What are we to make of the claim, ‘You can’t expect non-believers to act like believers’?
How often have you heard some Christian saying something like the following: ‘Well, we can’t point out the sins of non-believers because they are not in a position to receive such truths. Only those who have the Holy Spirit can be convicted of their sin, so we are wasting our time telling non-Christians to stop doing this or that.’
Far too many Christians have gotten this mistaken notion that we have nothing to say to non-Christians, and we should not try to ‘cram our morality’ down their throats. I have heard plenty of Christians trying to push this view over the years. Let me offer just two examples.
Many years ago when I was a rather new Christian I was out witnessing with a friend. One guy we were sharing our faith with made the oft-heard claim, ‘Nah, I am not a bad person, I am not a sinner.’ It was clear he had been drinking and was intoxicated, so I quoted the passage about ‘no drunkard will inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 6:10).
We later went to see a pastor to discuss our adventures, and the pastor demurred somewhat and said: ‘Yeah, but the non-Christian just does what non-Christians do. We can’t really make sins like drunkenness the focus of our presentation’ or words to that effect.
And then just days ago someone had said similar things:
Our primary duty as Christians, is to lead others to Christ first. Once a heart has been opened to respond to the gospel message, then the Holy Spirit will work on their hearts, through the hearing of the truth in church and in a bible fellowship group, and then they will slowly be convicted of the sins that do line up with God’s word. It’s none of our business to proclaim all the sins that will damn non-Christians, UNTIL they become believers, and then we need to gently point out that a true follower of Jesus cannot continue in these sinful ways.
She began her remarks by quoting from 1 Corinthians 5:12: ‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?’ Is she, and the pastor, and others like them, right? Should we just not seek to point out sin in a non-Christian’s life?
The basic line being pushed by these folks is heard all the time: “We shouldn’t expect non-believers to act like believers.” But is this actually so? Yes and no, in a sense, is the short answer. But let me try to answer this by expanding upon a reply that I gave to this gal. What follows is a longer version of some of the things I had said to her:
Thanks ****. I hear what you are saying but you may need to think a bit more clearly here – and a bit more biblically. There are of course many more biblical passages on these matters than just the one that you quoted. And the biblical/theological evidence for a rather different view on these issues can be presented in various ways. Here are some of them:
-When the Old Testament prophets judged and rebuked pagan nations for their sins, they usually rebuked the same sins and even used the same language that they did when judging and rebuking God’s own people Israel. There was no real difference to be found, in other words, in the sorts of standards God held pagan nations to, and the standards he held his own people to.
Sure, Israel became God’s chosen people, a special covenant people. So they had a unique relationship with Yahweh. But that does NOT mean that all the other nations and peoples were let off the hook. They too are held accountable to God for their sin. They are not given a free pass.
-Related to this, it would be wrong to say that a non-Christian has no moral claims upon him, or no knowledge of such moral claims. Paul in Romans 2:1-16 talks about how the law of God is written on the hearts of non-believers, and how their conscience condemns them already, as they do or don’t do what they know to be right.
Sure, as Paul also says in Romans, we are slaves to sin (6:22). Indeed, we are dead in our trespasses and sins as he also declares in Ephesians 2:1. But that does not mean that non-Christians are completely inert – they still eat, breathe, walk and talk. And they still make moral choices every day as well.
Whether it be to speed or not, or to stop at a red light, or whether we steal from our neighbour, or decide to cheat or not on our taxes, or lie to our boss, and so on, we are all continually involved in moral or immoral acts and choices. Of course, often the reason most non-Christians might seek to do the right thing in these areas is the fear of being caught – the fear of consequences for wrong choices.
So yes, the sinful nature has a vicelike grip on all people, and it can only be properly broken when we come to Christ and turn from our sin. But whether a believer or non-believer, we are all moral beings and God does hold us all morally accountable.
