An open letter addressed to adherents of a religion that was not Christian went something like this: “We are no better than you. We are all sinners…” This was written by someone who would consider himself to be a conservative evangelical. The name is omitted here because it could have been written by a hundred Christian leaders who represent not only conservative, but the whole spectrum of Christian philosophical positions. But the statement is problematic in various ways.
The late G. R. French once said, “Words are slippery things.” There are at least two parts to why words are often imprecise. The first is that often what is said is not exactly what is meant. Take the above phrase stating that “we are all sinners.” This phrase paints a word picture of everyone being mixed together in a large melting pot of sin. Is that really what is meant? Do those who say that really mean to convey the idea that there is no change dimension to Christian conversion? Do they actually mean that after salvation the state of a person is not changed from the pre-salvation state? That a saved person is no different than an unsaved person when it comes to sin? Sadly, there are some who would affirm that very idea. But most believers would say, no, there is a major difference. The Apostle John wrote that “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9). Most serious Christians would agree that a born again believer cannot continue in a life of sin. So the trouble with saying that “we are all sinners” is that it is too imprecise. The brush is too broad to paint an accurate picture of what is meant.
The second aspect of words that makes them slippery is how they are perceived by the one hearing or reading. The unbeliever getting the message that “we are all sinners” could easily wonder why he should be saved. Adding to that the other statement “we are no better than you” could make them doubly sure that there is no reason to consider the Christian claims. If becoming a Christian really doesn’t save me from sin nor does it make me a better person, then why bother? What is the attraction of a message that leaves me in my addiction, violence, lust, hatred, and all other marks of a sinful heart?
What was likely meant by the phrase “we are no better than you” was “we are no more valuable than you.” Every human person has intrinsic value by virtue of being made in the image of God. Each person, young or old, rich or poor, famous or obscure, is valuable. But not every person is equally good. It is confusing to say that no one is better than anyone else. That is ridiculous on its face. That would mean that we could not say that George Washington Carver was a better person than Adolf Hitler, or that Florence Nightingale was a better person than Bloody Mary. That is the folly of moral equivalence. Who would argue that the Chuck Colson who was the leader of Prison Fellowship was not a better person than the Chuck Colson who was the hatchet man in the Nixon administration? Or that the Apostle Paul was not a better man than Saul of Tarsus?
Saying that no one is better than anyone else actually denies the concept of the difference between good and evil. The Bible clearly makes that distinction and urges us on to “discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). That there are wicked people is clear and the reason is well-defined in the charge to pray to “be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith” (2 Thes.3:2). The fault of those who are unreasonable and wicked is that they do not have faith. Without faith there is no reason to see a distinction between good and evil. In fact, without faith the concepts get turned on their head and produce a people “that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20).
However, there is another side to this. Just as it is unhelpful to say “we are not better than you” it is also not helpful to say “we are better than you.” Again, it is the slipperiness of words that are at play. In our societal and world milieu, saying that is a red flag, an arrogant statement. Telling others how good we are is never a good thing. “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” (Pr. 20:6). The wise man considered self-praise as a contrast to true faithfulness. In another place he wrote, “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips” (Pr. 27:2).
Perhaps we should take the Apostle Paul as an example. He acknowledged how wicked he had been, but then gave praise to Christ for changing his life and making him an example of grace. “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:12-16).
Our word as believers is that we are not what we once were, that we have been changed, that we belong to the family of God, that our sins have been forgiven and we have been made new. This is not due to our own goodness or efforts but to the grace of God who so loved the whole world that He gave His own Son. Our word is also that wicked people can become righteous by the grace of God and that Jesus died for the whole world. No one is excluded if they come to Him and a bad person can become a whole lot better person if he is saved by faith in Christ.
How do we answer the question, “Are we no better than they?” The response is to divert the focus, “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).