Let’s Connect the Moral Dots for “Good” Non-Christians

I ask my classes, “Why do gangbangers ever stop at red lights?” Some students suggest that they don’t want to be caught by the police. Sure. That might motivate them sometimes. But isn’t the real reason they stop that they don’t want to be broadsided by, say, an 18-wheeler traveling 50 miles per hour? But, if that’s their motive, then the reason they stop has nothing to do with respect for the law—it is about self-interest. That they stop has nothing to do with moral goodness.

Likewise, why does the man who hates his ex-wife not murder her? We’ve already established that it is not because he cares for her: he hates her. Then why not murder? Isn’t it because of the fear of being found out and then losing his family, his friends, his reputation, his freedom, and perhaps even his life? But if he refrains from murder for selfish reasons, then isn’t he still, really, a murderer at heart? Thus the apostle John wrote in 1 Jn. 3:15, “he who hates his brother is a murderer.” John recognizes that if you hate, you are still a murderer even if you don’t actually kill. History shows, by the way, that if average people think they can get away with murder, then they will murder.

Similarly, suppose a woman and man each married to someone else start flirting with and sexually fantasizing about each other. Suppose they even realize that the object of their lust feels similarly about them. If they don’t have sex, why not? Again, isn’t it self-interest? She might get pregnant, one or both of them might get a brand-spanking-new STD, or they might get caught and thus lose their reputations and families. Perhaps the man is afraid that her husband might kill him. And so on. But if he or she refrains from actually doing it either from lack of opportunity or from fear of consequences and not because they honor God or have determined to cherish their spouse, then their refraining doesn’t make them good. That’s why Jesus said that the one who lusts commits adultery in his heart (Mat. 5:28).

Taking these verses seriously, then, are there any people who live long enough not to end up, sooner or later, being adulterous murderers? I didn’t make it out of junior high without being an adulterous murderer. Kids hated me and I hated them.

Why does the Bible teach this? It is because evil is primarily a matter of the heart. We need to connect these dots for the non-Christians who are adulterous murderers in their hearts but still believe they are good people. If we do, they might recognize their sinful condition and cry out for the grace available through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”

Amen.

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26 Responses to Let’s Connect the Moral Dots for “Good” Non-Christians

  1. Deb says:

    Fairly arrogant in some statements; YOU know what’s right and will tell the rest of the world. The bible verses are great; how you interpret them is self aggrandizing.

    • Canbuhay says:

      Deb, why are some statements in this post “arrogant”? Do you believe it is wrong to be arrogant?

      If “knowing what is right” is arrogant, then aren’t you being arrogant too because you think you are right?

  2. clayjones says:

    Hi Deb,
    What specific points do you disagree with?
    Clay

  3. Boz says:

    I don’t think you will be able to convince a non-christian that they are a murderer by quoting 1Jn.3:15.

  4. clayjones says:

    Hi Boz,
    The Holy Spirit does the convicting. We just speak the truth. However, humans murder very, very easily if they think they can get away with it.

  5. I agree. I had not thought too deeply about the decision to “not” being in one’s self interest! I think that would be a very good line of discussion with a non-believer.

  6. Brad Curry says:

    Hmmm…. Help me think this through a bit.
    It seems like some obey moral laws not only based on self preservation, but also because of being raised in a culture that obeys these laws. To put it another way, they don’t break the law because they don’t think to break the law. Obviously this is not always the case, but it is part of the conversation. Sometimes gangbangers stop at red lights because that is what everyone does.

    In addition, it seems that people want to be able to think of themselves as being moral and good. I would imagine that even moral monsters would try to see their actions as being justifiable and morally acceptable (e.g.Hitler believed he was making the world a better place).

    Perhaps some people want to be good, but they can’t do it successfully because they are slaves to sin. Remember, the Gospel is that Christ has defeated sin… not just the consequences of it; He has won the victory and set us free. By His grace we now have the ability to be moral. We can live according to the Spirit, and the Spirit can do it.

