Having imbibed on the moralist gospel and found it not a little wanting, savvy sinners either hunker back down in their La-z-boys or they just can’t shake the sense that something is yet yanking on their souls.
Though it depends on the time of day, I would contend that, though moralism and spiritualism are often times mixed in our age, spiritualism is particularly more popular these days. It has also been called the therapeutic or Psycho-gospel. Spiritualism is very popular amongst baby-boomers, that pinnacle generation for navel-gazing. The morally upright amongst them who “still haven’t found what they’re looking for” like this one a lot.
Usually very comfortable with itself, this generation tends to have a lot of time to wonder and the energy to search esoterically for the Road Less Traveled. It has taught subsequent generations to do the same.
Our problem, this one begins, is that there is something of a spiritual void. Post-modern angst certainly fuels this discontent and aids this theology of glory. People today feel disconnected from their relationships or vocations. They feel sad or unfulfilled, tired or disillusioned. They are looking for something meaningful. Christian spiritualists love to hear folks talking about how there is just something missing in their lives, a void or a hole, and see this as an enormous opportunity for the gospel. Unfortunately, just like his moralistic cousin, instead of turning the assumptions on their ears and declaring the theology of the Cross, the Christian spiritualist acquiesces to the worldly assumption of what man’s chief problem is: his perceived spiritual void.
This is where we get all the “seeker” language so popular in various Christian circles. Despite scripture’s declaration that no one seeks God, the assumption here is that the throngs packing in the crowds at the local mega-church are genuinely looking for God. All they need is the right guidance. But just like our savvy unbeliever who is closer to the Gospel than he thinks as he resists Christian moralism, it has been said that those who have no interest in “finding God” are in a more authentic status than those who claim they are. That is quite a thing to contemplate. Those that ooze spirituality are in fact farther from God than those who are simply apathetic or turn their nose up in disgust. The latter seems biblically to be our very nature, while the former seems more like the fig leaf con we use to try and fool God, others and ourselves. The problem is not that people are not spiritual. It is that they are too spiritual and have defined things as the flesh sees fit as opposed to what God has declared.
Just like the Christian moralist, the Christian spiritualist is eager to line up the faith with all the other idols of the age and select the nebulous “personal relationship with Jesus” product as superior. If you have encountered this phrase, you have encountered the spiritual gospel. The spiritualized Jesus will fill in the voids and perceived spiritual failings the sinner has. Again, though, arrogance rears its head as any other amorphous spiritualism in the world is rejected as “heresy and just plain wrong, invalid or weird.” If one chooses another religion, then whatever fulfillment he attests to is really quite false, this thinking goes. But this makes no sense at all. This is because spiritualized gospels are, just like the idols they think are not as good as theirs, based upon the merely subjective judgment and inward discernment of the sinner. And as such, who is to say which subjective affect is more valid than another? It is the equivalent of preferring hamburgers to hot dogs and telling the hot dog lover he is wrong. Just as moral rectification can come by way of many things, personal fulfillment is finally judged by how well it meets the observable felt needs of the sinner, so anything can do. When the categories are appropriate, such as in mere preferences, appeal to subjective affect is legitimate. But when the categories are objective truth, the deck must be reshuffled.
Another problem here is that personal fulfillment is a legitimate category, just as upholding moral systems is. And it can come by legitimate, God-given means: finding a girlfriend, getting that job you always wanted, reconciling with your estranged spouse, becoming mayor, a good vacation, a good book, an education, learning to sail, moving to Hawaii and so forth. I know that my wife, my kids, my family and job personally fulfill me, just as they fulfill my unbelieving neighbor. We both have equal access in our created states to that sort of fulfillment. And many go to their graves personally fulfilled by any host of legitimate or illegitimate things. Some are fulfilled their lifelong days by family, some by greed, some by career, some by illicit sex, education, competition, travel or religious feeling. Some may be temporarily fulfilled but then easily disillusioned by immorality and then simply seek morality—as good as that may be, even this is no cause for celebration for a Christian of the Cross. Spiritualistic gospel peddlers will do their very best to assail perfectly good things that can and do offer personal fulfillment because they are seen as eclipsing or distracting one from the “supreme fulfillment—for nothing satisfies like Jesus.” It is simply disingenuous to say to anyone that he is really not authentically fulfilled or perfectly happy with his particular religion, philosophy or general lot in life. But that’s just what these peddlers say. And they rightfully draw quizzical looks, like the quack counselor who tries to convince us that we were abused as children when we are quite certain we had a pretty happy and normal childhood.
Of course spiritualists—both Christian and non—begin behind the 8-ball in the first place. They accept the assumption that personal fulfillment—not sin—is the problem at hand. Thus, just as in moral gospels, competitors can easily and legitimately edge out spiritual gospels when the sinner is allowed to keep his spiritualistic assumptions. In our day, the category of truth has been replaced with that of experience. So instead of a professed belief, it is a perceived false experience that can become heresy; and a perceived correct experience becomes orthodoxy. In this way, Christian spiritualists become culpable as they rush to meet the felt needs of an overly spiritual culture with the Gospel in their dogged obsessions to be “relevant” to this categorical replacement.
