Here’s something to think about. Why would Christians have the audacity to claim that all human beings are, quote ”sinners”? Isn’t that just being unnecessary pessimistic? Aren’t people essentially good?
Yes, people are, in a sense, “essentially good”. But Christians use those words in a slightly different way. To say a person is essentially good means that since people are made in God’s image (that is, resemblance, or likeness) we never are able to fully erase that essential quality, regardless of how much we may deface it. Essential goodness in this sense means that we cannot entirely escape our divine worth; since God has given us this worth, it is not within our power to destroy it.
However, the more common meaning of “essentially good” is different.
As it happens, Jesus was once asked this very same question by some of the religious leaders of his time: What is the most important thing?
… but before we hear Jesus’ answer, consider this short parable:
A man was walking by a river when suddenly he heard a loud splash, and saw a woman flailing her arms helplessly in the water. The man recognized that she could not swim. He knew that she would surely drown in the fast moving water. Throwing off his coat, he dove in the river, grabbed her arm, and dragged her to safety.
For saving her life, the man was praised as a hero, and the tale of braveness began to spread. Observers called for the man to be awarded a medal of honor, and a reporter from the local paper even interviewed him.
However, the next day’s newspaper told the rest of the story. When asked why he saved the woman, the man answered “I don’t care about the woman herself. I only saved her because she owed me a hundred dollars. I’m an expert swimmer, and I knew that if she drowned she would never be able to repay my money. Frankly I couldn’t care less if she drowned.” The townspeople were aghast, and no one ever spoke again of awarding him a medal of honor.
Why do we react differently to the story after hearing about the man’s intentions? The act itself does not change, and although the act is not entirely negated, it seems in a sense tainted. The man is no longer considered a hero. It seems as though if a person does a right act for a wrong reason, we are innately (and rightly) repulsed by it.
A person’s motivation matters. For example, a person who is guilty of committing manslaughter receives a lesser sentence than one who commits first degree murder; what differs is their motivation. So we can agree that motivation for an act can change the worthiness (or unworthiness) of the act. Let’s keep this fact in mind.
Back to Jesus
When Jesus was asked what was most important, he answered by twice quoting the Old Testament:
Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ (Matthew 22:37-39)
Notice what Jesus said is the most important thing: Love God with everything that you have. Loving your neighbors (by which Jesus means all people, even enemies) is second. Still important, of course, but secondary. And according to Jesus, love for our neighbors flows from our acts done for God, but the reverse is not necessarily true. John explains it this way: “We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2-3, NLT)
Now, if Jesus is right (this is how Jesus argued, not me) how can we be “good” if our motivation for acting ignores what Jesus claimed is most important? How can a person be “good” if their motivation is all wrong? How can a person be “good” if they ignore God?
Who do I follow?
Some will say, “But I believe that God exists. Just not in the Christian God.”
Note carefully how Jesus responded when he was tempted. He quoted the Old Testament by saying “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:10, Luke 4:8) He didn’t say to worship any ‘ol god, but to worship the Lord. There are many false “gods” in the world, but only one God. I am reminded of James’ reproof: “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” (James 2:19, NLT)
Back to our original query: Are we generally nice guys/gals? Mostly free from sin? Basically good? That’s like asking if a glass of water that’s been repeatedly spit in is still “mostly good to drink”. As Paul said, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Sorry to be so blunt, but sometimes doctors have to be blunt in order to begin a process of healing. Jesus Himself noted “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Trying to fix ourselves by our own effort won’t work either. I know that’s counterintuitive in our “self help” culture, but how can someone drowning in quicksand pull themselves out? We can’t.
The good news is that we don’t have to save ourselves. In Jesus Christ, God Himself came into our world in the flesh in order to save us from ourselves and from spiritual death, and show us the way to renewed life. Paul explains:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
What you’ve just read is something worth thinking about. Anyone who says all the religions are basically the same has never really grasped the unique message Jesus offers: “Good people” don’t go to heaven. Forgiven people do.
Living with hope
What would your life look like if you could start over with a clean slate? If you are looking for peace, there is a way to balance your life. No one can be perfect, or have a perfect life. But every one of us has the opportunity to experience perfect grace through a personal relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. God loves us dearly, but our sin separates us from Him. Jesus’ life and death in our place bridges the gap to restore us to a right relationship with God, and His resurrection gives us the assurance of our eternal life.
You can begin a personal relationship with Jesus right now by faith through prayer. Praying is simply talking to God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. Here’s a suggested prayer:
Lord Jesus, I want to know you personally. I want to make you the “most important thing” in my life. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life to you and ask you to come in as my Savior and Lord. Take control of my life. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be.
Does this prayer express the desire of your heart? You can pray it right now, and Jesus Christ will come into your life, just as He promised.
Is this the life for you?
If you invited Christ into your life, thank God often that He is in your life, that He will never leave you and that you have eternal life. As you learn more about your relationship with God, and how much He loves you, you’ll experience life to the fullest.