I Believe in the Gospel, and in Good People

I’ve spent my entire life so far in the church, mainly evangelical churches of one kind or another.

I’ve also spent the last ten or so years in active ministry in a few different church environments – conservative Baptist, missional church plant, and, now, mainline Methodist.

And one hard lesson I’ve learned on this journey (among a whole hell of a lot of hard lessons) is that not all Christians are good people.

In fact, some of them are really bad.

(Yeah, you read that right.)

Thing is, that statement in itself is a problem for most Christians, especially the evangelical kind. And that’s because we evangelicals have been trained to believe that there’s no such thing as a good person to begin with. We’re all sinners, right? We’re all broken. We’re all bad. And all sin is equal in God’s eyes. Even the slightest offense is an infinite offense to an infinitely holy God. We are totally depraved! Every facet of us is corrupted by the power of sin! And even after we are saved, there remains a sin nature that wars against the new Spiritual nature within us, so that every act is still threatened by the effects of the Fall. In sum:

‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God’…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

In this sense, we are all the “worms” to Calvin and Luther’s Perfect Judge. Or, in Edwards’ vision:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.

Or, in Driscoll’s modern vision: “God hates you.”

 

This, of course, is all a setup for The Gospel which is presented as a message of sheer grace in light of such sure damnation. The gospel has nothing to do with you or your supposed “goodness” – it has everything to do with God’s mercy in Christ pardoning you from your death and hell sentence. It is hyper-individualized to mean that God’s wrath is what you, the individual sinner, deserve, but God’s grace can give you what you don’t deserve. In the words of C.J. Mahaney (currently embroiled in a child abuse scandal) Christians should never complain because we are always doing better than we deserve!

Of course, I believe this is a distortion of the gospel. But the strange side effect of what many believe to be the gospel is a self-deception that fosters a kind of moral agnosticism. Whereas in one sense conservative evangelicals are known for their insistence on moral values and politicized judgment towards outsiders, in another sense they are insisting that none of us can be deeply, truly good. It’s my belief that this leads to a kind of spiritual split personality disorder in the life and thought of many Christians, such that a superficial morality and spirituality is held tightly while the inner struggles and brokenness are attributed to that unfortunate sin nature, and are largely ignored or avoided. It is a kind of baptized denial – turn away from the dark stuff and just pretend it’s not there. Because, you know, the joy of the Lord is your strength.

I’m not saying that this is the psychological profile of every Christian, nor that evangelicals are categorically any worse than non-Christians overall. What I am saying, though, is that reason, experience, and reality have proven to me time and time again that there are, in fact, good people and bad people in the world. And the good people I have known have often been non-Christians. And some of the baddest I’ve come across have been, you guessed it, Christians.

And I don’t believe it’s good enough to say, “well, simul justus et peccator (simultaneously sinner and saint),” or, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” and lapse into that same old moral agnosticism. Instead, I think we have to acknowledge this reality and envision the gospel afresh in light of it.

And that starts with a working definition of “good” and “bad” – which I think would be better described as “healthy” and “unhealthy” or perhaps “honest” and “dishonest.” The best people I have known (Christian and non) have been those who are truly, deeply healthy in an emotional sense; that are most in touch with the things going on within them, the brokenness, pain, and struggles, the experiences that have scarred them, the traumas they’ve endured, the mistakes they’ve made. They are working through these things, not avoiding them or running from them. Likewise, these good people are honest – terribly, wonderfully honest. Rather than deceiving themselves through constant self-justification leading to arrogance and hubris, they recognize there own shortcomings, and it humbles them. It makes them open, attentive, empathetic. And rather than deceiving others through leading, manipulation, and control, they put things on the table and work things out. They risk not getting their way. They avoid aggression and passive aggression alike and opt for healthy, straightforward conflict resolution. They see things clearly and understand and own the consequences of their actions, rather than pinning destructive choices on everyone but themselves. Good people are very familiar with the words, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I love you.”

They aren’t perfect, to be sure – but they are good. And this isn’t a pristine moral state that they’ve arrived at so that they can look down their nose at others (because that would be bad), but is instead a direction, a path, that they are intentionally and decidedly pursuing. And this is not to say that bad people are ruled out, but that even Pharisees and rich politicians have the opportunity to move in a different direction and become good too.

