The reason you might ask this question is that you genuinely feel that you do not need to be(come) a Christian to be a good person. Overall you as an individual consider yourself quite capable of determining what is right and wrong, and of doing good to your fellowmen. It is obvious that non-religious people can act in good ways and that, on the other hand, Christians are capable of doing bad things.
Check your motives
To answer your question, let’s look at some of the underlying assumptions you may have:
- You may think that the goal of Christianity is primarily to make you into a good person.
- You consider yourself capable of determining and doing the right thing in most situations. You will probably admit that you also fail morally at times, but in the majority of cases you act satisfactorily or even well. After all, you say that no one is capable nor required to lead a perfect life.
- You feel that living up to your own self-made set of moral standards makes you lead the life of a (generally) good person.
- You probably adhere to a relativist life view: the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.
Therefore, you may conclude that Christianity is unnecessary, lacking, or even detrimental in understanding what being a good person means in life.
What moral standard to choose?
The problem with your approach is subjectivity. It is a fact that different people develop different ethical standards. So how can you be sure that your personal moral standard is good enough or even “better” than other people’s ethical standards? What seems good to you, may not seem good to someone else. You can see this working out in history and today’s world with nations mistreating certain minorities and being convinced this is quite alright.
Furthermore, how can you be certain of having valid criteria to determine your moral choices? Aristotle taught that our unique capacity for rationality helps us avoid behavioral extremes in order to achieve a good life. John Stuart Mill held that a good life is when you maximize pleasure over pain. Some philosophers today maintain that you can live a good life when your desires are satisfied and your personal potential is realized. Objections can be raised against all these views, e.g. good moral behavior is not always rational, moderate or pleasurable.
What does “being a good person” actually mean? Often, people mean: “I don’t kill, steal, cheat etc.” However, this seems a very superficial view of what is at stake here.
God’s moral standard
In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we read that God created all people in His image, which implies that we have an innate sense of right and wrong and a conscience. However, the Bible also expresses that we only partially understand and act on what is “good” since God’s image in us has been corrupted. The Bible teaches that there is an objective moral standard given to man that defines good and evil based on God’s character which is perfect in holiness and love. All the regulations in the Bible, like the 10 Commandments, are all derived from this basic understanding.
Jesus reiterated God’s requirement for moral perfection:
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
He summarized God’s moral code like this:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
We fall short of God’s standard
It is obvious that we can never live up to this as we can never be perfect in love. The Bible teaches therefore that man’s condition is one affected by “missing the mark” or “sin”: a destructive power that lives within us that makes us self-centred by putting ourselves and/or other entities in control of our personalities. This sinful condition affects our moral capacities, behavior and motives.
In His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Christ specifically addressed this issue by bringing out the deeper meaning of the 10 commandments. Failing morally in thought and motive, e.g. thinking evil of a person in one’s heart, also makes one guilty before God. (Matthew 5: 21-22). Jesus also points out that failing to do good when we could actively do so, is also falling short of God’s standards. The apostle Paul says it like this: “no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:12) We sin “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer)
The purpose of Christianity
Christ’s central message was not to teach us to do our best to live a good life by avoiding harming people plus doing some good deeds. It was about two things:
- The absolute priority of our relationship with God
- Himself as the One sent by God to restore that relationship and transform our human nature to live as God intended us to live: as reconciled and renewed people.
This will affect how we behave morally in our relationships with our fellowmen. Christ made this possible for us by sacrificing His life on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins for an inner spiritual transformation. He refers to this as a new birth, through the activity of the Holy Spirit.
Paul states it like this:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
The purpose of a good life according to the Bible is to reflect the nature of Christ in our lives. In short, we should no longer act with the sole aim to be “good” people. Without a relationship with God, this is pointless. The good news is that we receive from God unlimited grace (undeserved favor) and the power of the Holy Spirit to grow in reflecting Him in our lives.
Everyone is able to do some good, and when striving hard for it, perhaps even a lot of good. But no one can live up to the standard of perfection. Yet, that is the state that God requires to you to be in – He cannot accept you as His non-perfect image. Therefore, He gives you Jesus to bring you to that state. You do not need Christianity to do good, but you need it to be perfect.