Spiritualism is succinctly captured in the perceived orthodoxy of the “personal relationship” doctrines. A common slogan is, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it is a relationship.” One is “saved” by a relationship with the risen Christ in one’s heart and life. These doctrines are a direct result of American religious sympathies to unmediated experientialism. Inasmuch as they come in varying degrees—from high octane Holiness spirituality to more domesticated and mainstream expressions for those who like their God more tactful—many seem to regard these doctrines as harmlessly soft-edged Christianity. But leaning heavily on sophomoric sentimentality and perpetual adolescence, these misguided ways of articulating the inward witness of the Spirit are more than mere Christianity-light. Having replaced the doctrine of justification with that of dippy and unmediated acceptance, they depend upon the categorical shift mentioned above. They use a category of discourse that is dictated by gloriously inward-bent spiritualism—“I relate (to something within the self).” This is over against the biblical category of discourse that is dictated by outward-bound Scripture—“I believe or have faith (in something outside the self).”
Like the moral gospels, behind them are the theologies of glory. It is the language of the super-apostles with whom Paul had to contend in Galatians. As in Paul’s time, they are beyond forms, institutions or material and seek to approach God on their terms, not his. Where God seeks and communes with us through Christ, through His Word and sacraments and in the power of his Holy Spirit which inwardly testifies to us with regard to our mysterious union with Christ and his church, super-apostles seek God on man’s terms which are to transcend these things through a synergistic and mystically fueled “personal relationship.” This dogma plays well with a mainstream who, naturally, are more drawn to an attractive experience than plain and weary belief.
But no matter where the volume is with regard to these doctrines, it is a thing too close for biblical comfort. It is a cause for concern when man prefers his sacraments of experience (emotion, sentiment) to God’s Sacraments of material (water, bread, and wine). Mere faith, hearing and believing—God’s mode of relation—are not enough. One must relate the way the flesh understands such things. After all, Christianity is not a religion—it is a relationship. Biblical categories of faith, truth, religion are out. Those of relate, experience, expression are in. Fellowship with Christ and his Church is essentially different from a personal relationship with Jesus, as those linguistic constructions are used today.
Over against the therapeutic mantras of “growth,” Matzat points out that the theology of the Cross (the one of Paul) has a completely different tack:
“Living in a theology of the Cross never makes you any ‘better’ than anyone else. Every day in every way you are not getting better and better. In fact, the preaching of Law and Gospel will not lead you to an awareness of your holiness, but rather to greater awareness of the depth of your sin. As a result, you will develop an ever-increasing faith in and appreciation for the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.”
Did we get that? When terms like “spiritual growth” are bandied about these days they are usually done so with meanings of personal growth, pop-psychologies and self-improvement which are smitten with improving either our morality or our spirituality—or both. But as Matzat points out, we don’t in fact grow—we shrink! And in our shrinking we actually grow, but not in the way the flesh understands such things. This is counter-intuitive, that we grow in our shrinking. But, then again, the Gospel itself is counter-intituitive, unlike these other false gospels which seem to make perfect sense. It is boring to the flesh, but the daily exercise is not to “grow,” but to simply remember the Cross. “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” is what the Apostle says in 2 Corinthians—can we imagine moralists or spiritualists or other super-apostles “boasting about weakness?” Perhaps, but only when it is refurbished to again fit the need to advance to the next rung of self-improvement. Self-flagellating expressions of weakness Christianity more often than not are pretense of strength Christianity and more fig-leafed concoctions to wheedle something from God.
Of course, the moral and spiritual gospels can be and are easily mixed in with each other. And to make matters all the more confusing and frustrating for sinners, theologies of glory can be and are thoroughly mixed with theologies of the Cross. American evangelicalism has been rightly compared to a stew-like phenomenon. The point, evidently, can be moral rectification, spiritual fulfillment and our sin and God’s reconciliation of it—there’s enough room for us all! And throw in health and wealth while you’re at it for extra spice. It’s hard to know where the carrot ends and the meat begins anymore. Sadly, even those who claim a Reformed name seem much more influenced by this evangelicalism than by a properly confessional theology, piety and practice.
But theologies of the Cross should separate from this mixture. We can’t all, in fact, unite together when our messages are so opposed to each other. The gospel is not a free-for-all, open to whatever meaning we want to give biblical categories like “sin and reconciliation.” The theologies of glory, fraught with relativity, will always allow sinners to find an exemption for themselves from the gospel—yet also muddy the waters by saying they can’t do so.
But the theology of the Cross allows no one to be exempt from a response to Christ’s gospel. The gospel is an objective work that is entirely outside us, not within. It is not about what we dictate but about what God has declared. The issue at hand is the objective truth of Christ’s gospel and God’s sovereign and inward testimony to its truth, not the sinner’s judgment about his experience.
Regardless of anyone’s inward sense of morality, spirituality or plain contentment, it is always, simply and only the very specific truth of our inescapable condition of sin and God’s reconciliation of it by Christ alone.
What does any and every sinner have to say to that?