Of course, it is disturbing to an evangelical Christian mind to call anyone who doesn’t believe and worship God “good.” It scandalizes modern visions of the gospel. But I believe it is necessary to both recover the ancient sense of the gospel and reimagine it for a culture in which emotional health is an increasingly desirable (and necessary) goal. If anything, what the New Testament is giving us is not a hyper-individualized vision of sin and pardon, but a covenantal and corporate vision of brokenness and healing. Thus, the church is not the place where individuals are subjected to the crucible of an angry God offering pardon through conversion on an anxious bench, but a society of wounded sinners who are finding forgiveness and the hope of actually experiencing the good, the healthy, the honest way to live. 

And this is not out of sync with what many outside the church are also seeking and experiencing, but in sync with it – and then some. The uniqueness of Christianity is not that we now may appear highly moral and spiritual by denying the sin nature below the surface and running away from our issues, but that we may face our shadow self in all its darkness with courageous honesty because we believe the resurrection of Jesus promises complete healing in the end. Our struggles, our traumas, our shortcomings are all now subsumed under the already/not yet unveiling of the kingdom, and as whole people we can begin to move toward the consummation and full restoration of that which is broken.

This kingdom vision of goodness – which is actually good news! – takes the “simul justus et peccator” and “all have sinned” realities and injects them with resurrection hope. We need not run. We need not deny. We need not self-deceive. We may be honest. We may pursue real, deep health. And we may do this, looking unto Jesus, with the wind of the Spirit beneath our wings.

If we allow the modern Christian gospel to be scandalized by this vision of goodness, we may find far fewer actual scandals rocking the church.

If we allow the reality of bad, unhealthy, dishonest people to have a category in our thinking, we may find that fewer Christians are becoming those people (and there is protection in the church from those people).

And if we even follow the example of so many outside the church who are living healthy, honest lives, we may finally find that we have so much in common with these “outsiders” plus a unique and everlasting hope that actually welcomes them in.

None of us are perfect. All of us are sinners. And no one is ruled out. There’s hope for the hardest Pharisee.

But the good news is that all of us can actually become…good.

Ok, let’s have it. Push-back. Critique. Accusations of heresy. I’m ready!

[Image Source]

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Home run, Zach! You’re writing everything I want to write!
    Actually I find this personally quite challenging because I recognise it as a place I’ve been trapped in for many years. And the only way out is, as you explained, a rediscovery of the actual, biblical gospel in all it’s glory. Why do so many churches settle for so much less than this?

  • uponacloud

    You are a closeted Anglican, I tell you.

  • Christina13

    ” but a society of wounded sinners who are finding forgiveness and the hope of actually experiencing the good, the healthy, the honest way to live.” -Beautiful.
    Sorry, can’t push back…can only say, “Yes!”

  • benjaminburton

    This is good, bro.
    But could you expound on this:
    “But I believe it is necessary to both recover the ancient sense of the gospel and reimagine it for a culture in which emotional health is an increasingly desirable (and necessary) goal.”
    Maybe I got hung up on the words “emotional health” (because of that pesky counseling degree) but I wasn’t sure how that reference tied in with the rest of the paragraph/post.

  • LaviniaAndrew

    So much I agree with! Is it heresy? Perhaps but then the blokes that decided what was orthodox and what was heresy lived a long long time ago and I’m not sure they had much of a idea about emotional/spiritual health or lack of it. I love your thoughts here and yep, I’ve noticed the good people too. And the bad ones who are as Christian as they come but are just bad people. I think Christianity actually gets in the way of emotional health because we focus on the wrong things and have a lack of understanding about healthy v unhealthy. That’s been my experience anyway, as I get pressure to die to self in all the wrong ways. Honesty and awareness of brokenness is the place to start and those are the characteristics of people who just ooze with the Holy Spirit, who lead me in my own healing and who are Christ in the flesh.

  • rachel_virginia

    I found that the more honest I am with G-d and others, the more peaceful and “good” i become.  I do so many shitty things when I’m hating my brokenness, my neediness, my disability. I have only met Christ the most tangibly in the moments that I was loved as I was. And THAT was my motive to do good and live more honestly, more peaceably, not the fear of being “bad” . You cannot ignore the fruit of Jesus’s Kingdom, his Kingdom that welcomes the broken and poor in spirit. :D
    Love. <3