  7. DagoodS says:

    I am utterly baffled why recognizing humans commit immoral acts preponderates toward any particular religion. Humanity’s survival was dependent on its recognition that in order to function within a society, actions determined to be immoral needed to be regulated. It is the reason laws were created in the first place–because of the realization people will breach society’s mores. Hence laws to act as deterrent and to punish immorality.

    Couldn’t Judaism equally state recognition of immorality would show the Gentile they should cry out for contrition? Or Islam equally state recognition of immorality would show the infidel they should cry out for conversion? Indeed, can you think of any religious belief that could NOT use this argument? (Perhaps Buddhism.)

    Or, the naturalist could note we all (non-theist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc.) breach our moral code, and society fails to function without regulation, thus reducing our chances to survive. Therefore, we should cry out for better enforcement of laws.

    I agree with Boz, this argument is a non-starter for any person who does not believe in the religion promulgating it.

    Or would a Mormon utilizing the same tactic convince you, Dr. Jones?

    Once you understand why a Hindu could not persuade you, just because people act immorally, you might understand why you likewise will be unable to convince the Hindu.

    • clayjones says:

      I didn’t argue in the post, Dagood, that recognizing the desperate nature of humankind leads directly to Christianity. The major point of the post was simply that evil is a matter of the heart.

    • DagoodS says:

      If all this entry is claiming is that immoral actions begin with their contemplation—you needn’t worry about “connecting the dots” for non-Christians. We understand that.

      However, if you are claiming contemplation of an immoral act is the equivalent of committing an immoral act—you have quite a bit of work ahead.

      In order to be moral agents (make moral decisions) don’t we require a choice? If one of the choices is immorality, don’t we have to contemplate it first?

      Imagine two entities. The first is not a moral agent—they cannot make a moral choice. They see a candy bar. They do not think about stealing it; instead they think…nothing. There is nothing for them to think—there is no moral choice.

      The second IS a moral agent—they can make a moral choice. In order to make the moral choice, they would weigh the consequences of: a) stealing the candy bar, b) buying the candy bar or c) doing nothing. But in order to understand those actions (and their consequences) they would have to contemplate performing an immoral act—i.e. stealing the candy bar.

      It is making a moral choice when we see an attractive person and chose to not commit adultery. It is making a moral choice to want to commit murder and refrain. It is making a moral choice to understand the actions and implications of a decision and deliberately choose one over the other. Yes, at times it is an immoral choice. At others it is a moral choice.

      But it is within the contemplation itself we become moral agents and not automatons.

  8. J. Paul says:

    I know this is off topic, but I wanted to make a follow up comment on your blog, Did Peter and Paul Die for a Lie? It seems that it is closed to comments.

    In the discussion someone thought that since Peter had a house, then he must have been rich. As I was browsing through the blogosphere I found a recent blog by Larry Hurtado, ‘As to the economic situation, [Sean] Freyne notes that “both the literary and archaeological records” suggest “private ownership of individual plots of land” as the norm (“Jesus of Galilee: Implications and Possibilities” 389). This goes against allegations that Galilee was rife with landless peasants at the mercy of absentee landlords of large tracts of land.’

    http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/jesus-of-galilee/

  9. Vinny says:

    How many Christians repent of their sins out of fear of hell? Isn’t such repentance motivated by self-interest? How could such a selfish act bring access to God’s grace when every other act performed with similar motivation is a filthy rag in His eyes?

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Vinny! It is true that many Christians do repent of their sinful ways because of hell but after they trust in Jesus’ substitutionary work on the cross they no longer fear hell but are imbued with the love of God and then act out of that love. In fact, we teach that to continue to do things to earn salvation is a desperate confusion of the Gospel.

      • Vinny says:

        Hi Clay!

        Let me see if I understand how this works:

        If a person refrains from sin out of fear of punishment, God is unimpressed because the person’s heart is still evil.

        If a person repents of his sin out of fear of punishment, God supernaturally transforms his heart so that it is no longer evil.

        In both cases, an evil-hearted person is motivated by fear of punishment and yet, the former is consigned to eternal torment while the latter is rewarded with eternal bliss.

