I have said over the past few days that the significant difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that a Christian is given a “new nature” - a supernatural change takes place in them, and this enables them to be obedient to God. What we cannot draw from this is the idea that a non-Christian is incapable of doing what is right according to the law. And when I say “law” here, I mean the things that God approves of as right, whether we know it explicitly from reading the Bible, or whether we know it instinctively. In Romans 3 we read:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Romans 2:14)
Here it is telling us that people know by nature what the law requires, and they do it. When one reads the Ten Commandments, they acknowledge that these things describe good virtues. The commandments of God make explicit the kinds of things that we already know to be true. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God brought Israel out of Egypt where they were slaves, and brought them into the land of Canaan to establish themselves as a nation. As they travelled from Egypt to Canan, God gave them the law. If you put yourself in the mind of those Israelites, it's like this... “We've been set free and we're going to become a nation and establish our own government. What's more, God Himself is our king, and God is telling us what the law of the land should be...” And as they would hear the law that their government should have being told to them for the first time, they would have been nodding their heads saying, “Yes! This is good! This law is wiser than the law of any other nation. It is good, for it comes from God Himself!” They would have heard each of God's precepts and said, “Yes! This is right”, because we all know what is right and what is wrong. After all Cain, who lived long before the Exodus, knew he'd done wrong when he killed his brother.
The written law of God in the Bible is not exhaustive. It does not serve to answer every legal question. King Solomon knew this, which is why he asked God “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). There are hard cases which take wisdom to judge, but what we have in the written law are examples of righteousness; to be enforced, certainly, so that people might learn righteousness and that evil might be restrained. Because we are fallen and want to rebel against the law, we must be reminded of the law, and the law must be enforced.
Now on our inability to keep the law, Paul writes this in Romans 7, after writing about how he himself has broken the law...
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:12-15)
We spoke yesterday about the flesh and the Spirit. That which is “Spiritual”, in this context, is anything that the Holy Spirit would approve of, or lead us to do Himself. The law is Spiritual because it was given by God to reveal to us His character. We are to be like God in character. One who is like God in character obeys His laws which demonstrate His character. But, as the passage above says, we are “of the flesh”. We know what is right, but we do the very thing we hate. We do all hate sin in the sense that we know it is wrong, and while we often excuse ourselves of it, we hate it when others do those same things, especially when they do them to us!
When we speak of Christians as being under the New Covenant, as we spoke of a few days ago, and having the Holy Spirit which enables them to obey God, it is right to object that unbelievers are not incapable of being moral. The Bible affirms that they can be, as we've seen here today. Whilst it is often the case that an unbeliever will obey the law purely to avoid the consequences of disobedience, it is also true that unbelievers can genuinely want to do what is right; out of genuine compassion for people, or a true sense of what is right or wrong. So what is the difference between the Christian and the unbeliever? The difference is that God works “with” unbelievers, but “in” believers. What does this mean, and is this a significant difference?
Let me explain it this way. The Bible refers to a “restrainer” of evil (1 Thessalonians 2), which we can identify to be the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the Bible it says that the Holy Spirit will “convict the world of sin” (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit shows all people what is right and wrong, and through that, as He speaks to your conscience, evil is restrained in the world. His purpose is to draw all people to Christ. When my children do wrong, I tell them what is right, and I encourage them to always do right simply because that is what's right. Later in life as they learn more about Christ they will be able to identify with Him as the One who's very character is perfectly righteous; One who always does right because that's who He is. If they were left to do evil, completely unrestrained, they might never come to know Him. But nobody is left to do evil completely unrestrained, because the Holy Spirit is that restrainer, speaking to your consciences about what is right. His purpose is to draw all people to Christ, and so He works with all people to that end. But He works in the Christian to transform them more and more into that perfect image of Christ. (Not that we ever reach that goal in this life while we are still in this corrupt world.)
Until tomorrow, I leave you with this...
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)