In his early adulthood, Benjamin Franklin set out on a quest for moral improvement, which he called the “bold and arduous project of moral perfection.” He set out to cultivate thirteen virtues and focused on one per week. He kept a journal, in which he allotted one page per virtue and drew lines for each day of the week. When he found he was negligent in one of the virtues, he would make a black mark in his journal for that day of the week. Though he felt like he was constantly improving, he said he was “surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I imagined.”
One of the great ironies of life in a fallen world is that the harder a man strives for moral perfection, the more aware he will become of his own failings. When this happens he will face the temptation to set up an alternative standard of righteousness that he will find easier to keep. He does this so that he can deceive himself into thinking he is meeting the proper standard of righteousness, even though he falls far short of it.
Setting Our Own Standard
When a man erects his own standard of righteousness, one that he finds easy to keep, he becomes puffed up with pride and self-assured. Mention God or the afterlife to him and he becomes like Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who said that he will not be stopping for an interview when he arrives at the pearly gates because he will be walking right in to take his place because of the good he has done. While many would not express their confidence in their own goodness in those exact terms, the same sentiment runs deep in the human heart.
Christians can find sharing the gospel with a person who is sure of their own righteousness to be difficult, because the person does not know they have a problem from which they must be saved. In conversations like these, it’s important for Christians to turn to the law of God, which prepares the human heart to receive the gospel.
Preparing the Heart
The sin and carnality of the human heart is exposed when the law of God reveals God’s perfect character and the righteous standard by which God will judge all mankind. When a man whose conscience tells him he must be right with God encounters the righteous law of God, it drives him to despair as he sees that he will never meet this righteous standard in himself.
How do we use the law to help other people see their sin in ordinary conversations? How do we take people who seem to be self-assured or who believe they have no need for God and bring them to the point where they not only recognize their need to be right with God, but also see that they have no hope in themselves?
Using the Law in Everyday Conversations
We often hear about using the law in evangelism and picture people holding up signs that say “turn or burn.” Thankfully, we have much more effective means of using the law to awaken people than this. For example, how often in your family, in the office, or in conversation do the bad deeds of a public figure come up? Whether it is the latest exploits of a reality star or yet another political scandal, we love to hear stories about other people’s bad behavior. These conversations present ripe opportunities for talking about every person’s need for a Savior.
Think of a scandal you have heard about recently and dissect the heart of the scandal. Was it not someone’s desire for money, sex, or power? While very few people are public figures and have the capacity to pursue these idols, every person struggles with the same issues on a different scale. Show them how every person has the same propensity to sacrifice his character on the altar of money, sex, or power.
The man you are talking to may not commit grand larceny, but he might be driving himself to the point of ruin to provide his family the kind of life he thinks they deserve and in the process consistently coveting what he does not have and refusing to take time off in his pursuit of the next dollar. The woman in your office who consistently complains about Hillary Clinton’s scandals might also be the very person who stabs people in the back to get ahead. She’s not trying to be President, but she has a position of power she craves and is willing to hurt whoever she has to in order to achieve it.
Posing a Simple Question
The way to move a conversation in the direction of helping a person see what he may have going on in his own heart and life comes from the simple phrase, “But don’t we all?” For example, after the next scandal breaks out about a popular celebrity committing a foolish act, instead of joining in with those who are expressing their surprise and scorn, turn the conversation by showing how we all do the same thing. Ask them,
“Wouldn’t we all be tempted with these things if we were in his position? Think about the things that already entice you, then give yourself his money and fame. Isn’t there the chance that you would end up in the same situation?”
When the inevitable resistance pops up, press the matter further. Show that if you stripped away all the pomp and circumstance from this person’s life, his sin and ours have the exact same root.
The goal in these conversations is not to bring the other person to a pity-party or to make him wallow in despair, but to show him his need for a Savior. In Romans 3:19-20, Paul said that the Law brings the knowledge of sin, which causes us to stand before God with our mouths closed. We stand in silence before him because after looking at the perfect law, we see that we have no pleas of our own righteousness. It is only when a person comes to this point that he will see the beauty of Christ. We don’t see how amazing grace is until we grapple with the unhappy fact that it is for wretches like us.
Thankfully, after Paul shows all of humanity standing guilty before God, he says two little words that give us hope: “But now.” When a person has come to realize that all of his pretensions have been stripped away and that he has no righteousness of his own to plead before God, these two words sound as beautiful as anything human ears can hear.
Looking to Christ’s Work
We did not obey the law, and in fact we stand condemned by it. Yet, Jesus kept the law. He obeyed it perfectly before he gave himself on the cross as a sacrifice for his people. Because of his life and death, righteousness is available to men and women apart from our efforts at law-keeping. Through faith alone in Christ, the sinner is made right with God and thoroughly cleansed from all of his sin.
Ultimately, a person is saved by works, but not by works of his own. We are saved by the work of Christ. However, the beauty of Christ’s perfect work for us does not become desirable to us until we see how desperately we need it. This is what the law does in our evangelism; it opens the doors of our sinful hearts for the wondrous light of the gospel to shine through.