Light for our path: Unbelievers who seem to be more morally upright

What do I say when a friend asks why some unbelievers seem to be more morally upright than many Christians she knows?

James F. Pope

Your response to your friend includes understanding what the Bible teaches about good works and the dual nature of the Christian.


Picture two strangers walking down a street. One is a Christian, the other is an unbeliever. Can you tell who’s who? That is not a fair question because no human being would be able to know the difference with one hundred percent certainty. Why? What the Lord said to the prophet Samuel regarding the identification of Israel’s second king is also true when it comes to people trying to distinguish a believer from an unbeliever: “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God alone can see faith or unbelief in the heart and sort out Christian from non-Christian. You and I have limited vision. That means we might not be able to differentiate between an unbeliever who does nice things in life and a Christian who seems to do fewer amounts of good works.

But, you wonder, why might the morally upright behavior of an unbeliever seem to be more abundant than the good works of a Christian? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? An answer to those questions lies in recognizing the unique makeup of the Christian.


In Romans chapter 7 the apostle Paul explained the struggles he experienced in living the Christian life. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18,19). The apostle’s struggles materialized when the Lord blinded him physically and opened his eyes spiritually on the road to Damascus. The new self created by the Holy Spirit clashed with the sinful nature Paul had from birth. The result of that clash was that the apostle fell into sin again and again after he became a believer.

Christians today find common ground with the apostle. Christians may find themselves on the losing side of temptation all too often. It then can appear as if the unbeliever’s behavior surpasses the good works of battle-weary Christians. But it’s important to keep the distinction between outward goodness of an unbeliever that does not impress God and good works of a Christian that are pleasing to God because of Jesus his Son. The truth remains that only Christians can do good works (Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:13), while the entire life of the unbeliever is one of sin (Romans 14:23).


Picture again those two strangers walking down a street. One person just tries to do nice things—to be a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good person. Another person tries to do good things because she shares the attitude of the apostle Paul and seeks to do what God says in his law as a way of thanking him for salvation. Does that mean such gratitude will express itself in greater measure than the morally upright behavior of unbelievers? Not necessarily. But Christians will strive to grow in their praise of God.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 103, Number 6
Issue: June 2016

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