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Do you have to know God to be good?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Do you have to believe that God exists to be a moral person? Can you live a life that models many of the characteristics Christ sought to instill in us without actually knowing Christ? As Kimberly Winston writes for the Religion News Service, for the first time a majority of Americans—56 percent—responded yes, including 45 percent of Christians. Are they right?

To answer that question requires a closer look at what’s really being asked.

To start, it’s important to note that there’s a fundamental difference between believing that God exists—the stipulation in the Pew Research study—and having a personal relationship with that God. Belief simply requires the recognition that some kind of ultimate being, though presumably a moral one, is out there and that he might judge us for wrong actions. Relationship, at least in a Christian context, means having experienced the love and grace of Christ and, from that experience, understanding the moral laws God set forth in light of his character and calling for our lives.

In short, it’s often the difference between seeing God as some otherworldly judge who exists primarily to keep people in line and as a loving Father who disciplines when necessary in order to guide us to the abundant life he longs for us to experience in him (John 10:10).

It only makes sense that a culture increasingly disinterested in a personal relationship with God would find that belief in his existence is unnecessary to live a good life. That group alone, however, is not the only group to have changed its mind. Those who profess to follow Christ, both evangelicals and non-evangelicals, have also moved away from the thought that belief in his existence is necessary for morality.

And, while the study was unclear as to their reasons for moving away, I imagine it often has something to do with knowing friends and family members who seem like genuinely good people, even though they aren’t Christians. I would guess that most of us can think of non-believers who are still generally moral in most facets of their lives.

The truth is, neither belief in God nor a personal relationship with him is necessary to live a moral life. It certainly helps, and that relationship is essential for salvation, but a basic sense of morality remains imprinted on every single person God created in his image. We can ignore it and shun it to the point that it becomes so covered by the filth and sin of the world that it all but disappears, but we can never truly destroy it. God made sure to keep it there as a point of reference to help guide us back to him. After all, if you really stop and think about why we are moral creatures, the most honest and reasonable answers will ultimately lead us to the Lord.

So, why is that important for us today?

First, it establishes that the morality inherent to every person ultimately comes from God and not our culture. That means we don’t get to decide what’s moral and what isn’t. There’s room to adapt his laws to our circumstances and times, but the fundamental basis for determining right from wrong has been fixed since the dawn of time and does not change based on the whims of popular opinion.

Second, we shouldn’t assume that people are bad simply because they aren’t Christians. While Scripture is clear that it’s impossible to be right with God apart from faith in him (Hebrews 11:6), that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for non-Christians to make choices that align with his will for their lives. We’re far more likely to lead the lost to the Lord if we don’t approach them with the belief that they are awful people simply because they haven’t experienced the same saving grace as us.

Finally, we must always remember that the Christian life is about far more than simply being moral. God has given every person the capacity to do that. What should set us apart from the lost is that our morality serves his purposes rather than our own. We are to live lives that reflect well upon him so that others might see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). If living a moral life is the end rather than the means to something more, then we’ve missed so much of what the Lord expects from his people.

God created every one of us with the capacity to be good, but he has called the saved to be godly for his glory. How well are you living out that purpose today?