So often we Christians find some unbelievers better behaved than ourselves.

Whilst part of the true Christian’s character is to readily admit one’s personal faults before pointing a finger at the next person, many unbelievers have no problem in pronouncing themselves ‘good’. 

But are they?  Sometimes, although those who truly fit the bill would be loath to admit it.  Yet, there are Christians who seem positively at odds with biblical morality and unbelievers who are wonderful people.  How could that be?

Fr Dale, a regular poster at the orthodox Anglican news forum Stand Firm, may have an answer for those of us pondering this question.  He says:

Bernard Tyrrell theorizes that there is more than one kind of conversion experience which I would agree with. While moral conversion is interrelated with religious conversion they are also different. He also includes conversion from addiction and conversion from neurosis. This is why a pagan can be a moral person and a Christian can be an addict. I also know some neurotic Christians (none of us who post here of course).

I think it goes a long way in explaining how people who sincerely believe themselves to be born again Christians can think and behave the way they do. That is why monastics are involved in what is called “conversion of manners”.

Bernard Tyrrell is a Jesuit priest who wrote Christotherapy.  Although I was unable to find out much about him, I did find insights into this question from a fellow Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984).  Fr Lonergan was a Canadian who was gifted and able in several subjects.  Being a polymath, his interests and intellect enabled him to study not only in Canada but in England and France.  He studied the works of Thomas Aquinas closely and these informed his own worldview and writing.  A Boston University biography explains his views about conversion, which are similar to what Frs Dale and Tyrrell state above:

Conversion as Lonergan understands it is three-fold … It is about coming to the realization that one’s knowing is commonly a mixture of two different kinds of knowing, and about the process of learning to distinguish between the two and to discern their proper roles. To this … [add] moral and religious conversion. Moral conversion is the shift from self-satisfaction to value as the criterion of one’s decision-making and action. Finally, Lonergan conceives of religious conversion as a being-in-love in an unrestricted fashion. It is the gift of God’s grace flooding our hearts.

So, one might say that moral conversion — no sinful excesses — is the individual’s move from self-gratification to love.  In an unbeliever, this would translate as valuing oneself, one’s family and friends as well as one’s neighbour.  A Christian would do the same, but above these would be a love of God informing all of his decisions.  Again, the St Augustine quote: ‘Love God and do as you will’. 

Yet, because all of us — Christians or not — are fallen men in a fallen world, some of us struggle with progressing from religious conversion to moral conversion.  Moral conversion for the Christian, however, is not legalism, which follows man’s laws, but a grace-filled love of God which translates towards himself and his fellow man.  

Conversely, unbelievers have a moral conversion without a religious one.  This is why they often ‘look better’ in their social acceptability than a Christian who struggles with substance abuse or sexual addiction.

Which brings me to the term ‘regenerate’, often used by Calvinists to indicate what many of us might consider a true born-again state.  It is possible to be brought up a Christian yet only be halfway along the journey to God.  That would be an example of religious conversion.  Yet, when that awakening to the regnerate state comes — perhaps through fervent prayer, a lifechanging experience or intense Bible study — that Christian turns to God and truly accepts His full sovereignty and His grace.  It doesn’t happen overnight, but he knows that something along the way has changed.  This would be the start of moral conversion, which then continues. 

To be an ideal Christian requires a combination of the two.  Unbelievers have only one (moral conversion) and many Christians have only one (religious conversion).  To be regenerate is to have the blessings of both.  It’s the reason why so many Christians say that conversion takes a lifetime.