When Good Religion Goes Bad (or: Why “Good” Folks Need the Gospel Too)

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Don’t throw away the cross, Supes! For what does it benefit a man to gain the whole (Daily) Planet and yet lose his life?

We Christians may tend to think that there are other “faith systems” out there, other than biblical Christianity, that, while they may miss out on the whole truth, they still contain a lot of good in them, and maybe God will sorta smile and wink at their adherents at the end of the day, because after all, they were just trying to live a good life, and honor God, and what’s so bad about that? Maybe you have friends who are, in general, upstanding and moral people. And maybe you might, sometimes, possibly be tempted with the idea that you don’t really need to tell them about the Gospel–Because after all, you think, They might not know the full truth about Jesus, but they’re such good people! I’m sure they’ll be fine. The Gospel is “good news” for really bad sinners, not good folks like these… right? 

Not according to Jesus. According to Jesus, manmade religion (or “faith systems,” or lifestyles, or worldviews) that purport to show God great honor, while denying the necessity of the cross and resurrection of Jesus–those aren’t some kind of lesser piety. They’re not “Christianity Lite.”

According to Jesus, such systems amount to nothing less than cold, hard, condemnable satanism.
The Devil is fine with us ascribing all kinds of honor to the Lord, as long as we miss the cross, burial and resurrection of Jesus–and our need for the Savior who did all that for us.
“Good” religion goes bad when it substitutes “goodness” for the Gospel. Even Christ-likeness is no substitute for the crucifixion.

The Gospel is the good news, that Jesus came to die for sinners like you and me–so that we could die to our old life (which was really death) and receive His life. Get the Gospel, and you get God’s life. Reject the Gospel, and whatever else you may have–however “good,” you’ll lose your life and miss out on God’s life.

This is serious business–which it would have to be, to make Jesus call one of His top three disciples “Satan.” So if Jesus takes it that seriously, maybe we ought to reconsider how we think about those other “faith systems” (really they should be called works systems, since they deny salvation by grace alone through faith alone). Trying to show God honor, while denying God’s plan (by which He was more incredibly honored than He could have ever been by any scheme moral man could have come up with!) is from Satan.

In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”
That’s what’s going on in Mark 8:31-38. It’s what Jesus has saved former moralists like me from, and it’s what we have to remember when we’re communicating the Gospel to our religious, well-intentioned, and moral friends. In so doing, we’re giving them the best “good news” we could give them.

A Christian Perspective on Morality

Last Wednesday I had a fun time moderating a lively discussion on the subject of morality as part of my monthly MeetUp series, “Ask A Pastor (Far Northwest Side Spiritual Discussions).”

Before we opened up the floor to questions and discussion, I gave a brief talk on the topic. Here are the notes I taught from, unedited (which means my sources aren’t cited, and it’s really formatted better for speaking than reading. Please don’t tell Larry Mroczek, my junior year Honors English teacher).

Morality Talk – Let’s discuss right and wrong!

Biblically, morality comes from God.

God’s moral proclamation is not an arbitrary decree, nor is it a higher standard. Rather, the Bible teaches, “Be Holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).

At creation, God gave Adam one command: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Notice that God did not have to command the man not to murder, not to steal, or even how to practice religion correctly. There was one command, and it was a simple one. Really, the command amounted to this: “Respect God and obey what God says.” This is what is summarized as the “whole duty of man” in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

If you know the story, you know Adam did not keep God’s commandment. He was tempted by his wife, Eve, who had been tempted by the devil. Adam sinned, and his sin we now refer to as “The Fall.” Immediately after Adam sinned, God brought the earth under a curse, but the worst curse was for the devil. In Genesis 3:15, God promised that one of Eve’s offspring would destroy the devil, even though in the process the offspring would himself be fatally wounded. So God promised a self-sacrificing Savior at the dawn of human history. It is significant that this promise comes even before any of the moral codes God would soon give humanity.

The next moral code the Lord gave was to Noah, in Genesis 9, allowed the eating of meat, forbade eating meat with blood, prohibited murder, and gave a mandate for human reproduction.