        • clayjones says:

          Hi Vinny, Indeed, people are incredibly selfish so, for some, the appeal to their self-interest is the only thing that’s going to get through to them.

          • clayjones says:

            I don’t think they are precisely equivalent, Dagood. There certainly are greater and lesser sins and the person who contemplates evil and then decides to commit it is doing worse than the one who refrains. But that doesn’t make the refrainer a good person. The person who allows hate and lust to go on unrestrained in his or her heart is still, in a sense, murderous and adulterous even if they aren’t actually acting it out.

          • Vinny says:

            Why should God want to get through to an evil-hearted creature who actions are only motivated by naked self-interest?

            • clayjones says:

              We call it grace, Vinny. Umerited favor.

              • clayjones says:

                As you know, Dagood, every court distinguishes between different types of murder (murder 1, murder 2, etc.). Yes, looking back at jr. high I would consider myself an adulterous murderer. Now there is a difference between actually doing it and wanting to do it, I grant that. But I think the Bible’s point is that it is indeed very similar.

              • Vinny says:

                So it really doesn’t have anything to do with whether a person has an evil heart or not. God chooses to bestow His grace where He will for reasons of His own. There are no dots to connect because the reason why God does what He does is beyond our capacity to understand.

                • clayjones says:

                  I think we can understand unmerited love, Vinny.

                • DagoodS says:

                  Then why bother informing non-Christians they are immoral? Why worry if non-Christians “cry out for the grace available” if it all comes down to the luck of the draw—some God decides (within unmerited love) to save and some He does not. One could commit only 1 or 2 minor transgressions in their entire life and another could be a merciless dictator sending millions to their death—if God (through unmerited love) determines the first will not be saved but the second will.

                  Therefore, under this system, how many transgressions one commits (or how many one thinks they commit) or their relative extent is utterly and completely irrelevant. The SOLE determining factor is who God picks.

                  There is no need to “connect the dots” if one is consistent under this theory of theological justice.

  10. DagoodS says:

    Clay Jones,

    The qualifications make this topic muddled. In your blog entry, you indicated that if one takes these verses seriously, if you hate—you are a murderer. If one fantasizes about someone other than their spouse—they are an adulterer.

    In fact, you called yourself an “adulterous murderer” because you hated kids and (presumably) fantasized about someone other than your spouse.

    Now, though, you have indicated the thoughts and actions are not “precisely equivalent.” That performing the action is worse than thinking and refraining. That people who hate and lust are “in a sense” (although not exactly) murderers and adulterers.

    So…er…which is it? In Junior High were you an “adulterous murderer” or were you not as immoral as a person who had sex and actually murdered? Were you only an “adulterous murderer” “in a sense”? Isn’t there a difference between a “murderer in sense” and a “murderer in actual”?

    Look we all think we are more moral than others by comparison. I understand you are attempting to point out to non-Christians, just because we may think we are more moral, because we don’t actually murder and rape, we are still immoral. I get it.

    But when you rely upon the same qualifying language—that is it not precisely equivalent, that one is a murderer “in a sense”—it appears you are rationalizing the same justification that it is not as bad as committing the actual act.

    Hence the non-Christian is warranted in claiming (for the same reasons) they ARE more moral than those committing the same acts.

  11. DagoodS says:

    Clay Jones,

    Curious you would use a secular moral system (American Laws that do NOT attribute guilt for thinking without acting) for supporting your view regarding thinking an immoral act is different than performing an immoral act.

    If the secular system is more akin to your moral position than “taking these verses seriously” one wonders at this point who is “connecting the dots” for whom…

  12. Jackie Price says:

    Clay,
    I think you’re point is proven when there is a disaster or riots and looting and pillaging become rampant such as was seen in the London riots. People stole things they didn’t need just because they could because the police were overwhelmed and wouldn’t catch them. I’ve long believed that William Golding’s book, “The Lord of the Flies” truly captures the human heart; without the constraints of laws and society we’d become barbaric.

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