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Second, it is true that even people who are Christians have deeply flawed characters and behavior, often even more so than non-Christians. Unlike almost every other religion in the world, in Christianity you don’t have to make yourself acceptable to God to gain his favor. You don’t have to become a good person before God accepts you—it’s the total opposite. You must admit to God that you are a horrible person and repent of your sins, and then God in his mercy accepts you in your humility in the imperfect condition you came to him.
Now, you might be thinking, “But I’m not a bad horrible person!” That’s an understandable reaction, because we are so used to judging ourselves against people who are even worse than us. Sure, you probably are a “saint” compared to Stalin, Bin Laden, Weinstein, and the like. You might even be a saint compared to many criminals in prison and you think, “Surely, if there is such a thing as Hell, it’s reserved for those very evil people and not for me.”
[Discussion: What’s the problem with this line of thinking: “If God even exists, only very evil people will be judged by him and not me.”]
The problem with this line of logic is there is no basis for it other than your wishful thinking—even our national courts don’t operate this way. Our courts don’t set you free because you have committed fewer crimes than someone else. They will still sentence you. If a judge wouldn’t sentence you, people would call him an unjust judge.
Similarly, God must punish every sin that has ever been committed or he would be unjust. That’s a problem for you since, at the very least, you, like every other person in history (except for Jesus), has lied, has had evil thoughts about others, has treated others badly, etc. Furthermore, every time you have engaged in this type of bad behavior, you have not only sinned against other people but also you have sinned against God. Ultimately, every bad thing you do is an offense and crime against God which he must punish or he would deny his very character of being a just god, which would make him imperfect and would mean he is not God. (See the comic, “Am I a good person”)2
“Well”, you say, “this sounds like bad news for everyone!” and you would be right. This is very bad news for everyone. According to the Bible, everyone, by default, is heading towards a guilty verdict in God’s heavenly court (Rom. 3:23). However, there is good news, called the gospel. (The word gospel literally means “good news”.)
[Discussion: What is the good news, this “gospel”?]
The gospel, the “good news”, is that you don’t have to be or become a good person for God to accept you. You must simply accept the plea deal God is offering you. You must admit and repent of your sins, pledge allegiance to God, and then he will let you free. More than that, he will adopt you as his child.
You might now be wondering, ”How can God do this, because, as mentioned, justice must be served?” A just judge can’t set criminals free or justice won’t be served. God can do this, because God, in the form of Jesus, volunteered to pay for your punishment on the cross. Jesus volunteered to take your sins upon himself, pay for them, and credit you with his perfect life.
However, you must accept it. You must repent of your sins and ask for mercy. You must agree to this plea deal or get judged and sentenced by God for all the sins you have committed. That’s the deal.
This brings us back to the flawed character of real Christians.
[Discussion: Which kind of people are usually more likely to take a plea deal: those who know they have committed some serious crimes or those who think that they are practically innocent?]
Usually, it’s the hardcore career criminals who are desperate for a plea deal. You have these people, who know they are guilty of all sorts or crimes, with the evidence against them being both overwhelming and obvious. They have given up on all hope and are just waiting for their life sentence.
Then, they hear about a plea deal that both the prosecutor and judge (God) is offering. Full of curiosity, and now with a faint glimmer of hope in their eyes, the criminals cautiously ask for more details. Maybe they are hoping to cut their life sentences to 30 or 40 years.
Imagine their surprise when the prosecutor tells them that the prosecutor himself is volunteering to suffer the punishment for not only the criminals” past crimes but also future ones! If they agree to the plea deal, there won’t be any sentence and their criminal records will be wiped clean as well. The criminals can hardly believe it.
“I must be dreaming!” each says to himself. “Give me that plea agreement right now”, he says. “I need to sign it immediately before it’s too late!!” and boy, will this man be full of joy after that moment. This amazing turn of events is enough to turn anyone’s life around!
[Discussion: Does this mean the career criminal, who has lived a life of crime, will suddenly become a perfect father, son, husband, friend, and citizen?]
No, transformation is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but now, empowered by the Holy Spirit and the love he now has for the judge/prosecutor—God, his savior—transformation will start happening. Gradually, the amount of sin in a new believer’s life will decrease, as every time he sins he feels very bad about it—thinking about the generous deal he got from God—and yet here he is again committing a crime against him for which Jesus had to suffer more for on the cross.
Now, imagine that some time later, this pardoned criminal has an encounter with an average citizen, who has lived a relatively normal life. This average citizen might be shocked by some unbecoming behavior from the pardoned criminal. “He calls himself a Christian,” says the average citizen.
What the average citizen doesn’t see is how much the love of God has already changed this pardoned criminal. Sure, the pardoned criminal might still behave worse than the average citizen, but he’s behaving ten times better than before plus doing better overall each year. However, what that average citizen doesn’t realize is that he himself is in grave danger.
[Discussion: What grave danger is the average citizen in?]
The average citizen sees himself a “pretty good guy overall”, so the danger is he doesn’t feel the need to enter into a plea deal with the prosecutor. “Surely my crimes are very small in nature, and don’t warrant a day in court. And even if such an unlikely event were to happen, surely the judge would let me free since there are way worse people than me to be judged. Besides, if the judge were to convict me, he would have to convict everyone, and surely he wouldn’t do that.”
Thus, very rarely does the average citizen seek a plea deal. They are counting on their own perceived goodness and do not see the need to humble themselves in front of God. This is exactly what usually happened around Jesus.
What kind of people were mostly seeking him out—the upright and generally respected citizens of society? No, it was the prostitutes and Jewish traitors working for Rome (tax collectors), the extortioners, and thieves. Conversely, the so called “respected” citizens looked down upon Jesus for associating with these known sinners:
Luk. 5:30: And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luk. 5:31: And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
Luk. 5:32: I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
There of course isn’t any such thing as a righteous person without God (Rom. 3:23), but Jesus was making the point that the reason why he came to earth was to call sinners to repentance as opposed to some fictional perfect people. Everyone who humbles themselves and admits their need gets the plea deal, regardless if you are an average citizen or a career criminal.
Again, Christians are not perfect—not by a long shot! The church is composed of immature and broken people, physical and spiritual career criminals, who accepted a plea deal from God. We Christians have many character flaws, and we will never stop sinning completely on this side of heaven.
However, when we, and those closest to us, compare ourselves to what we were in the past, we see the changes God has brought about in us and continues to do so every day. Imperfect and deeply-flawed Christians don’t invalidate the core Christian message, but confirm it. God, as Jesus, came down to call sinners to repentance, not the so called righteous and perfect people. As the saying goes, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”
Stay tuned for part 3.
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