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ss nucleus - winter 2007,  Do good moral people need Christ?

Do good moral people need Christ?

Bernard Palmer reminds us of the necessity of the gospel

Charles Lamb was a famous English writer in the early 19th century. When he was a small boy, his sister Mary took him for a walk around a graveyard. The precocious lad was reading the epitaphs that praised the deceased people. They were described as 'virtuous', 'charitable', 'generous' and 'most loved'. As they were leaving the graveyard, Charles asked, rather poignantly, 'Mary, where are all the naughty people buried?'

When we look at ourselves most of us think we are 'not too bad'. But the only judge that really matters is God. And he knows far more about our thoughts and actions than we observe through our rose tinted spectacles.

How good are we?

I was taking my dog for a walk and met with an old friend who used to teach in a Sunday school, but is no longer involved. We started talking about church and he suddenly exclaimed, 'I'm not evil, you know.' How should I respond? After some thought I said, 'Oh yes you are – we all are. It depends on who we compare ourselves to. If we compare ourselves to the outward appearance of others around us, we might not come across badly but if we compare ourselves to Jesus then we should quiver in shame.'

Jesus was very concerned about people who were outwardly good and moral, yet reject the teaching of God. The standards such people expect others to live by can be higher than those they live by themselves.

Jesus illustrated this by showing that selfishness can easily extend to family obligations. When parents become elderly and a responsibility, we can be tempted to avoid our God-given duties. In Jesus' time some Pharisees, who were outwardly good moral people, did this, quite legally, by saying that all they had owed to their parents was now 'given to God'. This approach appalled Jesus who said, 'Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.'[1] Jesus clearly taught that man's prime responsibility is to follow what God has taught us, for all time, in his Word, the Bible.

Many religious groups have food and social laws that help the religious to stand out in society. God is not particularly impressed by such outward behaviour. Jesus went on to emphasise that it is not primarily what a person outwardly touches, eats or does that defiles them in the eyes of God, but what is in their hearts. When explaining this parable to his disciples he put it like this:

'Are you so dull?' he asked. 'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.' (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean'.) He went on: 'What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean”. For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.”'[2]

This same Jesus has given these guidelines to warn us all. We all have a tendency to think like this. Yet it is our thinking that will be judged, as well as our actions. The Bible's message is clear: 'There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.'[3] Jesus told his followers to warn others about this. When judged by God's standard we are all 'evil' and fail to come anywhere near the standards he requires. The Christian message is about a potential pardon. So to share the very good news about this pardon with other people is not arrogance but obedience to Christ. Any argument people have with the Christian message is an argument with Christ himself - so long as the Christians are passing on the message faithfully.

A quick survey of the gospel written by John confirms that he believed in the uniqueness of Jesus and his ability to solve this basic problem. He says of Jesus, 'The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.'[4]

Jesus claimed to have come for all people of all races and creeds. He came that people could enter God's kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, and so receive eternal life. This life cannot be earned by good moral behaviour - as if anyone could make themselves good enough for God! Salvation is only given to those who follow God's Son - 'to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children…born of God.'[5]

But this is so exclusive!

To answer this accusation we must investigate who Jesus really is. Detective novels are 'whodunits', whereas the gospels are basically 'whowasits'. John teaches that Jesus is God who came to earth in the flesh: 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.'[6]

Clearly if this is true, then rejection of God is culpable. And who else is there that can forgive us our sins but God alone? John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his own followers with the words, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!',[7] whilst Nathanael declared, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.'[8]

This teaching is mind blowing – so big that it is hard to take in. There was a schoolmaster who was teaching a class of ten year olds. One boy asked him, 'Please sir, have you ever seen God?' His reply was precise. 'No, but if I'd lived in Israel 2,000 years ago I could have done.' The four Gospels are records of the evidence that convinced the disciples, with the effect that they were willing to give their lives, literally, to doing what he wanted. Thus John could write towards the end of his Gospel:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.[9]

A good religious man meets jesus

John recounted the conversation that Nicodemus, a highly respected member of the Jewish ruling council, had with Jesus. He recognised that Jesus must at least be some form of prophet.[10] Jesus appeared to cut him short and replied directly, 'I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or born from above).'[11]

This puzzled Nicodemus, who replied, 'How can a man be born when he is old?'[12] At this stage he had no concept of a spiritual birth (a new beginning), or a spiritual kingdom. Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and of the Spirit.'[13] What did Jesus mean?

It is probable that Jesus was referring to a passage in Ezekiel which foretells the new life God will give to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon.[14] Jesus was clearly teaching that good moral men who are religious leaders need a new beginning! He taught that God's kingdom includes not just Jews but people from all nations. Here he emphasised that there are two necessities for people to be members of this kingdom:

1. They must be born of water

John's Gospel has just emphasised the role of John the Baptist. He called people to repent of their sins, their independence of God, and to demonstrate this by publicly being baptised in water. This open acknowledgement of our need of God and a willingness to let him wash away our sin is still essential for us today.

