Peter Abelard (1079-1142) managed to get himself into theological and moral trouble throughout most of his life. When he wrote Sic et Non (‘Yes and No’) to argue that the Early Church Fathers did not always agree with one another, he was being provocative, as usual, but was more accurate than he was on other subjects, such as the atonement of Christ. In this age of sound bytes and one liners, it is not easy to reply succinctly to a question that is not uncommon: ‘Are Christians better people than others?’ It is something of a trick question. If we say ‘no’, most will understand us to be saying that Christianity has no effect on us so it makes no difference whether we believe it or not. If we say ‘yes’, we will appear proud and moralistic in the worst sense.

Not all who profess faith in Christ are truly found in Him (e.g. Matt.7:21-23; 1 Cor.6:9-11; Acts 8:14-24). We can deceive others, and deceive ourselves. Even more awkward are those who are true believers, destined to dwell forever in the new heavens and new earth, but who prove quite capable of committing dreadful sins. Lot committed incest with his two daughters, at their instigation; Samson acted like an ill-disciplined thug on more than one occasion; while David committed adultery and murdered a man by proxy. Twice, Abraham passed off his wife as his sister because he was afraid of pagan rulers, while the same motive led Peter to deny Christ three times. The lives of Christians are not always straightforward ones of justification by faith in Christ alone, then a clear and discernible process of sanctification until the time comes for glory.

Kim Yoonsup was a Korean evangelist who was gaoled by Japanese authorities eight times in the 1930s and 1940s, for refusing to take part in Shinto worship. He stood firm the first seven times, but under torture he broke on the eighth occasion, and attempted suicide, then worshipped at the Shinto shrine. He was released, and went out to weep bitterly, like Peter. He resigned as an evangelist, but found forgiveness and victory in two texts – 2 Cor.5:21 and 1 John 1:9. He wrote to the police, retracting his statement, and was arrested again. This time, in 1942, he was sentenced to 15 years in gaol. He died in prison the following year, full of faith.

All of this is a reminder of the saying of John Lambert, the commander in Cromwell’s Parliamentary army: ‘The best of men are but men at best.’ The apostle Paul was obliged to remind the Corinthians: ‘For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor.4:7) Grace is a gift; it is not the result of our meriting anything, so there is no scope for boasting (Rom.3:27; Eph.2:8-9).

That salvation is by grace does not mean that we are rendered morally inert. Jesus spoke of His disciples as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt.5:13-14). Christians are to operate as what R. V. G. Tasker calls a kind of ‘moral disinfectant’. When professing Christians lose their saltiness, they are useless (the word usually means ‘foolish’). John Stott issues a sober warning: ‘When any community deteriorates, the blame should be attached where it belongs: not to the community which is going bad but to the church which is failing in its responsibility as salt to stop it going bad.’ Somehow, without the slightest fanfare, the world will see the light of Christians – reflected from Christ (John 8:12) – and give glory to God the Father (Matt.5:16). The love of Christians for each other ought to be so different from what the world knows, that people will see it as a proof of our discipleship (John 13:34-35). One last reference might be cited: ‘Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation’ (1 Peter 2:12).

In summarising the life and character of John Newton, Josiah Bull emphasised his humility, sound judgment, and the beauty of his all-round character: ‘it was his goodness rather than his greatness that rendered him so especially attractive – the abundance of the grace of God that was in him.’ That provides perhaps the best answer to our question. And, as we know, it was all a result of amazing grace. It is not so much that we are better, but that Christ is infinitely better, and a Christian by definition is in Christ.

– Peter Barnes