A common evangelical slogan, which I think comes from a Ravi Zacharias sermon is:
Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, he came to make dead people live.
While I think I agree with the main point of this phrase (Christianity is not merely morality), I usually hear it said in a way that contradicts everything the New Testament says about morality. For instance, Paul says that we’ll be judged for everything we do (Romans 14:12). Jesus says to do good works (Matthew 5:14-16). Peter says to add virtue to your faith (2 Peter 1:3-5).
If we define good person carefully, based on the western tradition of moral philosophy we get something like what Dallas Willard gives us here:
The morally good person…is a person who is intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods.
A good person then:
- Is intent upon advancing the good of human life such as health, sustainable pleasure, beauty, knowledge both physical and philosophical, romance, family cohesion, showing honor and gratitude to whom it is due, and so on.
- Aligns their intentions to advance those goods with respect to which of those goods are most important and most appropriate in various circumstances.
- And focuses their efforts upon the goods that he or she can actually accomplish (a math genius who is awful at being with people should avoid hospital visits).
Now, look at these New Testament passages about why Jesus came:
Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, (12) training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, (13) waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, (14) who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Romans 8:3-4 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (4) in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
1 John 4:9-11 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. (10) In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (11) Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
These few passages should suffice to show that Jesus came to transform our character from evil weakness to strong goodness.
Bruce Charlton says
Geoff – I have only just come across your blog, by finding it listed as a referring source for mine; and (after searching it) would like to thank you for your attention over the years!
wrt this post: Yes, this argument can be supported with New testament citations – but is it in fact true that Jesus really did transform the character of Men for the better?
Such things are difficult or impossible to argue honestly and rigorously; because the interpretation of what Christianity has done depends on whether Christian values (or which Christian values) are used to make the evaluation. Much of what Christians have traditionally regarded as good is now seen as bad by modern secular Leftism; and certainly vice versa – the self-described triumphs of modernity (especially in the realm of the sexual revolution) are evil to Christians.
In the end, I agree with the quote at the head of your post as a terse and helpful characterisation: that is, in fact, what Jesus (primarily) came to do (as endorsed by the Fourth Gospel throughout).
Thank you for stopping by. And I agree that it is, in fact what you say, “a terse and helpful characterisation.”
Here in the United States, that saying gets quoted by Calvinist preachers who seem to be minimizing any personal responsibility for Christian action on the part of the Christian, a perspective not supported by Jesus in John at all, for there he invites all: “whosoever.”
I suppose I could have been more clear on the source of my consternation!
Bruce Charlton says
@Geoff – Ah, I see!
I find Calvinism a bizarre aberration – one of the (several, contrasting) ways in which Christianity becomes de facto a second-rate Islam – by choosing God’s abstract omnipotence over God’s loving person-hood, but muddying the waters by denying that this has been done.