  • GravityTraveler

    Agreed! It’s always been interesting to me that so many christians define themselves and others as ‘good’ on the basis of their christianity. Likewise, many non-christians I know feel indignant toward christianity as the purported source of goodness, because they already *are* good. They feed the poor, they help their neighbor; and they’ve been painted a picture of christianity (by christians) that resembles a Boy Scout club that is validated as good by their Jesus merit badges. That in and of itself should give us pause in how we’ve been portraying the power of Christ in our lives.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    uponacloud haha probably right.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    rachel_virginia so right on, thanks rachel.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    @GravityTraveler yeah man.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    LaviniaAndrew “we have a lack of understanding about healthy v unhealthy.” EXACTLY. and those people who ooze with the Spirit – beautiful.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    benjaminburton mainly i’m saying that our current understanding of ‘emotional health’ is consistent with the gospel. i think the rest of the paragraph was saying that too, but help me out if there’s an inconsistency.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Christina13 thank you!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Rob Grayson right on man. and thanks so much for all your encouragement. i appreciate it.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    zachhoag No problem, dude. Encouragement is something I like to give and receive :)
    BTW, good call also on emotional health. Isn’t it funny how evangelical churches and Christians often look down on non-religious approaches to emotional health (e.g. secular counselling)?I think one of the biggest causes of emotional unhealth for Christians is the kind of denial that comes from living with the sort of “split personality” you describe. Any half-decent counsellor knows that the key to emotional health is rigorous honesty.

  • http://www.beingwellstayingwell.com/ Lisa Goodwin

    Right on Zach! I have been a Lutheran pastor’s wife for 28 years, am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and also attended a Baptist college. I have long observed what you have – most Christians are no “better” than non-Christians in their emotional health, humility, and love for others. I think being willing to explore more honestly and openly the struggles of our “shadows” or dark sides will help us live more as lights in the world. I wrote a post on this subject  (among other subjects) on my beingwellstayingwell.com blog in case you want to check it out.
    http://wp.me/p3uNBO-1D

  • http://www.beingwellstayingwell.com/ Lisa Goodwin

    Rob Grayson zachhoag 
    As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and pastor’s wife (28 years now), I see so many Christians who are profoundly emotionally unhealthy, but unwilling and unable to grapple with it because they spiritualize it all, which serves as a form of denial.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    @Lisa Goodwin Rob Grayson zachhoag wow, thanks for this perspective, Lisa.

  • MarkADemers

    zachhoag benjaminburton I know I’ve said this before … but I do believe it  - that “spiritual” health and “emotional” health are not the same.  I think this means that “emotional health” and the gospel are different – not completely unrelated, but not to be confused one for the other.  One of the reasons, perhaps, that we have “bad Christians” and “good people who are not Christians” is that we have emotionally unhealthy people within the church – and for them, the gospel spins on the slippery ice of their emotional pathology – and emotionally healthy folk outside the church whose lives give traction to the moral teachings of Christ.

  • MarkADemers

    zachhoag uponacloud …or Methodist.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    MarkADemers zachhoag uponacloud I was going to say the same thing! I was remembering all kinds of Wesley stuff I’ve read as I wrote this post.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    MarkADemers zachhoag benjaminburton yeah, I think that’s a good nuance. Those “bad Christians” may doubtless be Christians, experiencing redemption/hope/rescue through the good news, even if they are not “moving on” into emotional health. The only thing I’d want to avoid is a situation that can be abused – kind of a ‘sin so grace may abound’ scenario – where folks continue to hide their emotional issues or destructive behavior while outwardly “showing” spirituality. I think repentance/sanctification requires some movement into emotional health (it’s always a process/direction)..

