Some of the nicest people I know are not Christians. Many of them are followers of other religions, some of them are non-religious, and a few of them are atheists. They’re the kind of friends who always have my back. They’re gracious to me when I mess up. I couldn’t ask for better neighbors. They donate to charities, work with troubled youths, are still happily married to their high school sweethearts. They far outdo me (and many of my Christian friends) when it comes to being upstanding citizens, faithful friends, moral examples, and overall good people.
Yet they have nothing whatsoever to do with Christ.
I’m reminded of a story in Abraham’s life. He and his wife, Sarah, traveled to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan. Because he was afraid the Egyptians would see his lovely wife, kidnap her, and murder him, Abraham asked her to slip off her wedding ring and tell everyone he was her brother.
This she did, but the plan backfired. When Pharaoh’s servants saw how gorgeous Sarah was, they took her into the palace anyway. They didn’t know she was married, nor did the king. Pharaoh was simply doing what most kings did back then—enriching his harem with another attractive female. And, contrary to what many think, there’s nothing to suggest that the king wasn’t having sex with Sarah. In fact, he says, “I took her for my wife.”
So what did Sarah’s husband have to say about his wife sleeping with the king? Nothing. Abraham said not a word. In fact, in exchange for the “sister,” the king of Egypt “dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.” Far from losing his life, Abraham’s life was materially enriched. His wallet was stuffed with Egyptian riches so long as he kept his mouth shut. Of course, it made him a de facto pimp, but still this husband kept silent.
Who knows how long this scandalous situation would have gone on had not heaven had enough. Though Pharaoh was sinning in ignorance, the Lord struck his house with plagues. We’re not told how the king found out why all this suffering was befalling him, but he did. And when he did, he was fit to be tied. He immediately ended the adulterous affair. He rebuked Abraham to his face for lying to him, but he did not punish the husband for putting him in this situation. He gave Sarah back to her Abraham. What’s more, he demanded not a single gift back from the patriarch. And he sent soldiers to escort the couple, fat with the riches of the country they had defrauded, safely out of its borders.
What kind of man did Pharaoh show himself to be? An honest man. One concerned for the purity of the marriage bed. Not revengeful. Gracious and giving. Full of righteous indignation for being deceived into sin. In other words, all the good, praiseworthy qualities that believing Abraham had not shown, unbelieving Pharaoh did. If there’s anyone in this story that comes out smelling like a rose, it’s the pagan ruler not the chosen patriarch. Abraham looks like a lying, selfish, greedy jerk.
There are plenty of Pharaohs still in the world today, as there are plenty of Abrahams too. The most charitable, outwardly righteous folks in town might be enjoying some bacon and eggs at IHOP on Sunday morning while people full of moral failures are kneeling at the rail for some bread and wine.
So what gives? Aren’t Christians supposed to be lights in the world, models of morality, loving neighbors, law-abiding citizens, and commandment-keepers? Of course we are. And many Christians do a fine job of leading ethical, exemplary lives. Just like some unbelievers do a fine job of leading those same ethical, exemplary lives.
Here’s the significant point that is far too often missed, both inside and outside the church: Christians are not Christians because they are good people. Christians are not Christians because they are better than the world at keeping laws, being faithful spouses, rearing obedient children, running honest businesses, and crossing every legal “t” and dotting every moral “i.”
Christians are Christians not because of anything that they have done but because of everything Christ has done for them.
Abraham was a Christian. He believed in the promise of the Lord to send the Seed who would destroy the work of the devil and give his life for us all. He looked forward to that saving work of Christ just like we look back to its accomplishment. And that death-destroying, life-bestowing work of Jesus Christ made Abraham a Christian, just as it does all Christians today.
Outwardly, there often doesn’t seem to be much difference between believers and unbelievers. You’ll find them side-by-side in prisons and rehab facilities and divorce courts and AA meetings. Similarly, you’ll find Christians and non-Christians together at charity events and soup kitchens and marriage seminars. We all blend together, some better than others, some worse, but all us sinners in need of the grace of God.
Our standing before God is not determined by outward obedience to any set of laws, human or divine. Our standing before God has already been determined. He has reconciled the world to himself in the cross of Jesus Christ. To every man, woman, and child; to every Abraham, Sarah, and Pharaoh; to every law-abiding citizen and convicted felon; to everyone, no matter how good or bad they appear to be, God says, “I forgive you. The blood of my son has washed away your sin. We are reconciled. All is at peace between me and you. My Son has kept the law for you, as he has paid the ultimate price for your breaking of it. I love you, every one of you, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. I am your Father and you are my child.”
Some believe this, some don’t. But faith doesn’t make it true, anymore than unbelief makes it false. It is the truth of the God who loves you, no matter how good or bad you seem to be. He loves you as you are because he loves you in Jesus Christ.
And this is Good News indeed. Good News not just for the church but for the world that God so loved, that he gave his one and only Son to fill that world with his forgiveness and life.
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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!