We believe that no-one is too bad to follow Jesus.
When someone seriously considers following Jesus, this issue often becomes a problem for them. It can be expressed in a number of ways, but they mostly come down to something like this:
"I agree that following Jesus is a good thing to do, but I am not good enough to do it. I would let Him down."
The key thing to understand is this: of all the reaons for not following Jesus, this one is the very worst!
At this point, we have to face one of the central paradoxes of the Christian faith...
How do we hold these two principles together? Many books have been written about this question. I cannot even begin to summarise all that has been said. It is one of the simplest, and one of the deepest areas of the Christian faith. Whatever you understand about it today, if you follow Jesus you will continue to discover more about it until the day you die.
But since you are unlikely to be satisfied by a simple assurance that these two principles can both be upheld without contradiction, I have to say something on the subject...
The only moral standard which makes sense is absolute perfection. Once you say that sin - breaking the moral code - is acceptable sometimes, you have to start explaining which sins are acceptable in which situations, and justifying why this sin is acceptable, while that very similar sin is not. The question of what is acceptable becomes a subject for discussion and modification. You are left not with a moral standard but a more-or-less useful set of guidelines for living in a generally moral way.
This standard of perfection, of course, needs to cover every aspect of our lives. It is not enough to reel off a list of sins you don't commit - the things you don't do don't make up for the things you do do. If the nice policeman catches you speeding down the road and pulls you over, he will not be too impressed if you say it doesn't matter because you keep to the speed limit most of the time.
The point is this: the law is not something where you aim for a 'pass mark'. It is no defense to tell the court you did not commit fraud 80% of the time, or 90%, or 99%. With the law, you either keep it perfectly, or you are guilty. It's as simple as that.
So you may not commit murder - that's good. But if you hurt people by the way you speak, you fall short of being morally perfect. Harming people - or failing to help them - because of greed, selfishness, insensitivity or ambition - that is the kind of thing the Bible means when it says we all fail to meet God's standard of perfection.
And this standard - God's moral standard - is not the target we are supposed to aim for. It is the minimum acceptable, the starting point. God wants us to be good, creative, loving and happy people. Not sinning is not the objective, it is simply what is required if we are not to destroy the good He wishes to build. Not sinning means not going backwards: what He wants for us is that we go forward with Him. We could meet the standard of never sinning, and still only be 'unprofitable servants' - not actually contributing anything positive.
But of course, the reality is that, if the only standard is perfection, then nobody gets anywhere near meeting it. We fall short of God's standard in our thoughts, our words, our actions, and in the things we fail to do.
If I managed each and every day to be nearly perfect, it would still change nothing as far as meeting God's standard goes. If I failed to meet God's standard of perfection in what I say only once a day, if I fell short in my actions only once a day, and if I failed to do one loving act only once a day, I would be much closer to perfection than I could claim to be today. Yet even that level of achievement would result in three sins a day, every day. That's twenty-one every week, over a thousand sins every year. In a full lifetime, that would be over 70,000 sins. And I am nowhere near achieving even that.
By the way - the Bible is a refreshingly honest book. It records the faults and failings of the great saints and heroes of the past, just as honestly as it records their faith and achievements. It shows us over and over again that God works with us not because we are perfect, but because we are willing, and because He is gracious.
Jesus knew what people were like, but He still called them to follow Him. His disciples let Him down, argued with each other, played political games, denied and betrayed Him. But He never told any of them that they had failed to meet His standard and would have to leave.
In fact, He clearly taught that His mission was to draw the weak and sinful to Himself. He went to the people who needed Him - to those who knew they needed Him. 'The fit,' he said, 'have no need of a doctor.'
It is clear from the gospel stories that Jesus made a point of helping the socially underprivileged, those on the edge of society, the poor, the sick, the insane. What is not so clear to us today (we don't understand the cultural background to the stories) is that He also reached out to the morally compromised, the people that good people of His day would never be seen with.
Jesus called weak and sinful people to be His disciples. His ministry was directed towards the outcasts and sinners. If you feel that you are not good enough to follow Jesus, that sense of moral inadequacy itself is all the evidence you need, to be sure He will welcome you with open arms.