  • DZRishmawy

    Yah, I resonate a lot with this, but, surprisingly, from a Reformed perspective. To quote myself clarifying what the doctrine of total depravity does and does not actually mean (because, well, why type it all out again?):
    “To be clear, the doctrine does not teach that all humanity is as “depraved” as possible. ‘Total’ refers to the scope, not depth, of the problem of sin. It affirms that there is not a single area, or part, of our nature that has not been subject to sin’s corrupting influence; though created good, not our mind, will, reason, bodily instincts, or anything else that could be singled out, remains untouched by the Fall. As such, there is no leverage or foothold in human nature whereby it might reach up to God, or present any merit, without having first been enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s power. As Michael Horton says, “there is no Archimedean point within us that is left unfallen, from which we might begin to bargain or restore our condition.” (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0310286042, pg. 433) Nor is there any impulse or instinct that is not subject to correction from God’s Word.
    This is true of the vilest criminal, or the sweetest, kindest neighbor that most of us would describe as a “good guy.” None has a chance of saving themselves by drawing on their own inner, moral resources. But, as we said, that doesn’t mean that they’re as bad as they can be. We are “not incapable of any justice or good before fellow humans.” (Horton, ibid, pg. 433) No, in fact, we do have an active, if defective, conscience that points to right and wrong, as well as accuses and defends us before God. (Rom. 2) Calvin himself quoted pagan philosophers approvingly, at times, when they concurred with Scripture’s moral judgment. We are able to do relatively good, yet not saving, acts through http://derekzrishmawy.com/2012/12/13/some-notes-on-bavinck-and-the-relationship-between-christianity-and-culture/ and common virtue. Good of this sort is nothing to be sneered at and is a testimony to the permanence of the http://derekzrishmawy.com/2013/05/27/love-them-anyways/ as well as the gracious, restraining work of the Holy Spirit.”
    What I’m saying is, I fully expect there to be by common grace and the Image of God non-Christians who are relatively better people than I am. By a lot. And that’s nothing the Bible doesn’t teach us to expect. I mean, it’s a classic point to make (as C.S. Lewis did so long ago), I rather expect people in church to be worse sometimes. I mean, if you’re a nice guy are you going to figure out you need saving, or the jerk who has destroyed his life and is a needy, emotionally-unstable wreck? 
    I was thinking about this with my college ministry the other day. I always feel weird when nice non-Christians come into the group because, well, we’re kind of all over the place. We’re weird, quirky, sometimes immature, and just, well, just not the way a church group should be. I realized that if we attract anybody in, it’s not because everybody there has got it together and you can to–it’s because you feel comfortable enough not to be okay, and you’re ready to hear about a God who wants to make things better.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    DZRishmawy hey man, really sorry for my delay in reply. I’m totally aware of the total depravity clarifications (“scope not depth” and “not as bad as we could be”), but my post is reacting to the moral agnosticism that enters into Christian communities because of the “can’t get to God” and “all sin is equally damnable” and “worthy of hell” kind of thinking that IS inherent to TD. You actually make my point well when you describe your expectations of the church community. What I’m saying, however, is that this isn’t a good or healthy expectation. Church is a hospital for hurting people, but it must never be a place where emotionally abusive and unhealthy behaviors are condoned, ignored, or tacitly protected. Then, church becomes an unsafe place for good/healthy/honest people because it’s a harbor for bad/unhealthy/deceptive people.

  • Pam zm

    Yes, the reason I left the Evangelical community was because in my 20s I met all these people who were not Christian but who were actually kinder and more generous people than those I had grown up with. I was totally unprepared for this.

  • Lydia

    You are touching on something here that is becoming more than a huge problem in Christendom today. I call it moral chaos. I would add something else to your commentary. There is confusion about sin. You touch on it when you talked about the belief that all sins are equal which brings us nothing but moral chaos.
    But I am finding that too many Christians have a false dichotomy about sin. It boils down to sinless perfection vs evil. You are either one or the other and NO ONE is going to admit they are sinless perfection. So you fall into the totally depraved category and if a Christian then you are depraved but saved.
    But we all know good decent people out there who are purposely honest and transparent. Some are believers and some aren’t. The Cals call this “common grace” as if God forced it to add even more to the moral chaos when you come across “Christians” who are deceptive and mean. So the mean people are saved but the good folks aren’t. Talk about moral chaos.
    So what is going on? I think the confusion on this issue has to be analyzed and dissected.. And some of it goes back to wrong beliefs in several categories. For the Reformed it seems to come from the belief we are born sinners and sinning. Our existence is sin. Babies sin. We are guilty before we even get out of the womb. And worse, we are guilty for something we did not do. This is the foundation for sin in that camp so our very existence is sin and that is where we start.
    For the non Cal evangelical it tends to come from the cheap grace category where Jesus died to pay for our sins so now they are no big deal. We are “sinners saved by grace”. (Note the idea we will remain sinners). The grace becomes cheap like an entitlement program for believers.
    There is no easy way to put this across in a blog comment but my response to believers who use the “we are all sinners” excuse or the all sins are equal, etc. I simply say, stop it. At the very least stop bragging about sin. It does not come off as pious. It comes off  making me want to hide my wallet when someone tells me they are a Christian.
    How simple can it get? Love God, love others. Simple but not easy, of course.

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