Evangelical churches can get caught up in promoting a moralistic program of “being nice,” but it’s difficult to spot because it’s almost never taught explicitly. It follows us into the church like walking inside with the aroma of the outdoors; it’s hard to smell it on yourself because you’re so accustomed to it. But the smell shows up in a number of ways:
- We condemn the world’s sin more than our own.
- We put sins in a hierarchy, and tolerate some sins (especially our own) more than others.
- In church, we sing songs and pray prayers of praise, but not songs and prayers of confession.
- We describe our own sins as “mistakes.”
- We use Bible stories to teach children to be good rather than to point them to a Savior: “Be like David,” not “You need a new and better David, who is Christ.”
How to Be Nice
Perhaps the main way we teach nice is how we present Christ. We commend him and the gospel as a method of self-improvement. It’s not that we fail to talk about the cross or even sin; it’s that sin is presented as a problem primarily for how it messes up our lives and relationships and gets in the way of our goals. Jesus is presented as the one who will change all that. We tell people he will make a difference in their marriages and in their parenting. He will bring love, joy, and peace to their home. He will give them renewed purpose at work. Come to Jesus, and he’ll make a difference in your life.
Jesus, of course, does make a difference in the lives of believers; it’s just not the difference of a better life now in all the ways we might want. After all, what did Jesus say? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). That means Jesus might make a difference in your marriage by giving you the grace to persevere with a spouse who no longer loves you. He might bring love, joy, and peace to your home by making you an agent rather than a recipient of those things. He might give you renewed purpose at work by changing your attitude rather than your job description.
If we would be right with God, we don’t need to improve ourselves. We need a complete restart.
When we present Jesus as the solution to our self-diagnosed problems, many outside the church aren’t convinced. They don’t stop playing the game of nice; they just don’t see the need to play the game at church or evidence that we play it better than they do.
Meanwhile, those inside the church are confused about what biblical Christianity is in the first place. So many of us learned the message of nice in churches that introduced us to a Jesus who promised to improve us, not a Jesus who calls his followers to die to themselves. These churches taught us to be nice without making sure we were new. I fear this is why so many of my friends’ children have walked away from Christianity. They haven’t given up on nice. They’ve simply discovered they don’t need Jesus to be nice.
Necessity of New
The appeal of nice is strong. It plays to our vanity and pride. Jesus confronts us with the need to be made new. He does this three times in John 3 alone:
- “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
- “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
- “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
If we would be right with God, we don’t need to improve ourselves. We need a complete restart. In fact, the Bible uses several theological concepts to describe what Jesus means:
- Regeneration, which means being born again, with an emphasis on the divine source of that new life (1 Pet. 1:3).
- Re-creation, which means being made anew as part of the end-time new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).
- Transformation, which means being given a new nature (Col. 3:10).
A radical change must occur in us. One word the Bible never uses to describe what Jesus is talking about is “reformation.” You might reform a church, but not a dead heart. The personal change that Jesus says we need goes much deeper; it reaches down to our very nature.
According to Scripture, God made us to worship him, to love him, and to find in him our deepest satisfaction. That was our nature as he originally created it. But when our first parents rebelled against God, they didn’t just break a rule; they corrupted their nature. Theologians call this “original sin,” and we’ve all inherited it. Created with a nature to love God, we now have a nature bent on loving self. From birth, Paul says, we’re dead in our sins, and walk in the passions of our flesh (Eph. 2:1–3). We’re like dead men walking.
This is why nice doesn’t work. We must be made new.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Michael Lawrence’s new book, Conversion: How God Creates a People (Crossway, 2017).