Yes, you will let Him down. He can handle that. Your need is the only qualification you need to be accepted by Him. He calls to Himself, not those who think they are good, but those who know they are bad and need to change. He calls, not those who think they are healthy, but those who know they are sick and need healing.
When Jesus described Himself as a doctor, that was no accidental or casual image picked at random. The image expresses a deep undestanding of His life and ministry.
As a doctor, Jesus recognises what is wrong with us. But he does more than simply identify the problem, He offers us the cure.
Our basic problem is not that our economy is going wrong, or that society is badly organised, or that our parents failed to love and care for us. The problem is inside us: we do wrong things because we are wrong inside.
The answer is that we need to change on the inside. We cannot do this ourselves, by trying harder, by making New Year resolutions. But He promises to change us. He promises to treat our condition, if we will entrust our treatment to His hands.
Following Jesus is an essential part of our treatment. We cannot become changed, improved people and then start to follow Jesus. We must follow Him as we are, not at all. And as we follow Him, so He works His treatent, and little by little we are changed on the inside.
We never become perfect. We continue to let Him down. We never become sinless, but in time we discover that we do sin less, if we continue to walk with Him.
His standard of absolute perfection never changes. But He continues to accept us as we are, imperfect and fallible human beings. He understands our problems and forgives our sins, and as we walk with Him, so He transforms us gradually but surely into the people that God intended us to be.
God's moral standard is that of total and absolute perfection. He will never be satisfied with anything less than this. But equally well, no fault or failing is a reason not to follow Jesus. We follow Him because we are less than perfect, and we recognise we need His help. He promises to change our life, to make us better people, but this only happens as we follow Him.
Because He loves us, He accepts us as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us as we are.
Many of the problems which people today consider to be psychological can be recognised in traditional Christian teaching as spiritual or moral problems.
Just putting a different label on a problem does not help very much. But recognising the nature and the root of the problem does help. The right diagnosis makes the right cure much easier to find.
Many people today are unhappy. One common cause of unhappiness is very easy to recognise. People do wrong things, and this makes them unhappy. They are unhappy because they see the pain they have caused, because they want to live in a society in which people don't do such things, and because they feel guilty and ashamed of what they have done.
Secular answers to this problem really do not help. "It was not your fault." (So who else can I blame?) "You could not help it." (If I am not responsible for my actions, what is left of me as a human being?) And so on.
But the Christian understanding is both simple and effective. The truth is very straighforward - you feel guilty because you are guilty. However, if you accept the forgiveness that God offers, you will no longer be guilty, so you will no longer feel guilty.
This offer of forgiveness is part of the package that I am describing in general terms as 'following Jesus'. This offer is described more fully in the answers to the objections, in the next section below.
Yes, I entirely agree. In a moral universe, every crime, every sin, must be punished, or you are effectively saying one of two things. Either sin does not matter, or we do not live in a morally just universe. I have described elsewhere why I believe that we do live is a moral universe; the next section answers the other aspect.
Possibly. You can infer this from what I have said. But it does not follow that this is the case, and I want to explain here why that understanding is completely wrong. Christians actually believe that sin does matter - it matters a great deal.
Sin does matter, and sin must be punished, and the Bible teaches that this is why Jesus died on the cross. He suffered in our place, so that we can be forgiven without injustice.
There are only two alternatives here...
It doesn't take a great deal of thought to conclude if we have to be perfect then none of us stands a chance. I have met many people over the years who thought they were quite good - in comparison with other people - but nobody who seriously believed they were perfect.
Some religions do make attaining perfection the only way to achieve the goal - although you have to understand 'perfection' in a very limited sense. They generally teach that you become 'perfect' by gaining understanding and working hard to apply it, and somehow your past sins can be undone, forgotten or forgiven. It seems to me that Christianity is a lot more realistic here: even if we had many lifetimes to work at it, we would never become perfect by our own effort.
Of course - just because the conclusion is unpleasant, this does not mean that it is untrue. But the evidence that any alternative theory is true is rather thin on the ground, and being unpleasant doesn't make it true, either.
This may sound superficially attractive, but as soon as you think about it, most people reject this option. It would mean we live in a totally amoral universe. You can hurt people as much as you like - it does not matter, according to this viewpoint.
I have heard people saying this is what they believe, but I have never met anyone who lived as though it were true. We need to believe in some sort of morality.