Some time ago, I had a conversation with a man regarding the Christian doctrine of universal sinfulness. He doubted this doctrine because, in his words, he thought that the Christian faith taught that people were as bad as they could be. He added that he had observed many people who were not Christian, yet were kind, loving, and generous. “While it is true that people do wicked things”, he said, “it is also true that a great many people live exemplary lives”.
A great many Christians have no answer to this observation. Indeed, we have all observed the same. Those of us who call Christ our Saviour and Lord work, play, and live alongside of decent and ethical people who are not Christian. We have even noticed that some of them live moral lives that put some Christians to shame.
What accounts for this? Is the doctrine of universal sinfulness wrong? Was David correct when he said, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5). And was Paul right when he declared; “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10)?
Christians believe that all people, regardless of race or social standing, are dead in sin. In John 8:34, Jesus declared that anyone who sins is a slave to sin. And since all have sinned, it should then follow that all are slaves to sin. Paul reaffirmed this truth when he said that all are dead in trespasses, following the prince of the power of the air and that we were carrying out the unrighteous desires of the body (Ephesians 2:1-3). The impression we are left with is that every aspect of our humanity has been twisted by the power of sin.
What then do we make of the noble and seemingly moral non-Christians we sometimes meet? The answer is that they have received grace. No, it wasn’t saving grace, but it was common grace. Paul refers to this in 1 Timothy 4:10, where he calls the living God the saviour of all people. Paul is not saying that all people are saved from their sins unto everlasting life, but he is saying that all people have experienced some form of His saving work. One of those forms is that God regularly saves us from the worst of our sinful acts. He intervenes and rescues us from the worst impulses of the world, the flesh and the devil.
We find all manner of hints of this in the New Testament. Romans 2:14–15 states: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…”
It is important to say that even while we are born into sin, it is also true that the image of God in us, while it has been marred and bent, has not been removed. God still gives all human beings an awareness of sin. While sin drags us into death, we are still often repulsed by it nonetheless. This is God’s grace.
When we see non-Christians acting in moral ways, we should be careful not to attribute this to them. Instead, we should give thanks to God for showing His grace toward them and saving them from the worst impulses of their sin. All glory goes then to God, and not to those who behave righteously under certain conditions. God has saved all men. Not unto eternal life, but from their worst impulses. He has shown grace to all.
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