has become perfectly moral in behavior because of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. This is a man who sees God’s law and perfection, realizes that EVEN WITH THE PRESENCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT he still makes bad decisions, sometimes willfully, still sins, still falls short, and at the end of the day, calls himself “wretched.” So knowing this coming from a man who saw Jesus in a vision on the way to Damascus, the experience of which was so powerful caused him to abandon a fast track career to power in Jerusalem, how in the heck do you think that Jesus’ death on the cross made you morally good? It didn’t make you good. It made you forgiven. That’s the gospel.
So, the answer to the first question:
Absolutely, you can be morally good without God.
In fact, Paul, the same guy who wrote Romans 7, also wrote Romans 2:
God’s Judgment and the Law
 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.  For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them  on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (ESV)
Check that out. Gentiles, to whom no law from God was given, by nature do what the law requires! So Paul said they can be a law unto themselves even without the law. Now, we can get into some real next level theological discussion here, but I think it falls outside of the scope of this discussion. All we’re really seeing here is that one need not be a Christ follower to live a good life, because God has written the law on all of our hearts, even though we may not be aware of it. This is why we have universal moral ideas, such as an abhorrence to theft, or feeling like people shouldn’t be abused or mistreated. These are common to all men even without believing in Christ. C.S. Lewis called it “oughtness,” as in one “ought” to do these things and behave in this way. But more importantly, Paul slices through the notion here that Christianity is a good boys and girls club, because he has both affirmed that believers still sin (and sometimes lots) and that unbelievers can live according to the law even without having the law.
So what about that second question then. If that’s true, and there is nothing to be gained in terms of being a better person by following God, what is the point? If we can be good without God, why worry about God?
The answer is pretty simple. If you are only concerned about being a “good person”, don’t worry about Him. If all that matters is you being “the best you you can be,” then a relationship with God isn’t something that you are going to want to attain to anyway. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, if you are more concerned about “being a good person” than “loving God”, then whether you are a believer or non-believer, don’t bother. Walk away. Find something better to do with your time. Sleep in on Sundays. Because at the end of the day, God isn’t concerned with creating a good kids club. He’s concerned with finding those who love Him and who realize their standing before Him. He doesn’t admire you, He doesn’t think you’re a swell person, but He loves you. So if you’re goal is to “be good,” then grab a self-help book, join a group of fellow do-gooders, and go save some whales or something similar. They can use your help. But if your goal is to grow closer to the lover of your soul, to allow Him to transform you, to begin a work in you to make you a lover of Him and not an overachiever, then by all means, taste of His grace and see that it is good. Check your “goodness” at the door. That’s not why you should be following Him in the first place.