Who Says They Can’t Be Good?

A recent comment on the blog, with which I agreed, said that it was not necessary to be a Christian to be a moral person. The unfortunate thing about this claim is that it raises by implication the assertion that Christians do hold that only Christians can be good moral people.

It is a fact of life that we Christians frequently run into non-believers who say, sometimes triumphantly as though delivering a knockout blow, “You don’t have to be a Christian to live a good moral life.” From the well meaning to the arrogantly dismissive the assertion is produced as though Christians are so arrogant as to assume they alone can be moral people.

Even when made by the well meaning this assertion is simply boring because it merely states the obvious. Every Christian knows men and women who live morally upright lives, some of whom give of themselves to others at a sacrificial level. The non-believer is merely pointing out what everyone knows anyway.

Sometimes this statement comes from Christians who wish to appear sensitive to people of different faiths or total non-believers. As a reasonably compassionate person I have no wish to be so cruel to non-believers as to withhold from them the good news of Jesus Christ the only Saviour and as a consequence will press His claims at every opportunity. To do any less and remain silent would be to be heartless and even hateful.

However,  I know of no Christian who in pressing the claims of Christ would make the type of statement objected to by implication. Are there any reputable theologians, teachers or preachers who argue that non-believers are inevitably immoral people who cannot live a good life because of their lack of belief? I know of none myself and am yet to meet an unbeliever who can quote one.

Far from equating Christianity with the only possibility of morality Jaques Ellul argues that one of the weaknesses of the Church is that believers and non-believers can confuse Christianity with a moral system when it is nothing of the kind. A highly moral man Ellul argued that whilst Christianity gives rise to a moral system to confuse that moral system with Christianity itself is to diminish the faith.

The only interesting thing about this assertion is the question to which it gives rise: Why do non-believers raise this issue with such regularity when they must be aware that no Christian claims that a belief in Christ is necessary for what is normally considered a moral life?

It cannot be an attempt to educate the believer as to the blind error and intolerance of Christianity because it is simply wrong.

It could be that the assertion is a red herring used to distract the Christian and put him on the defensive when all other arguments fail the unbeliever. If so it should be dismissed with contempt.

Sometimes it is an attempt to evade the evangelistic claims of Christ, a way of saying “I’m a good person without Jesus so go away.” As Christianity is not at its core about being good the objection doesn’t stand and gives an opportunity to talk about what Christianity truly is.

It surely cannot be a serious attack designed to undercut the basis of the Christian faith because it is so utterly ineffective. Putting up a straw man for the purpose of knocking it down is a time wasting distraction from genuine debate and only serves to give pleasure to those who are fearful of genuine engagement.

The best explanation is that it is an understandably defensive reaction, a claim to be a good and moral person in the face of a genuine misunderstanding of Christian theology. If so it should be pointed out that Reformed theology has a long history of understanding and appreciating the good works of unbelievers, those who exist in rebellion against God and yet do good.

Calvinist theologians and philosophers have developed at length the doctrine of common grace, a non-salvific attitude of favour by God towards unbelievers by which He enables them to do marvellous and worthwhile things in every field of endeavour. The Christian can, and does, enjoy, appreciate and value the work and activity of unbelievers in every legitimate field of endeavour whether it be music, medicine or morality; and the Church has taught so for centuries.

The only people who can continue to assert, even by implication, that Christians hold that unbelievers are ipso facto immoral are the usual suspects, those with closed minds who refuse to listen to reason.

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About Campbell

Now retired but once upon a time a parish minister in Glasgow, before that the South West and initially the Black Isle. Been a prison chaplain and lecturer. Still am constantly bemused by the weird world around me.
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