Follow Up to My Post about the False Gospel of “Christian” Moralism

Follow Up to My Post about the False Gospel of “Christian” Moralism September 30, 2014

Follow Up to My Post about the False Gospel of “Christian” Moralism


My immediately preceding post about how the “gospel” of Christian moralism has largely replaced the true gospel and where Calvinism and Arminianism agree provoked some questions and disagreements.

Let me reiterate here my firm belief that all truly good works, including changed attitudes and dispositions (from which good works arise), are fruits of the Spirit. No person can change himself or herself spiritually in a positive way or produce genuinely good, God-pleasing works. All that we have and are and do that is authentically good and God-pleasing is worked in us by the Holy Spirit. The main one being Christlikeness in character, disposition.

But also let me clarify that nothing I said in the previous post or here negates the importance of listing and describing the God-pleasing dispositions and works for people. Jesus told the “Rich Young Ruler” “You must be born again.” Did he mean the man must re-birth himself? Of course not. No evangelical Christian thinks that. And yet Jesus commanded it.

So it is with all the good works, positive spiritual dispositions, transformations commanded in the Bible. “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Did Paul mean “Work hard at this; decide to change and grow in this way? It’s up to you—now just do it!”? Hardly. Rather, he was telling his early Christian readers what God expects and will do in them if they allow the Holy Spirit to work.

As I go around listening to sermons in “garden variety” churches of many different denominations, and as I interact with theology students, most of who grew up in evangelical homes and churches, I hear the common theme that being saved is “by grace through faith” but being sanctified is up to us. It’s our work. Often even being initially saved is watered down to a “personal decision” to call Jesus Lord with no mention of Holy Spirit regeneration. Often being spiritually maturing is watered down to “having a personal relationship with Jesus” through daily quiet times and practice of the spiritual disciplines with no mention of the Holy Spirit transforming them within, giving them the power to change and actually changing them by his power.

I grew up in a form of Christian life that was terribly confused about all this. We were among the most legalistic Christians you will find. I tell my students we were “urban Amish”—doing our best to be as much unlike the “world” as possible while living among the damned. Even playing (“face”) cards were banned; we could only play with “Rook” cards (a game invented by a game company for Mennonites and other conservative Christians). Spiritual life was often described as following a rigid set of rules and the main goal was often presented as being unlike “the world.” Being “worldly,” which was always something shifting, was the sure sign of being unspiritual and being “holy,” also something always shifting and defined as not doing things “worldly people” did, was the sure sign of being spiritual. And yet, many of the songs we sang and sermons we heard focused more on letting the Holy Spirit change us from within. We strongly believed in the experiences of regeneration and Holy Spirit infilling. Regeneration was described, at its best (when it was being described correctly) as “The expulsive power of a new affection” (A. H. Strong). And Holy Spirit infilling, the gateway to real sanctification, was described as “dying to self in every ‘temper’ (disposition) being ruled by Christ” and “Christ living out his life within” us.

We (in our Christian form of life) would sing “Trust and Obey” and then turn right around and sing “His Way with Thee” and “Is Your All on the Altar?” We would hear a sermon one Sunday proclaiming that being spiritual and holy was our duty and the next Sunday hear a sermon proclaiming that being spiritual and holy was the Holy Spirit’s work transforming us within, making us new creatures in Christ Jesus, and that our “work” was letting him fill us and change us. I rarely heard or read (in our Christian form of life) any serious attempt to reconcile these two impulses—the moralistic one and what I now call the gospel one.

Gradually, over the years, I have noticed a trend in American Christianity, including among evangelicals, to ignore the gospel impulse and emphasize the moralistic one. Sociologists of religion have studied this trend and labeled the “religion” of most American youth who go to church as “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” I can understand why. Now the duality I hear in churches is that God expects us to be different than we are and it is up to us to change, but God forgives us when we fail.

What’s missing? What’s missing is emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s power to transform and our total dependence on that power to be spiritual, holy, God-pleasing persons.

I am not advocating cessation of all talk of ethics and morality in churches. There’s little danger of that! What I am advocating is greater acknowledgement of and reliance on the Holy Spirit as the “change agent” in becoming spiritual, holy, good persons.

Here’s a homely illustration of what I am advocating. The wrong, moralistic “gospel” could be likened to a sick person striving to make himself well without medicine. He has cancer and is convinced that he can “beat” the disease by working out, eating a good diet, etc. He will find lots of coaches encouraging that. But, in the end, he will probably die without putting himself in the hands of a medical professional. The gospel can be likened to a sick person, one with cancer, who puts herself fully in the hands of a trained medical professional who administers the known treatment toward a cure. She yields herself to him, to be treated. The signs of health are known from the beginning, but experiencing them, given her condition, requires giving up trying to cure herself and allowing the doctor to administer the cure. For some people that takes trust and involves suffering. For we Christians who want to be “free of our burden of sin” it takes lots of trust, yielding, submission, suffering. There’s nothing easy about it. We are told in the New Testament and, hopefully, in good sermons the signs of getting free, but we should not be told, but too often are, that it’s up to us to do it—maybe with some help from God. God alone, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, is the Great Physician of souls and only he can free us from the rule of sin in our lives and bring us to true spiritual holiness. Our “job” is to submit to his transforming power.

The best that can happen with moralism, even Christian moralism, is outward change. But that’s superficial even if better than not changing. It’s good to be a moral, ethical person. Or at least better than being an immoral, unethical person. Of course. But anyone can change outwardly, if the motivation is strong enough. That was the case with the Pharisees and other religious types Jesus criticized. They were “white washed sepulchers.” Moral and ethical on the outside but inside full of despicable dispositions. The gospel is about being changed inwardly, not merely outwardly. Yes, it’s also about having a changed relationship with God in legal terms (I’m a strong believer in forensic justification.) But it’s even more (or at least as much) about being transformed inwardly. Why just be forgiven? Why just look good on the outside? Why not be changed? On virtually every page of the New Testament I read about the importance of being changed and about the fact that only God can change us. Our job is to let him do it.

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