2. They must be born of the Spirit

If we are to be accepted into God's kingdom then God needs to act. He has promised to put his Spirit in all who truly turn to him. We know that we have his Spirit because we love Jesus and long to be more like him. God gives his Spirit to all of us who have repented of our independence and want to follow Jesus. The proof that we have been pardoned is the growing purity of our lives, the work of God's Holy Spirit.

Why there could be no other way

Jesus knew the significance his execution would have. This was the one time in history when God took our sin on himself. The sacrifices of sheep and cattle in the Old Testament looked forward to this climax. Clearly animals could not, in themselves, atone to the Almighty God for our sin. John went on to make several exclusive claims for Jesus:

the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life....Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.[15]

Why do people reject Jesus or give him an insignificant place in their lives? There is only one explanation – men want to remain independent of the living God. This is just the conclusion that John came to: 'This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.'[16] The final verse of this chapter is just as dogmatic, 'Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.'[17] The only way we can be forgiven and our wrongdoing counted as of no consequence by God is if God takes on himself the penalty for our sin. This is precisely what Jesus did on the cross. There was no other way.

Could the idea of Jesus being God be a late addition to the biblical record? The author CS Lewis, after careful study, wrote in a letter to a friend:

The doctrine of Christ's divinity seems to me not something stuck on which you can unstuck, but something that peeps out at every point so that you'd have to unravel the whole web to get rid of it.

The Bible teaches that God loves all people, whatever creed or religion, but is angered by our determination to live independently from him. The Christian good news is that if anyone returns to live under Christ's authority, then they are treated by God as if they have never rebelled. Jesus' death has paid the penalty for these people's sin and rebellion.

The understanding of the apostles

These exclusive claims of Jesus continued to be taught by his apostles. The whole of the New Testament emphasises that everyone, even good moral people, needs to learn about Jesus, so that they can have the opportunity of entering God's kingdom. After his resurrection Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his work of salvation. Jesus said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'[18] This is why any church today that is serious about its commitment to Jesus and his teaching will emphasise both Bible teaching and evangelism.

After Peter had delivered his first two sermons and had healed a beggar who had been crippled since birth, he and his close friend John were arrested by the Jewish authorities. The new teaching was clearly having an impact and causing problems. They probably feared a growth in social and religious discord as they saw the growing numbers of people becoming followers of Jesus.[19] Although the ruling party in Israel at that time were the Sadducees who denied any resurrection, the apostles felt compelled to teach this politically unwelcome doctrine. More than this - they insisted that everyone must become followers of Jesus - even the noble members of the Sanhedrin, 'Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.'[20]

The Sanhedrin deliberated together. They were impressed by the courage and learning of Peter and John but felt they must put a stop to this teaching. Consequently they, 'commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.'[21] The apostles rejected this command out of hand as God himself had given the opposite command. They replied, 'Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.'[22] The rulers didn't know what to do.

It is by accepting the message about Jesus and by this way alone that salvation comes. This is why the church went and still goes to such efforts to pass on this message, even though many didn't want to hear it and persecuted the church for its insistence. Thus Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, discussed the suffering of the early church at the hands of the Jews, adding, 'They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.'[23]

The significance of the Bible's teaching

The urgent message of the early church was the message about Jesus, who was God in the flesh, and his death on the cross to bear the sins of any who sincerely turn to him. Jesus alone, being God, was able to be 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'[24] He was the ultimate real sacrifice that all the animal sacrifices looked forward to. Paul himself said, 'I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.'[25] Everyone, even a good moral person, needs Christ. No wonder Christians are still not ashamed to share the very good news about Jesus and his cross.

Martin Luther was a very strict, virtuous religious monk. The above verse from Romans opened his eyes to understand the gospel. He realised that his pathetic efforts at goodness were 'like filthy rags' to the Almighty God. He grasped that righteousness could not be attained by his efforts but was the gift of God to those who trust in the Lord Jesus. He now understood the cross. It was there that responsibility for his sins was taken by his Saviour. He had been given Christ's righteousness by proxy. There is no other way. The thrill and wonder at this discovery never left him and he, like many Christians before and after him, devoted himself to passing on this message.

Paul had made the same discovery and in his final letter to young Timothy he gave this injunction:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.[26]

Passing on this message is therefore urgent today – people's eternal destiny is at stake. There is no other way back to God but through Jesus and his cross. It is vital that Christians become like Jesus, with his love, care for others and godliness. But it is also essential today that we relearn his priority about passing on the message.

  1. Mk 7:13
  2. Mk 7:18-23
  3. Ec 7:20
  4. Jn 1:9
  5. Jn 1:12,13
  6. Jn 1:14
  7. Jn 1:29
  8. Jn 1:49
  9. Jn 20:31
  10. Jn 3:2
  11. Jn 3:3
  12. Jn 3:4
  13. Jn 3:5
  14. Ezk 36:24-26
  15. Jn 3:14-18
  16. Jn 3:19,20
  17. Jn 3:36
  18. Mt 28:18-20
  19. Acts 4:1-3
  20. Acts 4:12
  21. Acts 4:18
  22. Acts 4:20
  23. 1 Thes 2:15,16
  24. Jn 1:29
  25. Rom 1:16,17
  26. 2 Tim 4:1-3
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