When I was in high-school, I went on a retreat with my religion class. We spent most of the day listening to the facilitator and engaging in conversation. As we talked about all the different kinds of faiths and traditions that exist, we were asked to consider the Golden Rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
We were then told that most major religions have a version of this rule as a part of their faith. In the Bible, we find these words spoken by Jesus, most memorably during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12).
As I have grown in my understanding of the world, I have appreciated the fact that there’s a lot that connects us to each other. A conscience, the internal sense of right and wrong, is a part of that. We are often afraid of people who are different than us, but if we dig down deeper, we’ll find that our commonalities are far greater and more important than our differences.
That, however, wasn’t really the focus of my high-school retreat. You see, the Golden Rule connection was a way of telling us that a lot of religions are pretty much the same. We should see each other as believing the same basic thing, just in a different way. But it’s time we bundle up this idea and add it to the pile of other misconceptions about Christianity.
Some people, like my high-school retreat leaders, interpret the teachings of the Bible to say that the most important aspect of Christianity is to be a good person. I understand where this idea comes from. Most people associate rules and morality with Christianity, even if they know little about the Christian faith. They have seen Christians speak out when they believe evil is taking place or react strongly when someone disobeys Christian fundamentals. It may be easy to assume that Christianity is just another religion built on following rules. Even Christians who grow up in the church, when asked what they think Christianity is about, may say that God just wants us to be good.
There’s a term that’s been developed over the last few years to label this phenomenon: Moral Therapeutic Deism. This describes a belief in a God that wants us to be happy and good. If we are good, then God will be happy. If that’s the essence of the faith, then you can really find it anywhere. You don’t need the Church; we can be good with our hockey teams, classmates, jogging buddies, and book clubs.
This may come as a shock to most people, but God doesn’t actually want us to be good. It’s not that being a good person isn’t part of the story, but by itself, it’s a diluted message that’s meant to make us feel good about ourselves more than anything. C.S. Lewis summed it up best:
“Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive.”
Nowhere in the Bible is “being good” the starting place of the Christian faith. The problem is that this sets us up to try to earn our place in the family of God. Believing that God just wants us to be good gives us the impression that “being good” is something we can actually achieve. But no one is good (Romans 3:10), and as much as we might try, we will always come up short of God’s perfection (Romans 3:23).
The Bible makes it very clear that humanity isn’t good. We all have freewill and have chosen to walk away from relationship with our Creator. We have broken relationships with each other and caused all kinds of evil in the world. We can’t just try to appease the bad by doing more good. In the end, we will never measure up to God’s standard of perfection and righteousness.
The Bible makes it even more clear that God hasn’t given up on His creation, despite our imperfection (which leads to death). God longs to see us restored; He has been working since the beginning of time to make that happen. This is where Jesus comes in. God came to earth, in human form, and offered His own life to break the power of evil in our lives.
Jesus came to seek and to save us (Luke 19:10). He did that by giving Himself up to be killed and overcoming the one thing that holds all of us captive because of sin: death. When Jesus rose from the dead, He displayed God’s power over evil and God’s willingness to save us. When we give our lives to God and believe in Jesus, we too will experience the newness of life and resurrection. This is the grace of God.
We are brought into the family of God (the Church) not because we do good, but because we have accepted God’s grace for us (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Church, then, is not full of “good people,” but people who realize that they could never be good enough. We all need the love of our Creator to make us into something new - into who we were really mean to be.
And that’s the turning point. That’s where morality comes in. Yes, morality is important, but the Christian belief is that we can’t be moral just by trying. It’s God who works in us to transform us so that we can do the things He calls us to do. Without that, we are just working it out on our own. As N.T. Wright put it:
“Morality matters vitally but it matters because it is the by-product of being Image-bearers, summing up the praises of creation rather than worshipping and serving the creature.”
If we believe that we need to do good to please God, we must realize that that’s not a Christian belief. The God of the Bible never asked that of us. Our task isn’t to choose to be good, but to choose God.