Theologies of Glory versus Theology of the Cross, Part Two: Moralism

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In Part One, I suggested that American religion can essentially be broken down into two expressions, moralism or spiritualism (or both). Granted, that is an over-simplification of sorts. But however vulnerable to a thousand qualifications, I think it is useful to use these categories to help clarify what the gospel is by also talking about what it is not. In Part Two, I would like to look specifically at how moralism plays itself out.

When man is allowed to define his chief problem he will always, always come up with anything but his sin and its reconciliation as God declares it. “How does God reconcile us to Himself?” is not our natural question. This is because we simply weren’t built for such a question. We were built to graduate ourselves into eternal life. The law is natural to us, but the gospel is not natural to us. We would rather think, “How can we save ourselves?” We are hard-wired to fulfill the covenant of works. This helps account for the myriad of religions, philosophies, programs and general activities buzzing within our world. In our blindness we still naturally think we are to raise our hands and save ourselves through any host of activity. Thus, by nature, all of the world’s activities are not those that flow out of looking backward in gratitude for God’s reconciliation, but rather a forward bent to “get ourselves back to the garden,” as Matthews Southern Comfort famously put it.

And insofar as the natural mind is fixated on issues of morality and spirituality as ways to self-justification, Christian moralists and spiritualists are more than eager for this challenge, rushing headlong into the fray and agreeing with the wider assumptions in order “to further the gospel.” This is seriously misguided. Instead of turning the assumptions on their ears and declaring the theology of the Cross, they gladly go with it, making not a little mess in the process.

The problem, a sinner may say, is his moral constitution. He thinks the problem is that he must be “changed,” that he must be made a good or better person. He turns his sights on all that is wrong and wanting about him and then seeks a way to either rectify or better himself. Christian moralists acquiesce to this false assumption. If the sinner would just gather up his resources and do what God says all would be well. After all, why would God demand righteousness if man wasn’t able in the first place? In other words, as the infamous Christian moralist and heretic Pelagius put it, “Ought implies can.”

Instead of simply believing the Gospel through a God-given faith, the sinner, evidently, must go further. A silent and muted belief just isn’t enough. Perhaps after having spent much energy on the fact that “salvation is not by works,” what’s given with the right hand is taken away with the left. The sinner must gather his inner resources, conjure up that crowned work itself called faith, raise his hand (sometimes literally) and perform, make a “decision to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.” Very likely he must pray a prayer of one variety or another and trust in his own sincerity while doing so. He must beckon God out of his seat as if he were some sort of cosmic St. Bernard. Thus, from the very start he is taught that his faith is his own. This is over against both the Apostle’s teaching and our own confessions (Ephesians 2:8-9; Canons of Dordt, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Art. 10 and the subsequent rejections). Note how the tables are turned at every point. God does not grant faith, man conjures it up; man does not receive passively, he grabs with gusto; the sinner is not pointed to the work of Christ, he is pointed to his own sincerity.

This self-willed, externalist and ceremonial act is vital before proceeding with any further improvements. While a lot of Jesus-speak attends this sort of thing and may appear pious, something other than the Gospel is really going on here. Though the language may be employed, the main issue is not really the reconciliation of sin. Rather, kicked off by a naturalistic decision, the point is to set up a rigorous moral program which recognizes and affirms man’s own ability to rectify himself and to finally give the sinner moral suasion over his own life. God is simply there to assist the sinner in this task. Thus, here is Jesus to help get one’s act together. One is to look at how Jesus lived and try to model that. Remember, “What would Jesus do?” If one falls down at any point, that initial nod of approval is sought after again and one starts over. This is much akin to the old Roman idea best expressed in the analogy of the “bathtub of grace.” One gets himself loaded up with grace via the Eucharist, but there is a constant leak of sorts. The Eucharist becomes the sacrifice of Christ all over again to get the bathtub filled up once more. In contemporary forms one might hear terms like “backsliding.” And acts like “rededication’s” are the parallel to the old Roman re-sacrifice of Christ. It’s all about getting one’s moral battery re-charged. Often, in keeping with the high-octane pragmatism, the Sabbath itself is referred to as a way to get “recharged” for the week ahead. Christianity is of no use if not for making bad people good and good people better.

This moralistic model is very popular amongst those that are on the moral fringes of society: prisoners, drug addicts and wayward teens. Christian moralists are often found in these groups peddling an Erasmian gospel instead of proclaiming a Lutheran one to a diverse population. American moral religion laps up glorious stories about “changed lives” because it understands a moralized gospel of glory much better than one of the Cross. But just as being called out of the world and into the church does not correspond with separatism, holiness is not mere morality. If we don’t at least recognize that these two things are not one and the same we have completely misunderstood the gospel.

The moralized gospel is hard-pressed to recognize that moral rectification can be successful by any host of programs. But believe it or not, the name of Jesus Christ need not be uttered for folks to straighten out their lives. Plenty of at-risk black youth have been morally netted by the Nation of Islam. If it’s moral reform one wants there are enough diverse models to go around, both religious and not. And inasmuch as the Christian moralist lines the faith up with all the other idols of moralism as a sort of “superior equal,” he is smug and arrogant to suggest that no other program can work like the Jesus program.

Of course, another larger problem is that many who are at once outside Christianity and also quite within the boundaries of morality rightly see that their morality is really no different than others, even most Christians. Both inside and outside the church one sees an equal fare along the merely moral spectrum, no matter what sort of propagandist statistics are used to suggest Christians are better people. They easily put together that the world would not be a better place if it had more Christians in it. Christian belief, while it has a true sanctifying effect on the believer, is no more effective in mere moral rectification than anything else. That is because mere moral reform is not its task. More savvy unbelievers not on any moral fringe—and, by definition, if not on a fringe this means most unbelievers—rightly conclude that moral rectification is somehow not really the issue. They may watch friends convert into Christian programs of self-polishing but correctly hesitate themselves. Ironically enough, they are closer to the gospel than they may think. Some of them may follow the flow chart to the gospel. But others, having at once understood and misunderstood, likely see themselves exempt from the gospel of Christ. So, they hop along, comparing themselves down to easy devils and handily declaring themselves fit. In relief, they are pleased with their rather ordinary morality and flip the page. Or they move on to the next option.

Part Three will take up this option called spiritualism.

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