A man told me a few weeks ago about how concerned he was for another person, who I’ll call Joe. Joe is a good, moral man, but he does not have any particular belief in God. My friend was worried but also confused. He more or less equated “being a good person” with “being a Christian” and did not know how to deal with it when those two things did not go together.
I get the impression lots of Christians feel the same way. You hear lots of testimonies about how Jesus helped people clean up their act and become better people. And I don’t doubt that it happens. I know people who have had that experience. But “becoming a moral person” is not the end or aim of Christianity.
Many moral people are not Christians. I was a pretty good person long before I became a Christian. Christians are not immoral people, but being moral does not make a person a Christian. You can be moral and have no faith at all.
John Wesley often taught this exact thing. Look no further than standard sermon number two “The Almost Christian.” The whole point of that sermon is that you can be a moral, biblically literate, sincere, church going person who truly believes that Jesus Christ was a powerful teacher and prophet and still have missed the central point of it all. Being a Christian, Wesley preached, hangs on whether we have a sure trust and confidence that our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with God.
Of course, we don’t follow Wesley in most things these days, but I do wonder if that leaves us with little answer to the man I mentioned at the start of this post. If Christianity is about the moral refinement of human beings and the material improvement of life on Earth, what does Christianity offer humanity that is not found in so many other places? If Jesus is a moral example — rather than a means of actual spiritual transformation — then why isn’t Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi just as useful?
If being a good Christian really is about being good, doing good, and showing up at church, then we really have no business bothering upstanding citizens with talk of Jesus. It is only if they are in need of something deeper than they can imagine that we can help them.