To read Winston Churchill’s multi-volume memoirs of the Second World War is, among other things, a study in stubborn denial of reality among British political leaders when Adolph Hitler was on the rise and secretly arming his great war machine in defiance of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. With his storied eloquence and persistence Churchill did everything in his power to raise British consciousness to the rising threat until it was too late and Europe was plunged into World War II.
Our Similar Problem
By analogy his political problem back then so reminds me of the spiritual problem we face today in trying to raise the consciousness of this generation to the issue of personal sin and the universal need of salvation through faith in Christ. I think it is safe to say that our generation is about as oblivious to a sin problem as Churchill’s contemporaries were blind to their Hitler problem.
The average man-in-the-street is pretty much convinced, except for a few wicked outliers, that we’re all basically good people who should have no reason to fear the indignation of a holy God (that is, if there is any God). I for one can readily understand how Churchill must have felt trying to sound the alarm in deaf ears.
Yet if we are going to draw moderns to Christ and to the foot of the Cross in repentance for sin and to positive faith in Him as the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14.6), we must quit dodging the issue for fear of offense and just tell the plain truth. This blindness and herculean resistance to the notion that all of us are broken, fallen condemned creatures, hopelessly trapped in a sinful nature and on a headlong rendezvous with the judgment of God must be vigorously challenged if we are to make any headway in evangelism.
Yes, it creates backlash like that Churchill experienced in his own relentless battle, but there is an old saying that people must get lost before they can be saved. In other words, mentally people must tremble at the foot of Mt. Sinai before they are ready to bow in contrition at the foot of the Cross.
Only those who see in their mind’s eye their condemnation will apply for God’s salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Let’s put it this way: those people who seek to be saved are those who finally understand that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and further understand they too are on the payroll, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
This the average Joe or Jolisa today does not get. One evening awhile back my wife caught Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. On his program The Factor, O’Reilly showed an out take of an interview he did earlier with New York radio host, Don Imus. In the course of that interview, according to Olsie, the two of them offered their (ungrounded) opinions about the way of salvation. Both speculated that God would never condemn persons who do good things, an idea recently espoused by Pope Francis (see my earlier blog, “Our Father Who Art in a Fog”) That take is pure and simple street theology, not Scriptural theology.
The Moral Fallacy
Right there is the moral fallacy of self-righteous modern man. He assumes that virtuous, honorable, ethical, and moral people actually do exist. And its corollary is that he is among those good folk whom a just God is obliged to exempt from condemnation. These assumptions are as false as Bernie Madoff’s cooked books.
Oh, sure, most people I know are civil, decent, generally law-abiding folk who are willing to help out someone obviously in trouble, who try to be nice to those who are nice to them and respect those who respect them. Here and there some even act nobly and inspirationally with selfless courage and sacrificial flare, though these are the exceptions, not the rule by any means.
The brief compass of this blog does not allow me to develop that unimpressed view of human nature and its supposedly essential goodness. Suffice it to say for our purposes that the ‘do gooding’ of mankind is superficial, selective, inconsistent, and arbitrary—nothing that rings the bells of Heaven.
In short, the best among us (as man measures man by his own standards) simply does not measure up to God’s unbending standard of righteousness and goodness. That sobering reality explodes the whole myth of ‘good people’.
The Startling Reality
When you hear people generously opine that ‘most people are essentially good,’ they either ignore the teaching of the Scriptures, deny it or are ignorant of it or all of the above. As a matter of fact the Scriptures strongly contradict the self-flattering appraisal most people seem to have of themselves. More than once, I have even heard criminals protest, “I’m a good person.”
On the contrary, the Scriptures teach (Romans 3:10ff) in unambiguous language that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” It asserts that in the eyes of God (by the way, God is the only moral referee who is relevant) there is none righteous, no, not even one. There is none good, no one who seeks after God. In Jeremiah 17 we are told that the human heart is, despite modern man’s high opinion of himself, desperately wicked, who can know it or plumb the depths of its dark secrets. It also teaches that those who are in the flesh (i.e. in their natural state, meaning unregenerated by the Holy Spirit, irresistibly do the things of the flesh and are flat out unable to please God. (Romans 8;4-8) Read it for yourself.
That condition is what we mean by the expression “total depravity.” In the end the natural man, the man after the flesh, just cannot do the right thing in the sight of God. For even if he were able to do the virtuous or honorable or ethical or moral things outwardly, he could never do it consistently. But more significantly, man can never do what pleases God inwardly and for the right reasons. That moral trick neither Mr. O’Reilly nor Mr. Imus nor Pope Francis can pull off in the flesh.
For, get this, the essence of the law of God is as Jesus taught: To love God with all one’s heart, all one’s strength and all one’s mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22) Hey, breaking news here! Nobody in our fallen flesh can ever approach that. Break the law of God in just one point and you shatter it in all points, (see James 2 on that) for every command is a test of those two principles.
So, it is the height of self-righteousness and moral arrogance to imagine that somehow some of us are so natively good and honorable that a just God must be impressed and give us a pass. And lest we forget (or were never told), the wages of sin is death. Period. In the sight of God all sin and all sins are nothing less than capital offenses against God, for embedded in every form and instance of sin is rebellion against the law of God and distrust of God himself. Sin may not seem all that serious to us, but that is our ignorance, not God’s injustice.
