Lifeway research has found that seven out of ten unchurched people have never been invited to church, and “eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited”(Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door). Interestingly enough, however, is this year’s holiday ad run by the American Atheists that references the popular Christmas song Santa Claus is Coming to Town, encouraging people to “just be good for goodness’ sake” and to skip church. While culture is still widely open to at least exploring church, there is now a voice encouraging them that there is no essential need.
This is the root of American worldview, is it not? Be good. Just do your best. Work hard and you will get a reward. While this is not reality in much of the professional world, we have convinced the millennials that they deserve a high paying job that will change the world and satisfy them just because they exist. We are teaching our children that everyone is a winner, just for trying. Do your best, and define your own truth, it is all about you and your happiness. You deserve it.
The philosophical problem with this worldview is clear, however: How do we define good? Who has the final say, if we all get to have autonomy? Is it the law? Is it some social standard that has been established culturally? Is it some ever-progressing line of tolerance and acceptance?
We often seek to define “good” as not hurting anyone else. This definition is weak, as it is the negative definition. Instead of saying “benefiting others”, it simply is the void of doing harm to another. But are we willing to say that anything is good, as long as it hurts no one? Are we also willing to say that anything that hurts another is not good? Is stopping a terrorist or locking up a murderer not good? Is lying on our income taxes good, since it hurts no one?
And thus we are quickly left at a philosophical impasse. As long as we are independent creatures with no higher authority, there cannot be an absolute truth and therefore no unifying good and evil. There is no way to define good, en masse.
In order to adhere to true atheism, one must deny the existence of God – or any higher power. We exist, and then we die. When we die we cease to exist. There is no moral law, other than what we define for ourselves and there is no ultimate meaning to life. One cannot truly live by this worldview, however. The moment he is threatened, the moment he is robbed, the moment his wife or child suffers, the moral law of God that is written on his heart begins to react, even if the thief is stealing simply to provide for his own family.
Thus we need a higher power to define good and evil for us. Thankfully, God has. We have the Ten Commandments. We have the Old Covenant Law. And we also have the Law of Christ giving throughout the Gospels and the New Testament. We clearly see throughout Scripture that there is no possible way any human being can perfectly keep the law (Rom 3.23). We have all lied. We have all coveted our friends or neighbor’s belongings. We have all lusted at some point in our lives. We have all not honored God as first in our lives, kept the Sabbath or honored our parents.
Scripture teaches us that God’s standard is perfection, not “good”. He kicked Adam and Eve out of His presence for eating a piece of fruit which He had told them to not eat. Did you ever eat that cookie after your mom told you no? Then you are as guilty as Adam and Eve – guilty of death and eternity in Hell. But that is the very purpose of the Law: to show us our guilt and need for a savior (Rom 5.20). Since we are incapable of reaching God’s standard of goodness, we need a savior to rescue us from our sin and peril.
Enter: Jesus. He was God, and He was man. He came to the Earth in human form and lived a perfect life, one not deserving death (because the punishment for sin is death – Rom 6.23). But He suffered death and separation from God in our place, so that we can be forgiven. God cannot simply overlook sin. If we apologize to God for our sin, that does not appease His wrath for it. Therefore, He poured His wrath out upon Jesus so that He can forgive our sin. Jesus became our sin, paid the penalty for it so that we can become His righteousness (2 Cor 5.21). He switched places with us, and it requires of us only faith (Eph 2.8-9).
When we recognize our guilt, when we confess our sins, and when we ask for forgiveness, we are born again and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us to enable us to begin the process of dying to sin and living to righteousness. He alone enables us to be good – according to His definition of good.
We can never be good enough on our own. That is the truth we all know, deep down in our gut. This is also the beauty of Christianity, that we do not have to strive to be good enough to earn God’s favor or merit. We simply have to believe, and trust Him, and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us from the inside out.
So this holiday season, let us rejoice in the fact that Jesus has paid our debt and we can be welcomed into the presence of God by His merit and not our own. Let us encourage people to not be good for goodness’ sake, but to know and love God. And while there is a voice encouraging people to skip church, let’s remember that most will come if we only invite them – and Christmas is perhaps the most opportune time to invite them, since it is a holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth! Let’s bring them in. Let’s tell them the beautiful truth that we do not have to be good enough. Let’s tell them the story.