-It certainly can be our business to point out the sins of non-believers. We find this often in Scripture. What do you think Paul was doing in places like Romans 1:18-32 for example? There we find a very lengthy and detailed list of sins that the non-believer is guilty of. Paul makes it his business to proclaim all these sins and alert non-believers to their fate as they continue to shake their fists at God.
-Some Christians claim that the law is only for believers, not non-believers. But Paul seems to say the exact opposite in places like 1 Timothy 1:8-10 (NLT):
We know that the law is good when used correctly. For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God.
-To see the logical outcome of such unbiblical thinking, simply try telling any judge in any court of law that when a non-Christian breaks the law (murder, theft, lying, etc – which are also sins by the way), that he has to just let the guy go free because we can’t expect non-Christians to be able to know and do what is right.
-Try telling social reformers like Wilberforce that they were wrong to tell non-Christians that things like slavery was wrong, because they were not Christians and therefore we can’t speak to them about their sins. Non-Christians can know that something like slavery is wrong just as much as the believer can.
-Finally, we simply can NOT preach the good news of the gospel to people until we first preach to them the bad news of the gospel. And that is that they are sinners headed to a lost eternity. They have broken God’s moral law and they are guilty. So the preaching of sin to non-believers is an integral part of how we reach them for Christ.
So yes, we point folks to Christ, and when they are saved, they get the Holy Spirit dwelling within to help them live a holy and godly life. But nowhere does Scripture tell us that nonbelievers are not morally aware and morally accountable, and that they will not be judged for what they do.
Yes, God is the ultimate judge here, but often believers need to speak to the sins of others. As such, if I am talking to a non-Christian and she tells me she is about to have an abortion, I will definitely call that out. Whether or not I call it a sin, I WILL say it is wrong, knowing that the law of God is written on her heart. So Christians have every reason to call out that which is evil. That is part of being salt and light in a fallen world.
As to how some people use – or misuse a passage like 1 Cor 5:12-23, I have discussed this in much more detail elsewhere, so please have a read: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/24/difficult-bible-passages-1-corinthians-512-13/
In sum, and to repeat, it is of course true that when a person comes to Christ in faith and repentance, he or she receives the Holy Spirit to enable them to live a life that is God-pleasing. What we did not want to do and had struggles trying to do as a pagan we now can do because of a life transformed by God’s grace.
But these biblical realities do not mean that we should make cheap excuses for non-Christians: ‘Oh, of course a pagan will kill and lie and steal and cheat – we do not expect anything different from them. So we can’t judge them or hope for anything else.’
Um no, we actually can expect better of them. As I said above, all nations have laws in place which everyone is expected to keep. Whether or not a person is born-again and has the Holy Spirit, we still rightly expect a non-believer to stop at a red light just as much as we expect a believer to.
We continue to tell a convicted murderer or rapist or arsonist or burglar that what they did was wrong – whether or not they are Christians. Yes, in a sense we hold Christians to higher standards because they have a new life in Christ, God is with them, and they are hopefully immersing themselves in biblical truth as found in Scripture.
But we still believe that everyone is made in the image of God and has a conscience – even if tarnished and diminished. People have an innate idea of right and wrong, as Romans 1-2 make clear, and they will be held accountable for the moral light they have – and have rejected.
So yes, as the pastor was intimating, we know that a non-believer cannot fully please God and his inward drift is to disobey God and to simply please self. That is indeed the fallen nature in action. But in spite of this, all people will stand before God one day and they will be held morally accountable for what they did or did not do.
How all this gets worked out in terms of public policy and the like is a different matter, and a complex discussion. There is some overlap between church and state here, but not all crimes are sins, and not all sins are crimes. So careful thought is needed in these areas as the Christian seeks to ascertain how biblical values might be implemented in modern secular nations.
But please Christians: no more shallow and sloppy thinking about these issues. In many respects we can and should hold non-Christians accountable for their behaviour. God is certainly not going to let them off the hook, and neither should we.