Question: I have some friends who are not Christians, but who are much better people than some Christians I have met. Isn’t it more important how you live than what you believe?
Frank answers: I assume by “better people” you mean folks who are helpful neighbors, supportive colleagues, willing volunteers for community and charitable activities — that sort of people. My Jewish next door neighbor is a really nice guy who would do anything to help me. Buddhists are among the most tolerant people I know. I’ve met many unchurched people who are doing their part to make the world a better place. Atheists can also staff soup kitchens.
Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s a validation of our view that the image of God in us has been effaced by sin but not obliterated. There is a natural law tradition in Christian ethics that appeals to St. Paul’s statement in Romans 1 that the invisible God’s being and intentions can be “seen through the things he has made.” This means that if any of us, including non-believers, do the right things it is because there is a natural instinct to do so. And if we don’t follow God’s intentions for us, we are,as Paul says, “without excuse.” Centuries before Christ, and without knowledge of Moses, Aristotle wrote his Ethics, and it even served as the basis of medieval Christian ethical reflection. Not surprisingly, the “golden rule” has been found in some form in all of the world’s religions.
The noted psychologist and neuroscientist (and Buddhist) Rick Hanson says, on the basis of his research, that goodness is built into us. He wrote on his blog that “When the body is not disturbed by hunger, thirst, pain, or illness, and when the mind is not disturbed by threat, frustration, or rejection, then most people settle into their resting state, a sustainable equilibrium in which the body refuels and repairs itself and the mind feels peaceful, happy, and loving.” In other words, it is our natural state to be calm, caring and content. It is when we are disturbed — whether by external threats or phantoms of thought — that negative qualities such as fear, anger and greed manifest themselves.
This research suggests that if we could remove the things that affect the body and the mind negatively, we could return to the “resting state” in which we abide in peace and wellbeing (shalom). Spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, meditation, and yoga can help us achieve states of calm that might redound to expressions of kindness in our daily lives. But we also live in a world in which there are external threats and for various reasons our minds may be overcome by phantoms. So we act out in fear, anger, or in other negative ways.
The problem is that we can’t remove from our lives the realities that keep us from doing good and that prompt us to act out in negative and harmful ways. Cain was jealous of his younger brother Abel over the Lord’s regard for Abel’s offering. The Lord had told Cain that sin was lurking at the door and he must master his instincts. But Cain took Abel out into a field and killed him (Genesis 4). We are taken captive by power of sin from which we cannot free ourselves and need to be saved. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans,
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do. Now if I do not do what I want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
…I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:15, 18b-20, 22-25).
What Christianity offers is not so much a path to good behavior (which all religions can offer) as salvation from the powers that keep us from doing the good we want to do. This is why beliefs are important, especially (1) belief in those realities within ourselves and in the world around us that keep us from living the good life we want to live in peace and harmony with all fellow beings and (2) belief in the power of God to defeat these hostile powers in the world finally and also within myself now. If we are not preaching what God has done in Christ to save us, we are not preaching gospel (“good news”).
Christianity is a religion of salvation, not of ethical humanism. We believe that we are taken captive by realities that keep us from doing all the good we want to do and that prevent us from becoming the kind of person we would like to be. We have traditionally named these realities “sin, death, and the devil”. We name these realities and acknowledge their presence in our lives when we join in the confession of sins. Our salvation lies in what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, in his incarnation into human flesh to live among us and share our life experiences (including our temptations), the atoning sacrifice of his death on the cross, and his resurrection by which he defeated the powers of sin, death, and evil. This is the gospel, the good news that is proclaimed in the historic Creeds of the Church. We believe and confess in the creeds what God has done in Christ “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed).
It is lamentable that many local churches (congregations, parishes) remove from their orders of worship the two confessions that are most important for stating what Christians most essentially believe: the prayer of confession of sins and the Creed by which we confess the faith of the Church. Some omit these confessions because they think that these belief statements about our sinfulness and God’s salvation in Christ offend people. So apparently out of concern not to offend contemporary sensibilities (which holds that we are basically good people and that we have it within us to do the right thing – this was the ancient heresy of Pelagianism!) pastors and priests drop these statements from the church’s liturgy and emphasize instead all the wonderful things we do together. But what we can do individually or together is not the gospel. The church is not the good news that people need; Christ is. The church is the community that is commissioned to proclaim and celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and sacraments.
Maybe people must be offended into realizing that they are captive to realities from which they need to be saved and that God has acted in Christ to save them. The primary task of preaching should be to point this out and drive people to these two confessions in our liturgies: of our sin and of our faith in God’s saving act in Christ. Then, rejoicing in our forgiveness and celebrating the new life in Christ, we can do those works that, in the language of the old Prayer Book, God has prepared for us to do.
As a personal note, I add that as a retired pastor who attends worship as a participant rather than as a leader and who, like lay people, lives the life of faith in the day-to-day life of the world, I often come to church needing to make both the confession of sins and the confession of faith. I don’t think I’m the only Christian who needs what the liturgy provides when it is left intact.
— Pastor Frank Senn
Image above article: Cain Killing Abel, attributed to Francesco Maffei 1620s
Image below article: Crucifixion of Jesus, drawn by Gustave Doré