Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Nice Sinners

Happy Worker

by Dennis Pollock

We have all met them. They are delightful to spend time with. They have a great sense of humor, an engaging personality, a winning smile, and winsome ways. They are so entirely likeable that they appear to be nearly faultless, if it weren't for just one thing – they aren't Christians. They never pray, never touch the Bible, have no use for church whatsoever, and possess zero interest in spiritual things. Sometimes we think to ourselves, "What an amazing blessing this person could be – if only he would give his life to Christ!"

In some ways many of us would prefer it to work a little differently. We might like it better if every person who receives Jesus instantly becomes that likeable, sweet, gentle, attractive person, and if everyone who is not a Christian was surly, brutish, mean-spirited, hot-headed, and utterly obnoxious. And certainly we could probably find some non-Christians who fit that description – but not all! If we are honest we have to admit that there are some non-praying, non-church attending, non-Bible reading, non-worshipers who are genuinely nice people. They make great neighbors and co-workers, and are in fact much easier to get along with than some Christians that we know.

How do we respond to this dilemma? If Jesus is supposed to make us patient, sweet, and kind, what are we to do with those folks who already patient, sweet, and kind, and have apparently done it without Jesus Christ in their life? How can we promise them that Jesus will make them nicer, when in fact we suspect that they may already be as nice as we are, and in some cases perhaps slightly ahead of us on the niceness scale?

Fundamental Misunderstanding

Our confusion stems from a basic misunderstanding of the nature and effect of the new birth experience, and the unique genetic package that we all possess from our birth. When we receive Jesus Christ by faith and are given the gift of eternal life, there are many changes that occur in our lives. They come in two categories: the instantaneous and the gradual. In the instantaneous category are the forgiveness of our sins and a state of perfect justification in the eyes of God. Instantly, in a fraction of a moment, when we first believe on Jesus Christ from the heart our sins are forgiven, we become a child of God, and we receive the Holy Spirit and eternal life. We don't earn this, we don't work for it, and it is not the least bit gradual. No one ever gradually becomes a Christian, any more than you can gradually become pregnant or gradually join the army, or gradually explode a bomb, get married, or delete a file from your computer. In the book of Acts, Paul describes Jesus' words of commission to him:

I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me. (Acts 26:17,18)

All of these benefits: being turned from darkness to light, receiving the forgiveness of sins and an inheritance in Christ, are instantaneous benefits that are bestowed upon us the very moment we trust in Jesus. But there are some other benefits and blessings that are of a gradual nature. They do not arrive with a bang but rather grow within us over the course of days, months, years, and decades. This would include what the Bible calls the "fruit of the Spirit," also known as the "fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ." Fruit never explodes into existence. It slowly grows and ripens until it reaches the peak of perfection. So it is with the character traits of Jesus that are produced in us as we abide in Him. Kindness, faithfulness, self-control, love, gentleness… all these are developed in us over time. To expect these fruits to appear in their full, mature state the moment we are born again would be unrealistic. The Fountain and source of them is given us in an instant; their outgrowth and maturation will take some time. Although truly born again and spiritually renewed, our personalities, our habits, and the way we relate to others usually reveal that we still have a long way to go.

But What About the Nice Sinners?

Nearly every Christian would agree with this, but it still calls into question the fact that some sinners, who have not even begun this process, who do not possess the indwelling Spirit, still sometimes manage to show attractive character and winsome personalities. Some have suggested that all men have a spark of the divine life in them, but this does not at all square with the Biblical doctrine of depravity, and the idea that until we experience Jesus Christ we are dead in trespasses and sins, without God and without hope. But if the sinner does not possess any trace of divine life, how can some seem to be so virtuous and at times demonstrate character that puts many evangelical Christians to shame? Many ungodly mothers would gladly give their lives for their children, many non-praying soldiers have fought bravely and courageously, even putting themselves at risk for their fellow-soldiers. Some businessmen who make no profession of Christ whatsoever are entirely upright and honest in their dealings; some teachers who have never gone to church in their lives make a huge positive difference in the lives of their students. Some non-Christians give large amounts of money to help clothe and feed poor children, some Christ-denying musicians regularly hold concerts for charitable causes; some unsaved celebrities adopt poor African children. How can such noble and commendable behavior spring from hearts that are spiritually dead?

DNAWe fail to recognize the tremendous role of genetics in the makeup of men and women. Of course everyone readily acknowledges this on a physical level. None of us had any control over the color of our hair or the features of our face. Some babies are born with robust, strong bodies that will last them for eight or nine decades, while others are weak and sickly throughout their lives, and never make it to their sixties. It is one of life's most fundamental inequalities that children have absolutely no say in the attributes built into the fabric of their being as they come into this world. We enter our life on this earth oblivious to the huge array of assets and liabilities that accompany us and will be so hugely influential in making us the persons we will become.

