Why are so many unbelievers often more “good”, law-abiding, even more “Christian” than actual Christians? A lot of people say only Jesus and His power brought me out of xyz sin, but that clearly needn’t be the case.
This is often one of the most painful questions to answer, as implicit in the question is the allegation that some Christians are not living up to their calling! A claim such as this is usually overstated with phrases like “so many”, but there’s a definite point in the question that cannot be gainsaid. I’d like to answer this contention by explaining a few Biblical and theological concepts that will help us appreciate the commonalities as well as the differences between a believer in Christ and an unbeliever.
God created man in His own image
Genesis 1:26 reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (emphasis mine). Often in theological discussions, the Latin phrase imago Dei is used, instead of the English phrase “image of God”. What does this phrase mean? Man is in the image of God means that man is in the likeness of God and represents God. Other than man, no creature that God created is said to be made “in the image of God”.
The rest of Scripture throws more light on this concept. It gives us a clearer and further understanding of who God is in His being and in His actions — and a full understanding of who man is and what he does. The more we fathom God and man, the more similarities we will appreciate, and the more fully we will grasp the Scriptural concept that man is in the image of God. The expression refers to every way in which every man is like God.
The image of God is disfigured but not destroyed
What happened after the Fall? Was God’s image destroyed or erased? The answer is found quite early in Genesis where, after the flood, God gives Noah the authority to establish the death penalty for murder among human beings. God says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6, emphasis mine).
There is enough likeness of God remaining in man even in his sinful estate that to take another person’s life is an assault on the part of creation that most resembles God. Man is still in God’s image. In the New Testament, James 3:9 gives further support that men generally, not just believers, “are made in God’s likeness”. After the Fall, then, we are still in God’s image — we are still in the likeness of God and we still represent God — but the image of God in us is disfigured; we are less fully like God than we were before the entrance of sin.
After the Fall, we are still in the likeness of God, but His image in us is disfigured
We continue to bear specific aspects of likeness to God
There are numerous aspects of our existence that show us we are more like God than the rest of creation — moral aspects, spiritual aspects, mental aspects, relational aspects etc. Space constraints do not allow me to go into a detailed explanation of all these aspects. Suffice it to say, although we are marred by sin, we still reflect much of God’s image. Every single human being, no matter how much the image of God is disfigured by sin, still is in God’s likeness and therefore has the ability to be a “good, law-abiding” person — and, in some instances, more “Christian” than actual Christians.
We are unable to please God or come to Him in our own strength
Psalm 58:3 makes a strong statement about the inherent tendency to sin that is joined to our lives from the very beginning. It says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” Our nature comprises a disposition to sin. That’s why Paul tells the church at Ephesus that before they became Christians, they “were, by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).
This inherited tendency to sin does not mean that human beings are all as bad as they could be. There are several restraining forces on the sinful proclivities of the human heart — such as civil law, the expectations of family and society, and the conviction of human conscience (Romans 2:14–15). Therefore, by God’s “common grace” (that is, by His undeserved favour that He gives to all human beings), people have been able to do much good in various areas of life and show benevolence and kindness to others.
By God’s “common grace”, people have been able to do much good in various areas of life
But in spite of the ability to do good, because of our tendency to sin (inherited corruption), we are unable to do anything that pleases God. Paul says, “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Unbelievers cannot do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God. All unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). They are unable to come to God on their own strength.
Moreover, unbelievers are in a state of bondage to sin, because “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). From a human perspective, people might be able to do a lot of good deeds but, as Isaiah confirms, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Not just that, but unbelievers are even unable to rightly understand the things of God, for “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
So, although on the surface, it might, on occasion, look like an unbeliever is more “righteous” than a believer, in reality, it’s only a believer in Christ who can enjoy a relationship with God, understand the things of God, as well as please God when he does things according to His will.
Although an unbeliever may, at times, look more “righteous” than a believer, in reality, it’s only a believer in Christ who can please God when he obeys His will
In Christ, we have a progressive restoration of God’s image
One of the encouraging verses in the New Testament is in Colossians 3:10, where Paul says the Christians “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” Redemption in Christ gives us the ability, even in this life, to progressively grow more and more into God’s likeness. As believers grow in God’s Word, they begin to think more like God! This is a portrayal of the ordinary course of the Christian life. So, Paul can confidently say that we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
As we grow in Christian maturity, we grow in our likeness to God; more specifically, we grow in our likeness to Christ. If truth be told, the goal for which God has redeemed us in Christ is that we might be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). And every believer has this amazing promise that “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49), and “when He appears, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2, emphasis mine).
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.