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Sorry, but Christianity is not about being nice

Crossway recently published an article by Dr. Michael Lawrence entitled “The Problem of Nice and the Promise of New.” It’s adapted from his book, Conversion: How God Makes a People. You may ask, “What can possibly be wrong with nice?” On the one hand, being nice is, obviously, a good thing. It’s better to live among people who are nice than among those who are bitter and mean-spirited. I had rather greet someone who wants to shake my hand than wants to break my nose

On the other hand, however, nice is a bad thing. Many church members confuse being nice with being converted. The idea is that if we are nice people, if we are nice to others, if we do good things in our community, then God will be nice to us and allow us to enter heaven.

Lawrence sites the biblical encounter of Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3:3–8 (ESV): Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Lawrence comments: “Nicodemus and Pharisees like him believed that people entered the kingdom of God by being nice, which for them meant being a good Jew: keeping the Law of Moses, going to the temple, offering all the right sacrifices, and staying away from Gentiles. I’m not suggesting Nicodemus thought he was perfect. He probably knew he should be a better person. Perhaps that’s why he went to Jesus in the first place. But at the end of the day, moral righteousness was the standard to which he aspired. Nice people got into the kingdom.”

The basic problem with “nice” is that it elevates oneself. Perhaps Jesus paid most of the price for my going to heaven, but I need to be nice to clinch the deal.

Lawrence offers this insight: “What makes the moralistic program of nice difficult to spot in our evangelical churches is that it’s almost never taught explicitly. Instead, it’s the natural condition of our unregenerate selves. It follows us into the church like walking inside with the aroma of the outdoors: it’s hard to smell on yourself because you are so accustomed to it. But the smell shows up in a number of ways:

  • We condemn the world’s sin more than our own.
  • We put sins in a hierarchy, and tolerate some sins (especially our own) more than others.
  • In church, we sing songs and pray prayers of praise, not songs and prayers of confession. 
  • We describe our own sins as ‘mistakes.’
  • We use Bible stories to teach children to be good rather than to point them to a Savior: ‘Be like David’ not ‘You need a new and better David, who is Christ.’

Lawrence offers this insight: “Perhaps the main way we teach nice is how we present Christ. We commend Christ and the gospel as a method of self-improvement. It’s not that we fail to talk about the cross or even sin. It’s that sin is presented as a problem primarily for how it messes up our lives and relationships and gets in the way of our goals. And Jesus Christ is presented as the one who will change all that. We tell people that Jesus will make a difference in their marriages and in their parenting. Jesus will bring love, joy, and peace to their home. Jesus will give them renewed purpose at work. Come to Jesus, and he will make a difference in your life.”

This is the way Christ is often presented in American evangelical churches, and it’s one of the primary reasons our churches have so many unconverted members and have such little influence in American life. We esteem “nice” over biblical doctrine, church fellowship, denominational cooperation, and cultural commentary. It’s just not “nice” to denounce things as wrong and sinful.

There are many unconverted persons who are nice. Lawrence concludes, “When we present Jesus as the solution to our self-diagnosed problems, many on the outside of church aren’t convinced. They don’t stop playing the game of nice. They just don’t see the need to play the game at church nor evidence that we play it better than they do.”

Christ came that we could be received by a holy God, and his Spirit makes us new (2 Corinthians 5:17). His making us new will change our attitudes and give us patience and perseverance which may make for better relationships. Many times, however, relationships will grow worse because our allegiance is now to Christ (see Matthew 10:34-39). Jesus did not come to make us nice but to make us his.