Does being religious make you a good person?
At one time in history, people generally thought that being a good person involved God, Church, and the Bible. But the public perception of Christians has changed over time. Many people are skeptical of the seemingly endless denominational divides among Christians. Others are bothered by what appears to be endless disunity between Christianity and science, or other academic disciplines. Worst of all, people wonder how the Christian message could be so true and life changing when there are so many scandals and offenses by public figures and leaders who claim the faith.
In ancient Israel, many Jewish people believed that their heritage guaranteed that they were going to be on God’s good side when the Messiah came. Some people engaged in violent resistance against the Romans, or even in terrorizing their fellow Jews who they believed were not “living up to” God’s standards, or would raid pagan temples and steal from non-Jewish houses of worship. This kind of behavior was rationalized because people thought they were “fine” just because of their religious identity.
In Romans 1 & 2, Paul explains that God has given humanity a conscience - a sense that there is right and wrong - and that even Gentiles who do not know God’s laws can sense that some actions are not right. “Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.” (Romans 2:14-15 NLT)
The people of Israel, on the other hand, knew God’s laws and studied them intensely, but still found themselves sinning. Paul insisted that no one was justified in judging another person, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” (Romans 3:23 NLT) So whether someone was an observant Jewish believer, or a Gentile who had never heard of God, every person on earth has a moral responsibility for striving to live by good moral principles, for recognizing right from wrong as much as they are able. And, unfortunately, all of us fall short of the highest standard and sin.
Simply belonging to a religious group can’t make us good people. But to complicate matters, none of our good actions can erase the ways that we have been bad. “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” (Romans 3:20 NLT) Whether knowingly or unknowingly, we all fail to live up to the standards we expect of ourselves and other people. People tend to be their own biggest problem. We all fall short, and we all need to be forgiven for something.
Thankfully “[...] God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:24-25)
Simply being labelled a Christian might not make someone a good person. But the love and forgiveness of Jesus can shape broken people into grateful, hopeful people who live as if they have been forgiven. Being religious might not make you a good person, but being filled with the love of God will. Christians live between two truths: our great potential for evil, and the power of God to do good things through us.
- Romans 2:14-15 NLT could be interpreted to be about Pagan Gentiles who have never heard God's message, or it could be understood to mean Gentile Christians who do not have familiarity with the Torah the way Jewish people did, but nevertheless did the things the law said because of the Holy Spirit. Which interpretation do you think is the best? Read through Romans 2 and 3 to gain clues from the context.
- Compare Romans 2:12-13 with Romans 3:19-20. Is Paul contradicting himself here, or not? How might the context in between reconcile these two statements?
- Do you consider yourself a Christian? Do you think you would rate yourself as a good Christian, a bad Christian, or somewhere in-between? How do you think God sees you?
- Read Romans 2:17-29 and answer the following questions:
- Could Paul's point about Jewish people in his day be applied to modern Christians? If so, how so? If not, why not?
- What are some examples of hypocrisy that you have seen? Reflect also on some examples of hypocrisy that you yourself have committed.
- Can true religious faith be passed down through generations of families, or do you have to discover your beliefs for yourself? Explain your answer.