When you live in the Bible belt, nearly everybody knows they should be better than they are. It’s a cultural fixture to self-deprecate by listing all the ways you don’t measure up. This is especially bad when you tell people you’re a pastor. Whether it's on an airplane, waiting in line, meeting somebody new, or running into an old friend, I’m used to that cringe-worthy moment when somebody asks you what you do, and you tell them you’re in ministry.
Once it’s happened a few times, you can almost script the next few lines. Sometimes they give you a list of well-intentioned excuses for their lack of recent church attendance because they know you’re in charge of the perfect attendance award! Others will change their tone and demeanor, switch their language over to the King James, the conversation eventually dies of awkwardness. Still, others will ask for prayer or tell you about something going on in their life. These are the best of the bunch.
The underlying similarity in all of these reactions is a sense of guilt. And even though I joke about the reaction most people have to being told they’re in the presence of a pastor, I feel this way too from time to time. Maybe the most serious setback we deal with in the church is the belief that Christianity is about being good.
I can’t remember if Cliff Sanders or Lance Ward originally said this, but whoever it was, it’s really good: Most churches want you to behave, God wants you to be holy. There’s a massive difference between those two. Holiness is in a different league than good. It’s not in the same category as great. The standard of holiness God requires is moral perfection. In Encounters With Jesus, Tim Keller puts it this way, “If there is a God, you owe him far more than a morally decent life.” Morally decent won’t cut it. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” In the Greek, that word is, never. Unless you’re perfect, you’ve got no shot. And you’re not perfect.
The key to the gospel is surrender, not moral improvement. One of the fascinating things about Jesus ministry that’s often overlooked is the ministry of John the Baptist. He prepared the way of the Lord by preaching repentance. He was like the alcohol swab before the shot. All he did was tell people to repent. The front door to the gospel, then and now, is repentance - full-fledged, life-altering, unconditional surrender. Jesus’ death does nothing for you until you confess your sinfulness, surrender your life to his rule, and begin to follow him.
Most of you know that. That’s what the gospel is really about. So why do we continue playing this game of being good? In my own heart, I see two reasons.
First, there are lots of people who don’t really know the gospel. Maybe especially in “churched” areas, a lot of people have been taught that Jesus came to make their life better. They go to church, they hear about all the things they shouldn’t be doing, and then the gospel they’re offered is essentially an improvement plan that leads to God being happier with them and they’re life dramatically improving. Over time this convinces us that what God is really after is good behavior and what we really need is a new set of principles. It’s the ultimate religious work smarter, not harder plan. So people get frustrated with gritting their teeth and trying their very hardest each week to be a better parent, break an addiction, stop lying, and be nicer to everyone.
Not all of this preaching is misguided. Some of the confusion comes from switching the order of salvation and sanctification. Salvation begins the moment we admit we can’t do anything to please God on our own and we need him to save us by his grace and pay the price for our sins. Sanctification is realizing that if we are saved, we can’t do anything but give everything we have to please God. If people are convinced that they need to please God before they surrender to God, then they’ll sit there and tell you all the ways they know they could be better, but they’ll miss out on Christ. When we preach, evangelize, parent, shepherd, and talk about the gospel. We have to get the order right. We have to remind ourselves and everybody else that surrender comes first.
Second, it’s easier to talk about being better than it is to actually repent. Repentance is risky, but there’s freedom in it. It’s so much easier to make excuses, to humanize my sin, or to make what I’ve done or what I’m struggling with sound unique, but in the end, all of those attempts can be a mask that I put up because I'm scared of the cost of genuinely admitting who I am. The ugly part of it is by trying to minimize the problem, we actually make it worse. Avoiding repentance is like when you tell a lie, and you have to tell another and another and another to stay afloat. Eventually, you get to the point where you have no idea what’s true anymore.
The best thing we can do is change the narrative. Being good isn’t good enough. Only surrender will do. The sense we have that we should be better should be answered with the gospel first and then satisfied by the relentless pursuit of Christ second.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!