How good are you really? Many people will answer this question by unloading their laundry lists of volunteer activities, 501 (c) (3) donations, parenting skills, or anything else that presents them as a good person. In Christian terms, we might call this outwardly following God's law.
When Jesus was asked about the law, he summarized it this way: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind...and you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:37–39). While someone might think he does these things well, any honest person will recognize that he fails miserably. Yet interestingly enough, if you ask someone what it takes to merit heaven, many unreservedly say, "You have to be a good person." And, of course, they are that "good person." This is why many say they don't need Jesus or, more particularly, Christianity. In their minds, Christianity is meant to make someone good and since they are already good, what's the use?
When you are confronted with something like this, you have two tasks on your hands: 1) you need to help them see that they are not "good people," and 2) you need to provide them with a correct understanding of what Christianity is.
Usually, when people say they are good, they are comparing themselves to others; they conclude that since they do not do any of the "big" sins—murder, cheat, steal, or commit adultery—they must be good. Your first task is to help them see that their standard of good is not the standard by which God will judge them. God does not grade on a scale. "No one does good, not even one," says the apostle Paul. He can say this not because people do not do good deeds, but because no one has a good heart. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind" (Jer. 17:9–10). God is not merely satisfied with what we do outwardly but with matters of the heart. That is why hatred is considered murder (1 John 3:15), lust is considered adultery (Matt. 5:28), and so forth. Hopefully, in light of God's holy law, these "good people" will soon realize they are not good.
But where does this leave them? In an ideal world, they will soon become downtrodden and hopeless, as they realize they cannot stand on their own merits before a righteous God (cf. Gal. 3:22, 24). Then and only then will they see the benefit and worth of Christ who was, indeed, a perfect and righteous man. And since they are not good, by God's grace, they will look to the one who is—the Son of God incarnate, Jesus Christ—who came down from heaven to merit salvation for those who are not good people (cf. Mark 2:17).
In 2001, a Gallup poll reported that 40 percent of U.S. respondents feared public speaking. In fact, the only thing that frightened Americans more was snakes! Amid all the potential fears, why is public speaking such a dreaded task? Probably because there are too many variables, many of which we can't control.
Clammy hands, dry mouth, and anxiety are just a few physiological and psychological manifestations of our discomfort with speech-making. Add to this the task of presenting the exclusivity of Christ, heaven, hell, repentance, and faith, and all of sudden you are no longer in a mere public speaking situation. While these things may be somewhat intimidating, there is another factor that increases the dread: how others respond to you. With a population of over 6 billion people in the world and an ever-growing diversity of religions, you can imagine that there are many reasons why people do not identify themselves as Christian. Among the top reasons is, "I'm spiritual, not religious."
Often when people say this, they're associating religion with something formal, or "organized religion"—massive church buildings, liturgical worship, and catechesis come to mind. Or they may have had a painful experience with a church or even a professing Christian. To such as these, anything remotely religious is a turn-off.
When you're presented with this objection, however, there's no need to go into attack mode. Far too often, Christians are ready to pounce without fully knowing why someone's objection exists. Ask questions. Allow them to help you understand why they have this objection. Their reasons may be legitimate. If so, your task is to help them navigate through the fog of uncertainty. You may need to do this before you find an opportunity to invite them to church and/or share the gospel. In all of this, remember that you are speaking to a person who is made in the image of God and who may have a reasonable concern (cf. Gen. 1:26). Watch enough televangelists and read enough articles about the various church scandals and you'll see their objection is not unfounded.
In the end, the goal is to communicate that there's nothing wrong with being religious in the Christian sense. The oft-quoted bumper sticker or T-shirt that says "It's a relationship, not a religion" is inaccurate. Christ has instituted religion—it is called his church. And his church is a work in progress. We will make mistakes, and we may not be the best representatives of Christ at times, but God is working afresh in us daily, conforming us into the image of Christ—and, in a sense, making us both spiritual and religious.
We have many choices in life. We choose the types of food we desire, where we live, and the college we attend. Oftentimes when we make these choices, there is no right and wrong. There only seem to be some choices that are better than others. Unfortunately, many people carry this same mentality into their choice of religion, though it's frequently clothed in the statement, "What is right for you is not right for me." In other words, "Jesus is good for you, but I have chosen to follow a different path." When this happens to you, how can you respond?
First, ask questions. It's likely there is a reason for their response. More often than not, there is a misunderstanding of Christianity that has led them to believe that Christianity is just like every other religion. You can quickly determine this by asking them what the central teaching of Christianity is. If they say it is to be a good person or to follow the Ten Commandments, they have misunderstood it. Or maybe they have been to church several times and concluded it just was not for them. If so, ask them what put a bad taste in their mouth. Hypocritical and judgmental people are often what turn people off. If this is their response, you'll find yourself doing clean-up duty before you get to the nuts and bolts of Christianity. But be warned that this could take some time—perhaps days, weeks, or months. You might find yourself venturing down the path of relativism before Christ and his majesty are ever discussed.
Once you do finally have the opportunity to share the gospel, it is advantageous, though not necessary, to include certain statements regarding Christianity's exclusivity: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6); "For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:14). By doing this, you challenge the notion that they have just as much choice with religion as they do with the color of their socks. Additionally, you are showing the objectivity of Christianity. This may or may not go over well because you are challenging deeply held presuppositions and, as you know, change can be hard sometimes.
Just remember, while your goal is to help them recognize their mistaken notions, ultimately you want them to come to faith. This is the Spirit's job. So don't get down on yourself if there doesn't appear to be an immediate change as you confront their notions of relativism (cf. John 3:8). And remember to remain prayerful. We are not merely striving with flesh and blood—our battle is spiritual. As you do this, may God be pleased to change their minds and hearts to see the worth of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.
Leon Brown (B.A. in Communication Studies, University of San Diego) currently attends Westminster Seminary California and plans to pastor a local congregation. He is a requested conference speaker, experienced evangelist, and itinerant preacher. He is the founder of the Evangelism Team ministry and has published in Christian Renewal magazine.
Issue: "Exit Interviews" March/April 2012 Vol. 21 No. 2 Page number(s): 30-33
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