Niceness is not newness
There is a great difference between being nice and being new in Christ. It is a distinction that ought to be borne in mind, lest we lose sight of the dramatic work of grace that is necessary to bring us into the Kingdom of God. Just because someone is a nice person does not mean they are a new person in Christ.
In fact, there are lots of very nice people who are not Christians, and would never claim to be Christians. Sadly, there are not a few Christians for whom a dose of being nice would do no harm! Niceness, or even its lack, does not determine one’s status as a Christian.
An example would help to illustrate the point. Perhaps the greatest reconciliation and reunion described in the Bible (in the Book of Genesis) is that between the estranged twin brothers Jacob and Esau. They were twins, but, as is sometimes the case with twins, they were very different characters. Esau was an ‘out-doorsy’ sort, who got along famously with his father Isaac, and loved nothing more than the open spaces of the countryside and farm. Meanwhile, Jacob was an ‘in-doorsy’ sort, who was something of a mummy’s boy, and most at home in the kitchen (a latter-day Jamie Oliver, if you like).
Jacob was a twisted, grasping, selfish individual who was transformed under the grace of God to become a new man, and so was given a new name (Israel). Despite the fact that it was divinely intimated in advance that the line of promise would run through Jacob, along with his mother Rebekkah, he selfishly sought to manipulate events for his own benefit. Jacob cheated his brother out of the blessing and, as a result, caused a calamitous fracture in the family. His brother Esau threatened to kill him and so Jacob had to run away to his uncle Laban for safety. He remained in ‘exile’ for 20 years.
On that journey, God met with Jacob at Bethel and promised to be with him, to provide for him and, in time, to take him home - essentially, God promised to be a shepherd to him (after all it was Jacob, not David, who first described God as a Shepherd in the Bible). God came to a twisted, selfish manipulative individual (hardly a nice man) and altered the course of his life. During the long years of virtual enslavement to his uncle Laban, God was doing a work of transformative grace in this stubborn, wilful man’s life.
Then after 20 years, God, true to His promise, began bringing Jacob home. A further encounter with God took place, at Peniel, where God had to leave Jacob with a visible weakness and vulnerability (a limp) in order to further tame His self-centred, self-reliant, manipulative nature.
Jacob was not a nice man at all. He was an unscrupulous character who was changed by the grace of God.
Meanwhile, what of Esau? He responded with murderous anger towards Jacob when he realised his brother had cheated him. Whilst we would not condone his homicidal fury, we can understand it. We might then wonder what was happening to Esau all these 20 years of estrangement from his brother Jacob. We know that Jacob was having a hard time with uncle Laban but that God was supporting him, providing for him and changing him for the better. But what was happening to Esau?
The answer is, pretty much nothing. In the intervening period Esau seems to have become exceptionally wealthy and materially successful. He became the head of a large clan of people who enjoyed fabulous prosperity. When he finally met up with his brother again, after all those years, far from murdering him, he embraced and welcomed him.
It seems that Esau was just that kind of bloke. He was a nice guy who did well, but he had no interest in the things of God. In fact, when he was reunited with Jacob he tried to persuade his brother to join him in the south, away from the Promised Land.
So here we have two brothers. Jacob is initially a man from whom you would hesitate to buy a second hand car. If his name was attached to an item on eBay or Gumtree you would give it a wide berth. Yet this unpleasant man was changed under God’s grace to become a new man, albeit far from perfect but distinctively new.
Esau, by contrast was a nice sort. He seems not to have harboured grudges for any length of time, worked hard, did well, lived his life. He would probably have been a good bloke to work for. But he was utterly disinterested in the things of God. He was just nice.
The thing is this: the line of promise in the Bible travels through Jacob, not Esau. It is God’s grace, not our niceness, that is the key to salvation and new life.