Some like the O’Reillys and Imuses of this world entertain the idea that God grades human character and conduct on some sort of moral curve. That notion is born of pure speculation, not biblical revelation. As the Apostle Paul makes so plain in Romans 2, the judgment of God always squares with the moral truth (“is according to truth”). God does not bend His rules for anybody, anywhere, anytime. No one can count on Him to fudge the facts of life to ‘pass’ the upper half, so the speak, of the human class. We keep His law or we don’t. And that nobody comes close to doing.
To reiterate for the sake of clarity, some human beings certainly appear morally superior to others. Some indeed seem more noble, more honorable, more virtuous, more selfless, more ethical and moral than the hoi polloi. The operative words there are ‘appear’ and ‘seem’. Appearances can be deceiving. But God is never fooled by what fools us. God always sees the whole picture.
This is the bottom line: if a person does not know God (and one who refuses His Son does not) and therefore has not experienced the new birth (or regeneration), that person has never for even one minute loved God or ever loved his neighbor as himself. That is to say, that individual has totally trashed God’s law and rejected His sovereign Creator. Such a person can pass out big bills on Christmas, carry food to the homeless, store up clothing for shelters, etc. etc. but if none of that translates to love for God and loving (indiscriminately) one’s neighbor as oneself, it does not pass God’s smell test. Such are neither good nor righteous nor just nor spiritual in His sight.
That biblical perspective is hard for modern man to digest because we are so accustomed to making up our own morality as we go along and expecting that God is obliged to judge us by our made-up mores and standards of political correctness. Well, that just won’t fly and somehow we must keep trying to pull the blinders off.
Though biblical theology is decisive here (it is revelation; all other opinions are mere religious speculations), the historical record of man , pretty much confirms it. Flip through the pages of history, ancient and modern, and it does not take a genius to see that when things go wrong in the human community, man gets red in the claw, the fangs come out in all those good people, it is every man for himself, and the famed inhumanity of man to man is there for any to see in all its hatefulness and savagery. If one wants to see the fundamental predatory nature of the race, just suspend all laws and the restraints of government. Anarchial conditions quickly destroy any notions of the Noble Savage.
That is the larger story line of human history, a narrative that confirms the superficiality of human virtuousness. It has a famous way to going away fast when things break down governmentally, socially and economically. (Think Somalia!) Remember the American Civil War? Remember the river of blood in the French Revolution? (The good Mr. Jefferson was all in favor of it!) Remember Nazi Germany? (How did all those essentially good Germans let this happen?) Remember the Soviet Union (as many as 60 million people perished at the hands of essentially good people, right?)? Remember Mao? (Only God knows how many he and his essentially good followers slaughtered.) And what about Islamists? Think most of them are essentially good people, though few of them ever raise a voice of protest or lift a hand to arrest the hate and stop the bloodshed?
All that is just for starters. Let things fall about in this country and it will be shocking to see all the dormant nastiness seeping out of presumably ‘good’ people.
It is not by God’s definition that man is essentially good and goes about doing good things that merit him acceptance with God. Modern man is so arbitrary about what he defines as good and virtuous. The gold standard is not regularly what God declares is good and right and just but rather what ‘society’ approves in any given iteration of itself.
Hey, we in the Western world just make it up as we go along. Today, for example, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, we call good, evil, evil, good, and bitter, sweet, and the sweet, bitter. Do we actually expect God to put His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on our vices masquerading as virtues. Well, that is not going to happen. What is going to happen, unless smug, self-righteous folk wake up and get the message, repent of their sin and receive the Savior who came into the world to redeem us, is a certain rendezvous with judgment.
The Same Strategy
So, our mission here is like that of Winston Churchill when, what was so plain to him about the Nazi regime, Britain was largely blind to. Before he could save England, he knew he had to get countrymen ‘lost’ in effect. Otherwise, they were doomed.
So it is with our contemporaries. Until they can see they are lost, they can never be saved. You cannot preach salvation to people who have no fear of destruction. We can tell people all we want about the love of God (and should), but we cannot bypass the fear of God when speaking to a generation that is clueless about what the problem is.
How we wake people up is above my pay grade, but I know this: it will never happen so long as we fear upsetting people with guilt trips and refuse to talk about the peril they are in. In his day, Churchill had a simply strategy and eventually it worked—never give up. Tell them and tell them again and again and hope that it will finally sink in.
With God’s help that should be our strategy also. Never give up. Tell them again and again and hope by the grace of God the truth finally sinks in. Nobody wanted to hear Churchill drone on and on about the Nazi storm on the horizon. Nobody wants to hear us either. People want to tune us out just as his generation wanted to tune him out. But he never gave up and eventually overcame their denial.
People out there today are not buying what we are selling anymore than they were buying what Winston Churchill was selling. They just want us to go away and shut up. To them our message is irrelevant (nothing new there) but ironically it is the culture that is irrelevant because it has lost touch with reality (which more or less defines insanity).
So the best way to deal with the impasse is not to shrink from offending people and seek to appease them with happy talk, but keep up the drum beat of the truth until at last, (if God is pleased to open their eyes to their need), the message of salvation through faith in Christ breaks through like the sun after a storm.
Never give up!