Friday, October 22, 2010

The Vanishing Conscience

Category: Christian Living
Author: John MacArthur Jr.
Rating: 4 stars

In the Vanishing Conscience, John MacArthur decried the values of modern psychology and the self‐esteem movement. He takes the view that psychological theories that seek to explain the human dilemna apart from the reality of sin are a regression away from God’s truths, rather than human progress, as secular society claims. The book is written from the point of view of an American pastor, and addresses—as the subtitle suggests—American evangelicalism’s doctrines and ministries, which are imbibing more and more of the world’s values.

An Overview

In the Preface, MacArthur reflects upon the relationship between contemporary evangelicalism and the world and asks, “Is social reconstruction even an appropriate way for Christians to spend their energies?” The answer, he says, is No—“The sin we need to be most concerned with is the sin in our own lives. Only as the church becomes holy can it begin to have a true, powerful effect on the outside world—and it won’t be an external effect, but a changing of hearts.”

After setting the tone for the book, MacArthur launches into the first of three parts of the book. Part One, entitled A SINFUL SOCIETY, sets the tone and lays down the conceptual framework necessary for the rest of the book.

In Chapter One, MacArthur looks at how the “sin‐as‐disease model” in psychology has made concepts like sin and conscience seem insensitive and harmful, while presenting guilt as man’s arch‐enemy rather than moral and spiritual deformity. He then provides numerous examples of how the so‐called “victim mentality” has led to travesties of justice in the nation’s courtrooms, as well as the corruption of Evangelicals’ traditional message of sin, guilt, repentance and redemption. Addressing the second issue, he writes, “Whether you deny sin overtly and openly and totally, or covertly and by implication, any tampering with the Biblical concept of sin makes chaos of the
Christian faith.”
He also draws insights from numerous social commentators (many, if not all, are non‐Evangelicals) to show that others share his concern with the failures and fallacies of popular psychology.

Chapter Two puts forth the Biblical notion of “conscience” as the only acceptable alternative to the disease model. MacArthur talks about what the conscience is and how guilt can be truly alleviated only through salvation in Jesus Christ. Underscoring this point, he declares, “Some Christians… offer Christ as a Savior from meaninglessness, as a means to personal fulfillment, as a solution to self‐image problems, or as an answer to emotional needs. The gospel they extend to unbelievers makes no appeal to the conscience, no mention of sin. It is therefore an impotent and spurious message.” Finally, he warns of the dangers of having an over‐sensitive conscience.

Having established the opposite natures of the Biblical and secular solutions to the problems of American society, MacArthur ends the first segment of the book with a third chapter, where he explains how sin and a dysfunctional conscience reinforce each other. This relationship leads to what he calls a “downward spiral,” in which entire societies suffer continuous moral degeneration. Examples are then drawn from the Bible and secular history, as well as from contemporary American society. He writes,

“The legacy of the age of psychology is disastrous, pervasive wickedness… Such problems are not new… But unlike previous generations, ours fails to see even the grossest wickedness for what it is—a transgression against the immutable moral law o a supremely holy God. Modern society seems to miss the point that such behavior is actually sinful.”

Part Two, entitled THE NATURE OF SIN, spends more time setting the Biblical doctrine of sin and salvation against the self‐esteem credo of modern psychology and the perfectionist approach to holiness. Specifically, he explores what it means to be “totally depraved,” and “freed from sin” by exploring chapters from the book of Romans.

The last segment of the book, HANDLING SIN, presents God’s demand for
Christians to deal with out sins, as well as the provisions that He has made for us to do so. He differentiates between “tests” and “temptations,” and draws out Scriptural principles for “gaining victory over sin in our daily walk.” To further emphasize the need for American Evangelicals to be cleansed of contamination from a secular society, MacArthur gives examples of influential people from Biblical and contemporary times who adopted a flippant, man‐centered attitude towards sin.

The Comments of A Filipino Reader

As Evangelicals like MacArthur, we can certainly make sense of the basic Christian truths upon which he builds his arguments. Much if not all of his practical applications we have heard or read from Bible teachers in our won country. But he was writing as an American pastor for American Evangelicals, while we are Filipinos concerned for Filipino Evangelicals. True, among Asian countries, the Philippines is probably the most acculturated to the West, but we remain undeniably Asian. Even much of our “Westernness” is Spanish, not American. So even after a century of strong influence from American culture, we still find ourselves laughing at our quirks, and a little repulsed by those who cannot.

Similarly, we Filipino Evangelicals are tempted by American pop‐psychology and the self‐esteem cult, but we process these differently. I think our strong nuclear families and extended kinship system steer us away from the exaggerated individualism that we find in the U.S. We make decisions with the good of our families in mind, so we tend to be less success‐oriented. We enjoy the lifelong support of our families (support that is at least relational, if not financial), so there is less compulsion to adopt an individualized notion of self‐worth.

My guess is that for we Filipino Evangelicals, pop‐psychology and self‐esteem rhetoric are a danger only in so far as we have bought into the values that our society has imported from the West.

Take for example this hypothetical yet strangely familiar scenario: an Evangelical counselor is trying to help a student who claims that his feelings of inadequacy and guilt restrain him from wholeheartedly worshipping God. At this point the counselor could rightly point out (with gentleness and humility) that the student is right to feel inadequate and guilty before a righteous, holy God, that what may really be holding hm back is his sinful lack of faith in the redemption accomplished for him by Jesus Christ, and hat what he needs to do is ask God for grace to “repent and believe the gospel.” (Mk.1:15) The counselor could, but he doesn't. Instead, he leads the troubled youth to passages that he can use to highlight how much God loves and values His children. The counselor then goes on to blame the devil for building a “spiritual stronghold” of guilt and insecurity within the “victim,” instead of uplifting the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting the young sinner (1 Thess.1:5 ; Jn.16:8,9). Obviously, the counselor has Christianized the secular self‐esteem doctrine that says we are at our best when we feel good about ourselves.

We have one foot in America and one foot in the Pacific, and we find ourselves and our churches struggling with the cultural sins on both sides. I end (apologetically) on an inconclusive note, because it remains for us to figure our exactly how the truths of conscience and purity must be applied to the Filipino Evangelical churches.

Where to Get It

I'm not sure which Christian stores sell John Mac's books, but I know that National Bookstore has at least some of them. There's also a CD compilation of ALL of his books and commentaries that's selling for about P5,000. I think that's a bargain MacArthur lovers can't afford to miss. :P

Also check out: John MacArthur's website, Grace To You.

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