A Wrong Turn at Morality and Theology
Posted by commendatori on January 18, 2010
You can’t become what I am by imitating what I do. At best, you’ll be an imposter. At worst, you’ll be a fool. In either case you’ll be a fraud. Neither can you become what I am by admiring what I am. You may be inspired or you may be disappointed, but observation and longing will effect no transformation.
So why is this the model for Christianity throughout so much of the contemporary church? Following Christ’s – or even a good church leader’s – example may result in charitable works, kind temperament and moral lifestyle, but those things do not equate to regeneration. Neither do they represent the chief end of Christ’s purpose in the life of the believer.
Behavior-based Christianity seeks to influence a sinner’s actions so as to demonstrate redemption by obedience. Here, repentance is seen as a precursor, rather than an effect, of regeneration. The result is altogether pharisaic: the believer must clean himself in order to approach Christ. The problem, of course, is that the whole of scripture – and Christ’s explicit teaching – demonstrates that there simply isn’t enough soap to make us clean enough to come to God. And if there was, then the cross itself was a galactic mistake.
Other times we assault the unbeliever’s intellect with all our clever Christian apologetics, attempting to satiate their doubts with archaeology, science and historical record. But after we’ve travailed the meandering maze of allegations and contradictions, we will come full circle to the core issue of human will: unbelievers reject God because they want to. As Paul Washer points out, the Bible makes no room for atheists – only God lovers and God haters.
These misconceptions represent a serious flaw in our understanding of what Christ and scripture mean by regeneration. It is not a matter of what a person believes, for the scripture says, “even the devils believe, and tremble.” Can we not then dispense with the tracts that seek the unbeliever’s agreement with facts prior to declaring them “saved”? Isn’t salvation obviously more than a prayer repeated or a creed subscribed? And if we’re saved by repentance, how are we not then lost by disobedience?
Of course, this goes beyond evangelism and involves our view of Christianity as a practice and system of faith. The church is crippled and America is lost to Christianity because we have reduced the truth of scripture to moral exercise. Believers are trapped in cycles of “guilt and rededication” because they have not been exposed to the doctrine of sanctification. The church is helpless to reach the culture because it’s more concerned with addressing man and his need than proclaiming God and His glory.
It is Great Awakening revivalist preaching that first transformed modern Christianity from a theological enterprise to a moralistic one. Suddenly redemption was an event experienced in a moment of emotion rather than the systematic transformational surrender to the body of scripture. Suddenly preaching concerned itself with society’s moral decay and scandal rather than the proclamation of doctrine. Peruse the recorded sermons of pre-colonial preachers and judge for yourself if even the most devout contemporary believer could digest their theological content.
Sarah Edwards, wife of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, remarked of noted revivalist George Whitefield, “He makes less of the doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims more at affecting the heart.” Whitefield was the standard bearer of the distinctive awakening religion that so heavily influenced fledgling Baptist, Methodist and congregational church culture from which the contemporary church evolved. Whitefield’s preaching was televangelism before the television. Before he was converted, he was a passionate thespian who neglected his school studies to study theater. It is not surprising, then, that the most commonly written praise of Whitefield relates more to his oratory than his message.
But I prefer theology to theater. And so does God’s Word.
In the greatly neglected and misinterpreted epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul in eleven chapters masterfully expounds the full panorama of the doctrines of sin and salvation – indicting the very disposition of man, and not merely his thoughts and actions. But having been declared righteous on the basis of faith, Paul proclaims that we have peace with God through Christ our savior. He then turns the corner from principle to practice in chapter twelve and beseaches us therefore by the mercies of God to present our very lives as living sacrifices wholly acceptable to God. And, he beckons, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may know and fulfill the Will of God which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Conformity is the method of the world and of the flesh. Walk this way. Talk this way. Act this way. And whether it’s hollywood or holy-rollers calling the shots, the result is always just children playing dress-up. Transformation is the method of God and of the spirit. It is change from the inside out. It’s not dressing up a corpse, it’s a worm changing into a butterfly. And the means of this transformation is Truth. Not truth as mere data, but Truth as a person: Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life.
Christ was the basis of every New Testament sermon. Christ the eternally begotten Son. Christ the virgin born savior. Christ the messianic promise of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. Christ the atonement for the Sin of the world. Christ the resurrected King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Christ the returning judge of the quick and the dead, the lost and the saved. This is preaching that goes beyond human behavior to the very marrow of the human heart. This is preaching that transforms.
“I have determined to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. This is not an admission of a man’s ignorance or a decision to “dumb-down” his teaching method. The Apostle had just finished a largely unsuccessful trip to Athens where his intellectual appeal to the philosophizing Greeks had achieved little. To the pagan Corinthians, Paul unloaded both barrels of Christological theology and the remainder of his epistles represent greater truth than has ever been effectively unpacked.
Let our preaching, our teaching and our living return to this one central and all-encompassing Truth of Jesus Christ. Let it wash over all our thoughts, feelings, insecurities, pain, doubts, fears, behavior and secret sins. Let it color the way we see a broken world and the broken people who stain it. Let it dissolve our selfishness and replace it with a compassion that remembers always the sacrifice of the one who cried ‘forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Let it aim our words and our lessons at the heart and not the hand. And let it fill our prayers with desire to know God more than the pleasures of life.
“As you go,” Jesus commanded, “make disciples of all people. Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Teach them all things I have taught you.” This is not a mission to make converts, stir emotion or condemn the culture. Disciples aren’t made by condemnation, imitation, admiration or debate. They are made by instruction. This isn’t accomplished at an altar call or even in a weekend retreat. It is sacrificial, intensive and consuming.
And that’s why we don’t do it.