Moralizing the Gospel and Self Idolatry (Part 2)

                Recently, we discussed moralizing the gospel and if the Church is an “I’m-Better-Than-You” Club.  Moralizing can be either atheistic or theistic.  Atheistic moralizing believes that a moral life can be obtained without God, the Bible or Christ.  Theistic moralizing is when one believes in the gospel, yet reduces the gospel to set of Biblical principles, a list of compulsory rules or shallow commands stripped of the framework of the gospel.  If one obeys, he or she is in.  If not, he or she is out.  While faithful obedience is necessary (Heb. 11:6), such a view of the gospel is reductionist, leans toward legalism, and makes the focus of Christianity the individual who receives God’s grace and less about Christ, the great giver of grace.

                As Christians, we must be conscious that we can live moral lives where moral living is primarily about us, rather than about him who is in us.  Colossians 1:19 says that in Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  Ephesians 3:16-19states “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  Carefully observe that the fullness of God is in Christ.  The Spirit is granted to us to strengthen and power our inner being.  Christ dwells in our hearts through faith.  These principles are the basis for understanding life’s greatest virtue-love (1 Cor. 13:13).  When Christ dwells in us we begin comprehend the magnitude of Christ’s love, a love that is self-sacrificial and God focused.

                Tim Keller writes, “There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible:  It is basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, it is basically about what I must do or basically about what he has done?” (Emphasis his 60).   He continues

“If on any level I believe that through moral efforts—living a chaste life, surrendering my will to him, helping the poor, converting others to faith—I can secure God’s favor for my prayers or earn his blessing, then my motivation for doing all these things is some mixture of fear and pride.  The fear is the desire to avoid punishment and get some defense and leverage over God and others.  The pride is the sense that, because I am so decent and accomplished, I am not ‘like other people’ (Luke 18:11) but a cut above.  In the final analysis all the good I am doing I am doing for myself. My deeds of service to God and to my neighbor are ways of using God and my neighbor to build up my self-image, to secure respect and admiration from others, and to give leverage over God so that he owes me something.  Ironically and tragically, all my goodness is for me, so I am nurturing sinful self-centeredness, the ultimate idolatry, in the very midst of my efforts to lead a moral and good life.” (Keller 60-61).

Christian moral living can become a life of self-idolatry or self-righteousness.  In this life when we accomplish our goals, our standards, our aspirations, and our dreams we have in our own skewed view saved ourselves all the while forgetting that we have fallen at our own feet to worship.  But, Christianity is not about saving ourselves.  Rather we are to empty ourselves for Jesus emptied himself taking on himself the form of a slave (Phil. 2:7).

                How important is righteous living? It is a must (Heb. 11:6)!  By grace we are saved through a living active faith (Eph. 2:8).  But, let us never think that right living is the primary way we are saved.  God’s justice and holiness look all across the spectrum of our lives and while every righteous deed honors the Lord, our holy and perfect God could not save us by us.  Thank God for Christ!  Worship the risen Savior and fall at his feet!

                Paul said “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  . . . and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:11).

Keller, Tim.  Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.  Penguin, 2016.

Moralizing the Gospel: Is the Church an “I’m-Better-Than-You” Club?

If you are a Christian, isn’t it great?!  Isn’t it great to live as Christ with no regrets (Phil. 1:21)?  What a thrill it is to be the light of the world and a radiant city set on a hill (Matt. 5:14).   We certainly can take great pride in being saved by Christ and proud even to the point of boasting in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31).   Yet, consider this question - can our own quest for righteousness and our own glory in moral living become a stumbling block or a rock of offense?  Does being a member of the church mean that your ticket is punched for exclusive entry into an “I’m-Better-Than-You” club?  While Christians are to live differently than the world (John 17, Gal. 5), Christians can in time trust in their own holiness and righteousness in a way that compromises the gospel.  Let me explain. 

Christian living can be practiced in such a way where the gospel is reduced to a hollow system of rules, obligations, or laws.  This is called moralizing.  Moralizing or moralism denotes a couple of ideas.  One idea is that moral living can be accomplished without God who is ultimate, the Bible as the ultimate moral guide or Christ as the ultimate moral example.  A second idea refers to those who believe in the gospel, yet reduce the gospel to set of Biblical principles, a list of compulsory rules or shallow commands stripped of the framework of the gospel.  If one obeys, he or she is in.  If not, he or she is out.  Such a view of the gospel is reductionist and leans toward legalism.

There is a fine line that Christians must walk between right living and self-righteousness.  The former God desires (Micah 6:8).  The latter God condemns (Prov. 20:9).  Self-righteous people see others as less than themselves (Luke 18:9-10).  In their own eyes their works of righteousness give them a leg up, a moral advantage.  One may compromise the gospel in believing others are inferior because they themselves live with fewer sins.  These individuals justify themselves in the sight of men (Luke 16:15).  They are clean in their own eyes (Prov. 16:2).  Some even go so far as set themselves up as moral idols, even setting themselves up as gods (Ezek. 28:2).  Individuals are not only susceptible, but entire congregations can buy into this notion.  Perhaps you have seen congregation where the “halo-effect” is alive and well.  These groups can be cold and slim on notions of humility.

In right living Christians must be aware that moral living does not save them or give them a leg up on others.  If right living could save mankind, man would save himself and there would be no need for Christ to have died on the cross.  Gal. 2:16 states that no one will be justified by works of the law (Gal. 2:16).  Indeed “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).   This applies to the Law of Moses, but the application extends to any law.  It’s not that one cannot keep the law and be justified.  It’s that people do not keep the law. 

However, don’t let the pendulum swing too far! Right believing (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxis) are essential.  But all your right believing and right living does nothing to negate your past sins.  Titus says “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy . . . .” (3:4-5). No one can secure God’s favor solely by right believing or right behaving.  Grace is a gift of incalculable worth.  You see favor (grace) is not just a product of God, grace is God in the flesh in Christ Jesus who himself is the fragrant offering of grace for mankind (John 1:14-17).  He gave himself precisely for you.  

So, is Christianity an “I’m-Better-Than-You” club?  Not in self-righteousness sense.  The Lord knows we are not perfect, but we are forgiven.  Anything better in us is him living and abiding in us.  This glory is his and not ours.  May we look on outsiders with compassion.  No matter how faithful you’ve been and for no matter how long you’ve been faithful, may you never look down your nose at others because of your righteousness.  Rather, let them see in you a heart that begs God --  “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).