Friday, January 25, 2013

Is True Christianity Moralistic or Evangelical?

What is at the heart of true Christianity? Some say that Christianity is just a long list of religious dos and donts that people have to follow in order to escape hell and get to heaven. Others say that Christianity is simply about being morally upright, getting along with people, and doing good in the world. How do these ideas measure up to the Bible?
      If Christianity is just about following religious rules, then God would not have rebuked King Saul for disobeying His command and trying to justify that disobedience by performing a religious ceremony. 1 Samuel 15:22-23 says, "And Samuel said [to Saul], "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry."
     If, on the other hand,  Christianity means always being positive and getting along with people, then Jesus' words in Matthew 10:37 would be a real head-scratcher: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
     What about the idea that Christianity is simply about being morally upright? Then we would have to ask, why did Jesus send the rich, young man away? (See Matthew 19:16-26) By all outward appearances, he was sincere, devout, and obedient to God's commandments. But Jesus sent him away. Why?
     What the rich young man's encounter with Jesus teaches us is that for God religious piety, getting along with people, and moral uprightness, are not virtues in and of themselves. In fact, these things can even turn us away from Him, and blind us to our true spiritual need. This is exactly what happened to the rich, young man. He was confident in approaching Jesus because he thought he had kept all the commandments. Maybe he had, in an external and superficial sense. But Jesus saw the rich young man's heart. Jesus saw that he was covetous, materialistic, and self-centered. Who was his God? The rich young man would have confidently answered, "God, of course." But Jesus' answer (to paraphrase Him) was, "No. Your possessions are your god," and right there and then, He forced the rich young man to make a decision. Would he humbly admit that he could never be good enough to earn God's acceptance, and rely instead on God's grace? Would he forsake his false god and live for Christ? Sadly, he didn't. He couldn't. And he turned away from Christ.
     "Aha," the moralist might say, "that was the problem of the rich, young man. He couldn't do what it takes to follow Jesus. But you and I should learn from his mistake. You and I can and should do better."
     But if that's what Jesus wanted to point out, then why did He elicit this question from Peter: "Then who can be saved?" And why did Jesus answer, "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible"? It's impossible to understand this passage using a moralistic approach.
     And so, we need to interpret it in the light of the gospel, which tells us that we are sinners alienated from God, and unable to meet His standard of righteousness (Rom.3:23). Our only hope is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners by paying the penalty for sins on the cross (2Cor.5:21). By trusting in Him alone for salvation, we can be forgiven of all our sins--past, present, and future--and be adopted into God's family (Eph.2:13). Therefore, as the apostle Paul wrote, "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God; not a result of your own works, so that no one may boast." (Eph 2:8,9)
     What should the rich, young man have done? The same thing every other sinner is called to do: admit his inability to earn God's approval, repent of his sins, and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But what did he actually do? The same thing you and I would do if left to ourselves: be too proud to admit our utter need for Jesus, and be too selfish to obey Him at any cost. That's why it takes a miracle for a proud, selfish sinner to repent and obey Christ. The apostles marveled at the moral credentials of the rich young man, and wondered, If a man as devout and upright as he is cannot be saved, then what hope do any of us have? "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
     The point is that true Christianity is not moralistic. It's not about pulling ourselves up by our moral bootstraps. True Christianity is evangelical, in other words, gospel-centered. It's rooted at the foot of the cross, where the Son of God died to pay the penalty for sin that we dare not pay for ourselves. It's rooted in the resurrection, when Christ conquered death, so that everyone who believes in Him might conquer death, as well. It's rooted in the moment when the Holy Spirit causes a sinner to be born again, opening his eyes to his guilt before God and his need for the Savior.

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