What we sometimes miss is that one's essential character is also a feature of this genetic package that we are born with. The tendency to be hot-tempered or easy-going, the tendency to be jealous or magnanimous, the leaning toward generosity or stinginess, the outgoing, friendly personality vs. the awkward, withdrawn type – all of these are a part of this basic package built mysteriously within our genes. Certainly environment can play a role, bad or good parenting can make a big difference, childhood traumas and abuse can produce negative results, but there is no discounting the role of genetics.

One positive genetic factor few consider is that we are all born in the image of God. James writes: "With (the tongue) we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God" (James 3:9). He is telling us that every man and woman has been stamped with the imprint of their Creator, and that we have no business cursing and speaking critical, hateful words of anyone. This is true even of the sinner. When we see non-Christians demonstrating kindness, acting patiently, showing honesty, and behaving honorably, we are seeing a residue of their Creator that their sinful nature has not yet fully eradicated. No, they do not possess the life of God, but they do possess some genetic memory of the nature of the One who made their first distant ancestor, Adam, in His own likeness.

Some individuals show far more of this image than others. And especially if they were born in homes with kind and attentive parents, it is quite possible that they will grow up to become highly attractive, respectable, industrious individuals, liked by nearly all who know them. This is not because Jesus Christ lives in them, not because they have spent so much time in the presence of God, not because they spent countless hours reading their Bibles or have been listening to and heeding the voice of the Holy Spirit over many years – they are simply the product of great genes, a good upbringing, and being made in the image of God. They are likeable, they are attractive, they are admirable – but they are lost, and they are in serious trouble.

The essence of the problem

The Bible makes it plain that no matter how nice we are, we are not nearly nice enough. The only niceness, the only goodness, the only righteousness God will ever accept is that which is from His Son Jesus Christ. In some ways the niceness of the non-Christians is like orange juice. Orange juice contains quite a bit of sugar and tastes very sweet when you are drinking it with foods that are not sweet. But if you ever eat a really sweet cookie or a large candy bar first, and then sip the orange juice it tastes downright nasty. Its sweetness cannot begin to compare with the candy, and ends up tasting sour by comparison. So it is when the goodness and niceness of sinners is contrasted with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. The fact is, no matter how nice the person, no matter how attractive and agreeable the personality, no matter how pleasant the demeanor, the hearts of all men and women are riddled with selfishness and greed, and the stench of moral corruption. With some people, this spiritual decay is in its early stages and we hardly notice it, while with others it is full-blown and unmistakable.

A Matter of Direction

God is a lot tougher to impress than we are. In people that we assume are nearly flawless, God sees the hideous seeds of egotism and self-interest, and knows that, given enough time and opportunity, these seeds will mature and lead to misery, ruin, and depravity. In the sinner, the direction is always downward. Paul tells the believers to "put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts" (Ephesians 4:22). Not only is this sinful nature foul, loathsome, and corrupt; it is growing more corrupt; it is getting worse and worse over time. God, who sees the end from the beginning, not only views the ungodly with perfect perception in their present state; He sees how far into depravity they will fall over years, decades, centuries, and millennia. He cannot possibly allow them into His heaven in such a condition. We must have our heart, our nature, our ways, and our direction fundamentally changed. For this reason Jesus tells us, "You must be born again" (John 3:7).

When we receive Jesus and become members of the family of God, the Holy Spirit immediately begins His process of sanctification in us. He directs our circumstances, our blessings, our challenges, our relationships, our opportunities, and everything else in our lives to work as His tools in forming the character of Jesus Christ in us. It is not an overnight process, but He is patient. Just as with the sinner, He sees the end from the beginning. He knows that the ultimate result is sure and it will be a beautiful thing.

Most of us don't look too beautiful in the early going, however. We have all sorts of rough edges that need smoothing, warts that need removing, and crookedness that needs straightening. We may rank fairly low on the sweetness scale, perhaps even lower than our unsaved neighbor. But in the eyes of God there is a vast difference between us and them. Whereas the Christian is being transformed from "glory to glory" and moving, albeit sometimes rather slowly, in the direction of the very nature of Jesus Christ, the unsaved man is growing worse, less patient, more selfish, and more irritable with the passing years. His progress downward may be as imperceptible to others as our progress upward. But in the eyes of the Almighty the difference is enormous. Christ has become our justification, and eternal forgiveness was granted the moment we believed. "Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).

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