Talk to anyone who has been a Christian for awhile and you will hear them say something like, “I’m not the person I used to be.” The statement they are making is a positive good. It’s a proclamation that they believe that God has worked in their lives in a way to better glorify Him, give them spiritual growth, and practically speaking from a human perspective “made them a better people.”
When people who do not believe in God hear this, they may think that Christians believe that without God they are not good people. An atheist doing a self-assessment might assume that the Christian believes that atheists are taking the same”bad” path. In other words, if Christians think atheists are not “great” humans, this can seem insulting from the outset.
Let me unpack several ideas that address both the Christian and the atheist when it comes to this ideology. I think there are several things that each side needs to process to help us better understand each other.
Often when Christians think about this subject they think about Romans 3:10 – “none is righteous, no, not one.” We need to understand the context here. What the passage is talking about is that no one can do good things to earn salvation. What it is NOT saying is that no one does good things. Many people from all walks of life do good things daily.
This theology is called “depravity.” Often confusion comes when people take from this theology that no one could do anything good toward someone else. The theology of depravity, or total depravity, is not that people can’t do good things. It is that they cannot do good things to earn their salvation. Or better yet, there is nothing they can do to earn God’s favor to earn salvation.
There are often two reasons why a Christian might fall into this erroneous thinking that only Christians can do good things. The first reason being that their chronological theology is in error. By that I mean that the way theology is presented in chronological order matters.
When we speak of total depravity, often Christians treat this doctrine like the first theology which we find in the Bible. We need to remember that before the fall of Satan and Adam and Eve sinning in the garden we have God’s creation. Not only do we have creation, but we see that God created things perfect and good. So we need to remember that God created man good before man screwed things up. This will give us a slightly different perspective on the human race.
You might be asking about the passage in Scripture that says man has a seared conscience. In I Timothy 4:2, the purpose of the passage says that there are certain things that we inherently know because we are humans made by God. In essence our conscience is God-given to know basic rights and wrongs. It also says that people have seared their conscience, which explains why things which people used to believe were right they now think are wrong. This happens slowly over time as people are desensitized to certain sins.
In I Timothy 4:2, there are many things which people in their conscience used to believe are right that they now call wrong or vice versa. What we must not forget is that every human being, whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or atheist was created in the image of God, or in the Latin – the Imago Dei.
The Imago Dei is the belief that every single human being is made in God’s image. Being made in the image of God does not mean we are made to look physically like him, but that our characteristics, logic, knowledge, and emotions are patterned after Him.
There are times when the Christian can look at the atheist who is truly living out atheistic ideology and see how it is different from the Christian ideology. We must also believe that the atheist does things, maybe even tens of thousands of things in their lives, that are a direct reflection of being made in God’s image. So the person without faith, while having both a seared conscience in some areas, also has God’s image.
As a case study let’s consider one of the most horrible human beings, Adolf Hitler. Both the Christian and the atheist agree that Hitler did heinous things. To be able to do these things Hitler had one of the most seared consciences there has ever been. At the same time did you know that Hitler was a painter? You can find paintings that he did, and most of us would consider him pretty talented.
What does Hitler being a painter have to do with the subject? Well, the painting itself has no practical function. By that I mean there’s no direct benefit to the human body. But, when we think about God, one of His attributes is that of beauty. While Hitler seared his conscious in some areas, the idea of beauty was reflected in other areas. There were times that Hitler himself had the image of God shining through him. Not because he was a christian, but because God’s image, even in small ways, is in every human. While it may have been minimal, and it was definitely overshadowed by many of the atrocious acts that he did, it was there.
Now let’s discuss the different perspectives on people’s need for growing in life. Spiritual growth in the Bible is called “Sanctification.” Often I hear of people who are not of faith insulted by the idea. It often comes with the thought, so you think I’m not good enough! From a practical standpoint let’s think about things this way.
Is there an area of life where you really think you were doing things to the best of your ability the first time? Does anyone graduate college and on their first day of their career think, I’ve arrived? Or does anyone think on their honeymoon, “I know all there is to know about marriage?” Does anyone hold their first child and believe that they need no outside advice on raising a tiny human? So the question is not “Do we need advice for personal growth?” but “Where do we look for it?”
One last difference to consider is between doing good things and doing things the right way in order to glorify God. When the Christian says you are not good enough to go to heaven, it doesn’t mean you have to do more good things to go to Heaven. Scripture clearly teaches in Romans 10:9-10 that salvation comes as a result of believing that Jesus is God, that He lived a perfect life, and that His sacrifice on the cross is what pays for our sin. This is the way to receive heaven and eternity with Jesus.
After salvation, the Christian ethic is a calling to share the Gospel and reflect Christ in acts of love and selflessness. This calling to do good things is, not just for the sake of doing good, but also for the sake and foremost to glorify God. While the atheist can do good things, you cannot earn salvation with your actions unless you believe in Jesus for salvation. So the atheist who is doing good things is not doing them for the purpose of pleasing God and reflecting His goodness. This is where the rub lies.
Christian, we need to be careful how we talk about those who don’t believe in God. They are not all out there doing horrible things all of the time. They have the image of God within them. They do good things because they are made in God’s image. Otherwise we have a misunderstanding that the image of God is in every human.
Thanks for taking time to read this Maddening Theology post. If you enjoyed this content you can find Pastor Tim’s sermons at www.cornerstoneforestcity.org. You can also join us at 520 Marion St. Browndale, PA 18421 on Sundays at 10:45 AM. To make following the blog easier you can also register. You can also join us on Facebook at Cornerstone Forest City. Also, don’t forget to download our APP on iTunes or Googleplay.