Updated: Nov 13
Do Christians think they are morally superior to unbelievers? Are we “better” than someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ? Even if this accusation hasn’t been leveled against you specifically, you are probably familiar with it. The question is difficult to answer with a simple “yes” or “no” for several reasons. One is that Scripture clearly divides the sheep from the goats, the enemies of God from the sons of God, and the children of the kingdom from those to whom the Lord Jesus Christ will say “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23). There is a literal eternal difference between someone God accepts and someone He will ultimately reject.
Another reason it is difficult for a believer to straightforwardly say whether we are morally superior to unbelievers is that Christians are uniquely sensitive to the accusation itself. Believers best understand the sinfulness of the human heart, particularly our own. To complicate matters further, we have within us the sworn enemies of the flesh and the Holy Spirit. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17). Sinful desires and Spirit desires cannot both be satisfied at the same time; one must yield. There are always grounds for accusation against a believer’s conscience, for all of us have memories of times where we chose our own desires over those of our Master. Our conscience, or the accusation of Satan, may join in chorus with the accusations of the world to make those memories particularly acute.
Yet another reason the question of moral superiority seems difficult to answer is that we believe what the Lord Jesus Christ said, that the seat of sin is the human heart. Lust is adultery of the heart (Matthew 5:28). Hatred is murder of the heart (Matthew 5:21). “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man” (Mark 7:19-20). Believers know that lost men and women are either more sinful than they suspect or admit. It is painful to the conscience for an unbeliever to be confronted with the reality that he is not the good person he would like to think he is.
At first glance, these reasons may simply explain why this question creates such a rift between a lost person and a saved person. However, in examining the question, we also find the answer. God requires righteousness which no human has in himself. Righteousness must be given, or imputed, from the One who has it to the person who does not. Because we contributed no moral goodness to our salvation, we have no innate advantage to advertise before the Lord or anyone else. Believers are righteous, but not in ourselves. Scripture is clear that God is the righteous One, and that it is His righteousness that makes us righteous.
Psalm 71:16-19 is an Old Testament passage that glorifies God’s saving righteousness for those who trust Him.
I will go in the strength of the Lord GOD: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only. O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come. Thy righteousness also, O God, is very high, who hast done great things: O God, who is like unto thee!
The status of believers who have been made righteous by the saving act of God is proclaimed with unique joy in Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.”
Men and women in this age receive the righteousness of God by believing on the only righteous Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 10:4 says that “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” Paul personalizes this righteousness through Christ in 1 Corinthians 1:29-30: “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
Because believers possess the righteousness of God provided to us in Jesus Christ, we have a real moral advantage over the world around us. However—and this makes all the difference—that advantage is fully a gift and entirely independent of our effort or worth. The redeemed are not an exclusive club for people who go to church on Sunday; moral righteousness and freedom from guilt is available to anyone who will recognize his moral bankruptcy and trust the perfect righteousness of Christ, “for there is no difference” (Romans 3:22).
There are several implications for this truth. First, the people who are most likely to accuse believers of moral superiority actually understand God’s righteousness the least. The critics may talk much of morality, but they do not understand. In Paul’s time the Jews, who ought to have understood Isaiah 61:10 and Psalms 71:16-19 were nevertheless “ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness,” and therefore had “not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:3). Second, believers are not to forget the source of their righteousness and attribute spiritual growth to their own efforts. While it is true that it is necessary to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), 1 Corinthians 1:30 reminds us that Christ is “made unto us” not only righteousness, but also sanctification. Growing Christians cannot (and arguably are not) proud of their own growth. Third, believers who understand the sinfulness of the human heart should not use that knowledge to assign specific sinful motives to the things lost people do. Yes, it’s true that humans have sinful motives for doing even good things. However, that knowledge is not a license to diagnose the contents of another person’s heart. Actions can be evaluated; motives cannot.
The knowledge that we possess righteousness that is not our own should give us joy. It should make us immune to bad faith attacks, yet it should make us more dependent on the righteousness of God. Be confident, Christian, for you carry with you a great treasure: the righteousness of Christ.
The above article was written by Jonathan Kyser. He is a pastoral assistant of NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL. To offer him your feedback, comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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