Bill was a church kid through and through. As a child, his parents had read him Bible stories and Christian books. He’d gone to Sunday School and Christian camp. He’d sat through hundreds of sermons. Now, as a college student, away from all this Christian influence, he was seeing the world through fresh eyes. One of things he began to notice was that, while many of his classmates did not claim to be followers of Christ, in the end they seemed a lot like him. Many of them were nice, hard-working, sensible people. Some were good listeners. And while a few were a bit wild (these were young adolescents, remember), he seemed to share quite a few common moral values with most of them. They too wanted to be good people. They too wanted to live in a society where people were treated fairly. This was all baffling to him, since he’d grown up with somewhat of an “us and them” stereotype toward non-believers, and yet the differences didn’t seem to be that great.
Are Christians really different than non-Christians? It’s a fair question. On the surface, the answer often seems to be “No”. Christians don’t look that much different – at least in the U.S. We have a lot of the same struggles as everyone else. Many of us deal with depression, anxiety and anger. We have relationship issues, financial issues, and moral issues. On the other hand, even when we show strength of character – kindness, patience, and love, so do a lot of people of other faiths and beliefs. Some even seem to exceed us in these qualities, while certain Christians we know, in fact, can be jerks.
Shouldn’t the difference be more marked if there really is a Holy Spirit making us “new creations”? Here are a few factors to keep in mind:
1. Some of the lack of contrast is our own fault
Too many believers live sub-par Christian lives. We’ve allowed ourselves to drift into spiritual mediocrity – half-hearted or hypocritical. This doesn’t disprove Christianity, it just discredits us. Even as believers we have freedom to obey or to disobey. Christ calls us to a higher standard and provides the resources to pursue it.
2. Christians are in a transitional state
Even if we’re living a sincere, whole-hearted Christian life we’re still in a “now but not yet” condition. Our transformation is only (sometimes achingly) partial. Yes, we now have a new nature, but – surprise! – the old sinful nature still hangs around. We still lose our temper at times, give in to lust or greed, and make foolish decisions.
3. Often the church attracts people with more obviously messed-up lives
Frequently, people only turn to God for help when they’ve exhausted other resources. As long as life isn’t too bad, they try to handle it on their own. Therefore, many who turn to Christ are, at least at the beginning, more needy or desperate. It’s not surprising to find them in the church.
4. Everyone does not start out with the same advantages
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, has a wonderful section about this. Some people are just born with more pleasant, patient dispositions or better childhood circumstances, while others, who lack these advantages, must struggle much harder to reach the same level. This is why an unbeliever may be more naturally calm or patient than certain Christians who must fight natural tendencies toward anxiety or temper. This leads to the next point:
5. Everything good in the world comes from God
Unbelievers are not unconnected. God created them. He sustains them. He knows them. He reaches to them. He loves them. They’re made in His image with all the powerful spiritual potential that implies. They have a God-given conscience. They have access to His truth from a thousand angles (including, but not limited to the Bible). Many of these truths make sense even to someone who doesn’t buy Christianity. It’s smart, for example, to be faithful to one’s marriage partner if we want a solid marriage or to forgive others if we don’t want to be destroyed by bitterness. So it’s not surprising that there’s a spiritual overlap between believers and non-believers. Nevertheless, the next point is the major one:
6. God sees everyone, in their unsaved state, as seriously flawed
As Romans 3 :10 puts it: “There is no one righteous, not even one”. Jeremiah 17:9 calls the human heart “deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Is the unbelieving “give-you-shirt-off-his-back” neighbor good? Not in God’s eyes. What about your twinkly-eyed, gentle grandmother— is she good? Not apart from Christ. Whatever fine qualities we perceive in people, they’re never enough to make them “good” when God tallies up all the factors. That includes all of us B.C. The bar for goodness is high – incredibly high – much higher than we’d set it ourselves. God expects, no, demands perfection. None of us reach that moral level. It’s Jesus alone who can make us truly good. It’s His goodness alone, transferred to us, that makes us righteous.
7. Scripture paints a stark contrast between believers and unbelievers.
It’s true that some unbelievers are more open to God than others; that some are mean while others are kind. Nevertheless, the Bible paints a vivid before/after portrait in multiple passages. 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, for example, contrasts believers and unbelievers in stark terms: righteousness/wickedness, light/darkness, Christ/Belial(Satan) (see also Ephesians 2:1-3). From our perspective these differences are often concealed. Everyone looks the same. But God sees far deeper than we do and He often judges differently. Whose perspective do you trust more – yours or God’s?
8. There are significant differences between believers and unbelievers
The first difference is one of status. According to the Bible, when a person is saved, their status with God dramatically changes. Their sins are now forgiven. They are now a member of God’s family-destined to spend eternity in heaven with Him. An unsaved person, on the contrary, as appealing as they may be, is still outside of God’s family. If they die in this state they will spend eternity in Hell separated from God’s loving presence.
The second difference is one of nature. According to Scripture when we are saved we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and receive a new nature. We’re now able to please God. Unbelievers, however, lack these resources. Paul says, in Romans 8:7, “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” The issue here is not what pleases us but what pleases God.
I’m not suggesting that we, as believers, should carry ourselves pridefully. We’re still painfully imperfect during this stage of our existence. There are those who do not claim Jesus who can teach us a thing or two about how to live. In the end, however, it is the grace of God which makes all the difference – not our performance. “He saved us not because of righteous things we had done but because of his mercy.” (Titus 3:5). On the other hand, if you have never received Christ as your Savior, regardless of how many good qualities you have, they will not be enough to save you from God’s judgment. Please reach to Christ today.