It is more than morality

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.

10 thoughts on “It is more than morality

  1. Isn’t a moral example a means of spiritual transformation, an example and path to follow? I would say that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi are more useful than Jesus if Jesus is not held up as a moral example. Do we really have any business bothering upstanding citizens with talk of Jesus if our own behavior (compassion, generosity, etc.) is not as good as those we lecture? The question to ask is, “Would someone want to become a Christian if doing so would make them more like me?” After all, we’re representing Christ.

    1. I’m not sure that we “represent” Christ. The biblical way of putting it is that we are members of Christ or that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, but I think I understand your point.

      I am not saying being moral is not necessary to be a Christian, I am saying it is not sufficient, neither is it the final purpose. It is more like an outcome or side effect. The purpose (at least as Wesleyans have understood it) is restoration of the image of God or — put another way — holiness.

      1. The longer I am a Christian (nearly 40 years now) the less I believe the claims about Christianity being a magical restoration that nobody can see and that this restoration requires a magical incantation (“the sinners prayer”). Webster’s defines holy as, “having a divine quality” or “devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity.” What is holiness or the image of God if not moral behavior, expressed as compassion, generosity, forgiveness, etc.? Jesus was asked what is necessary to inherit eternal life and he gave only two requirements: 1) Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; 2) Treat your neighbor as yourself. Wesley might not agree, but wouldn’t Jesus say that anyone that does these two things is a follower of His, or in other words, a “Christian”?

        1. I hear you reacting against a magical sinner’s prayer, but I don’t see anywhere that my original post or comment suggested that.

          While I think the dictionary is useful, I think we would have a more useful conversation in trying to figure out what the Bible describes as holiness.

          In the meantime, I certainly think Jesus (and Wesley for that matter) would describe being a Christian as loving God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself. As an empirical matter, though, my observation is that not people do those two things, especially when they are relying on their own resources to do so.

        2. I appreciate your comments, John. My point is, what use is a magical (in the sense of unseeable) restoration between man and God if it’s not manifested in moral behavior? The only value I can see in such a belief is that it allows for the last minute possiblity of a death bed conversion that would send someone to heaven despite how evil he’s been. If that’s the belief, then why not simply believe in universal salvation? Because someone did not say the magic words (sinner’s prayer) before they died?

          What I’m really saying is that those who love God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind, as well as love their neighbors as their self, ARE “Christians,” whether they themselves would use that label and even if they’ve never heard of Jesus. I think Jesus says exactly that in those verses from Luke 10 and Paul indicates the same thing in Romans 2. I believe we so-called Christians have made the requirements more than those two requirements given by Jesus.

  2. Britt,

    You wrote: “My point is, what use is a magical (in the sense of unseeable) restoration between man and God if it’s not manifested in moral behavior?”

    I don’t agree with the word “magical,” but I do agree with your point. An inner transformation of the heart will lead to moral behavior. But moral behavior — while good — does not make one a Christian.

    I contend that you cannot love God in the way you describe if you do not know who God is. And part of knowing who God is involves Jesus.

    1. I think you don’t really get my point, so I’m probably not explaining it well. I’ll try again in this final post. I believe that Jesus in Luke 10 describes his followers as those who love God and their neighbor. If I understand you correctly, you believe that Jesus’s stated requirements are in Luke 10 are inadequate for being labeled a “Christian.” You believe that someone must also invoke the name of Jesus to be one of his followers, i.e. a “Christian.” In my opinion, this additional requirement is one that we have put on outsiders, not something that Jesus himself required. To those with a negative experience of the church or to those who have had a positive experience in their own religion (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) the name of Jesus can be an obstacle, not a help (especially if they see no moral example in Christians). I believe that to say someone cannot love God adequately without invoking the name of Jesus is spiritual arrogance and belies the experience of millions of people. In my mind, someone is loving God/Jesus when they follow Christ’s guidance in Luke 10, regardless of whether or not they call God by the name of “Jesus.” It seems you and I will probably have to agree to disagree, but I appreciate your dialogue. Peace.

      1. Thank, Britt, for the conversation. I suppose we will have to agree to disagree, although I hate to leave things like that.

        Since appear to be asking whether you are describing what I am trying to say, however, I will try to clarify.

        I don’t think Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan was asked what is required to be his follower. He was asked what is necessary to inherit eternal life. That may be a minor quibble, but I do not think that passage is exactly about what you must do to be named a Christian — a word that was not used until after Jesus’ resurrection.

        But I would also ask, as we are looking at Luke 10, if you consider Luke 10:16 and Luke 10:22 to have any bearing on this conversation? To me, the witness of the Bible cannot be boiled down to a single parable. I do think a fully formed and mature Christian loves God and loves neighbor, I just don’t think you can get to be fully formed by rejecting the Christ who gives us the name Christian.

  3. John, I agree with you!!!! Being Christian is about a relationship and out of that relationship comes the morality and the warm fuzzy stuff! I don’t understand the concept that says one can be Christian without even needing to know Jesus! Am I missing something???

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