One of the upsides of working in a predominantly non-Christian (and often openly anti-Christian) environment is that I get asked the tough questions. Not only about the Christian faith, but about why the world is the way it is. On many things we’ll all agree:
The world isn’t fair. Behind the masks we all wear, people are hurting and the world can be a harsh place of broken dreams, broken relationships, and broken lives.
We also agree that we want the world to be a better place. Deep down, we all know that it’s supposed to be better, and our desire to make it better is a good thing.
But where we part, where Christianity parts with every other worldview and stands alone is in HOW we do this.
I want you to get this:
Every single worldview, apart from Christianity, will solve the problems of the world, and define their “greater purpose” by what Adolf Koberle described as climbing one of three ladders.
It is so important that you not only understand the futility of climbing these ladders, but how our human nature attempt to smuggle them into our faith. While various generations cyclically move between the three, and while some cultures or denominations lean harder into one than the others, make no mistake about it… these will lure us away from our trust in Christ and His atonement; of the central theme of all scripture: Christ crucified for Sinners. And to lose that is to lose our very salvation, for only faith in Christ can save. That’s as serious as it gets.
The reason these ladders are so tempting, so alluring in fact that they provide the framework for every non-Christian religion, is that we *want* them. It’s how we’re hard-wired. And they tempt us with the promises of our “best life now”, discovering our “purpose in life”, “life change”, “changing the world”, and ultimately leading to reaching God to receive His approval, blessing, and “favor”. Learn the ladders, learn the temptation, and learn the lingo by which it’s been smuggled into the church since the 1st century.
This week we’ll discuss a ladder which at first glance hasn’t been as much of a threat to our generation as it was to our parents and grandparents. Under closer examination, we’ll find that we’ve simply put the same deadly poison into a prettier bottle.
The ladder is Moralism.
“The way of moralism seeks to earn God’s favor, or a satisfying life, through the achievement of moral perfection – always doing what is right, avoiding wrongdoing of every kind, keeping oneself under control by sheer willpower and a scrupulous conscience. Certainly, the desire to be good is a laudable sentiment – if it only could be accomplished.” – Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross.
S0, moralism is seeking to achieve what we’re after by doing the right things and not doing the wrong things. In this way, we will receive God’s favor, blessing, and attain the awesome life we’re looking for.
See the problem? Who is in control? Who is doing the *doing*? Any grace here? I mean, if I’ve earned it, God owes it to me, right? And if I don’t get it? God has robbed me. He’s failed me.
I see moralism fail again, and again, and again in those around me who either hate christianity, or given up on it completely. So why does it still allure us?
As westerners, and particularly as Americans, it just sounds right. It not only aligns with our natural sinful bent to “save ourselves” it matches everything our culture values: hard work, self-determination, and discipline.
So, what does this look like? How does it develop and ultimately fail?
First of all, the enemy has to convince you that you’re actually capable of pulling this thing off; that you can do it.
Secondly, once you realize you can’t do it, you’ve got to change the rules as you go. We lower the bar.
Third, when confronted with the fact that we’re not doing it, we look for the exit. We either despair, or we quit. (Would it surprise you if I told you that quitting was the actual solution here?)
See, scripture is clear that we are held to God’s perfect standard of righteousness, revealed to us by God in the Ten Commandments, and summarized, and reinforced by Jesus in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The first thing we do is to look for the out. Am i doing it? Scripture gives us a great example of our natural reaction when being confronted by the law:
The rich young ruler, the pharisees, and Marc.. we all do the same thing:
“Don’t murder? Check. Don’t steal? Check. Don’t commit adultery? Check.”
But Jesus would have none of it.
Not committing adultery? How about lusting after a woman?
Not stealing? How about selling everything you own and giving it away?
How about loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul and loving your neighbor as yourself?
How’s that working out for you? Ever missed it? Once? Game over.
And I think, deep down, we know this. We’re “sophisticated” enough to not believe ancient paganism where throwing virgins into volcanoes makes the crops grow, and that “God is gonna getcha!” if you wear jeans to church.. but are we really any more sophisticated? Before we get too smug, ask yourself if we’ve really just traded one path for another on the road of moralism? Will God now bless us for sacrificing 10% of our paycheck instead of the virgin? Have we traded “God’s gonna getcha!” for the threat of missing a “life of favor” if you don’t follow the latest trend of purpose-driven, audacious, missional law?
See, just like the rich young ruler and the pharisee, none of the things they were doing were BAD, they were just INSUFFICIENT!
You want to help others? Stay faithful to your spouse? Feed the poor? Vote for human rights? ALL GOOD! But the moment you judge your standing before God, you’ve missed it. When these activities (what we do and don’t do) become the standard by which we judge ourselves and the world around us, we’ve walked away from the only thing which can save us… knowing that Christ’s work alone is sufficient.
So, we take these things we do/don’t do and start measuring other people by them. Since we’re the standard, we’re nailing most of what we hold other people to… and it starts to sound like this:
Real Christians don’t go to the movies.
Real Christians vote X.
Real Christians don’t (insert your pet cause here).
While we mock the legalistic moralism of our ancestors (wearing suits, not wearing makeup, not drinking or smoking, not watching TV, or going bowling) we’ve simply replaced the legalistic moralism of the pharisees with the internal moralism of the post-modern (“live audaciously”, “live missionally”) not so that you won’t “go to hell” like our ancestors, but that you would receive “favor” and “double portions” (from the mundane like getting better parking spots, to the sublime, like financial abundance.) in short, we’ve actually gone past “Do what Jesus did” to “Think how Jesus thought”!
And in the end, what have we lost?
We don’t love God with all our heart, because at the core, we don’t really need Him. We’ll do the work, you give us what we’ve earned. We don’t really need Christ’s forgiveness because we’ve (pretty much) kept the standard we’ve created for ourself. And we won’t love our neighbor as ourself because they’ve created their own standards (which don’t match mine). It’s easy for me to divide my world into “us” (those who vote, act, and think like me) from “them” (those who don’t).
So, to wrap it up.. be very, very careful of the ladder of moralism. If you’re still attempting to “Just do it”, you can’t accept what Christ has already done.
You can’t receive with empty hands of faith if those hands are wrapped around the rungs of a ladder.
If you’re attempting to “do it”, you by definition cannot receive the very thing, the ONLY thing which can save you!
Jesus never said “You just gotta begin to..”. He said “It is finished.” Rest in Christ’s finished work. If you hear any variation or spin of “if you will ____, God will ____”. God’s not making trades. There is no quid pro quo. The only thing you bring to God is your sin and open hands of faith. If you come to Him, works in hand, you are rejecting the very thing, the ONLY thing which can save you; Christ’s work on your behalf.
So, Nike has it wrong. Don’t “Just do it”, just quit. Stop trying to earn God’s favor through your works. Even at your best, you can’t do it. Christ has done it all through His atoning work on the cross. Your sins are forgiven. You stand perfectly justified before God, clothed in Christ’s righteousness.
And that, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is real “favor”.