After this, God began to establish a special relationship with a certain genealogical line of people, who were descended from Noah, through the biblical patriarch Abraham. It was with Abraham’s descendants, through his son Isaac and grandson Israel, that God established what we now refer to as the “Old Covenant.”

The Old Covenant was a legal-theological system based on conditional promises God gave to the nation of Israel, through the prophet Moses. If Israel kept their end of the bargain, they would receive life and blessings (Deuteronomy 30:19), but if they disobeyed God’s law, they would receive curse and exile from the Promised Land (Leviticus 26:33).

At the heart of the Old Covenant were the Ten Commandments.

During the period in which the Old Covenant was still in effect, God began to make more promises to humanity, building on the original promise of salvation, that he had given to Adam and Eve back in the beginning. He promised that an era would come in which every member of the people of God would know God and live morally—because from a biblical perspective, morality and relationship with God are bound up together. So in Jeremiah 31:33-34, the Lord describes the coming “New Covenant” era, saying, “’I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’”

Now in the meantime, developments in moral philosophy were being made outside of Israel. Every society has always had some kind of moral code of laws—many of which paralleled the kind of morality God gave to Israel. This is explained in that God gave all human beings a conscience; in Romans 2:14-15 the Bible says that “…when Gentiles, who do not have the Law [of Moses], do by nature what the Law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law, since they show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts either accusing or defending them.”

What is also interesting is that two things take place: first, Israel does disobey God and break the Old Covenant, and they are exiled and dispersed. Yet, during that period, in which the Babylon Empire reigned supreme, we find that many non-Jewish societies made radical advancements in their moral philosophy.

According to Christian Scripture, the Hebrew Scriptures (“the Law and the Prophets”) hang on the two commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That second principle, loving one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self, spread to non-Jewish societies during the time of the Jewish exile.

A form of it reached Egypt between 2040 – 1650 B.C.—roughly corresponding the time when Israel were slaves in Egypt. But it was really primitive “Do to the doer to make him do.” It was just what we call the “law of reciprocity.”

Moses received it in around 1500 B.C.

But around the time of the Jewish Exile in Babylon, between ~597 B.C. and 538 B.C., we see nations under Babylonian rule adopting this Jewish morality. China, India, Greece, Persia and Rome all picked it up.

It was during that period that the Medo-Persian Empire conquered Babylon, and Darius (b. 550 B.C.) issued the decree that, “…all the peoples, nations and men of every language who were living in all the land…in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel.

The western end of the empire was Greece. The eastern end was India.

Buddhism was founded in India in the low 500s, B.C.

Confucius wrote around 500 B.C.

Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics was written in 350 B.C.

So it has been proposed that these moral advancements owe their development in part to the influence of Jewish morality on the Babylonian/Medo-Persian empire (which later became the Greek, and eventually the Roman Empire.*

So in the non-Jewish world, you have approximations of biblical morality—though never, or rarely, the heartfelt conviction over sin that is seen in the Psalms, for example—but the revealed morality from God is limited to the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament.

After a period of four centuries of silence, Jesus is born in the town of Bethlehem to a virgin girl, fulfilling further prophecies (Micah 5:2; Isaiah 7:14) about the coming Savior, that God had previously promised back in Genesis.

Jesus completely transcends and transforms morality in a way that is analogous to the great moral shift that took place around the Sixth Century B.C., but far greater than that shift.

The highest moral principle of Jesus is not, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” but rather He says, “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

Well, if you follow the rest of the story of Jesus’ life, you discover exactly what “as I have loved you” really means. Jesus lay down his life for his people. That model of self-sacrificing love becomes the new norm for the morality of the people of God. So when the Apostle John summarizes how to live in a loving way, He says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Indeed, there can be no higher moral principle than this one—a fact that Jesus points out in John 15:13, when he teaches, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Of course, Christian morality does not limit itself to love only for fellow Christians. Rather, believers are commanded to, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Along with the command to love, Jesus gives many other moral imperatives—which echo some of the same morality of the Ten Commandments—recall, they had been at the heart of the Old Covenant—but which reflect the higher love to which Jesus’ followers (in the New Covenant era) are called. Rather than simply prohibiting adultery, Jesus prohibits lust. Rather than just murder, Jesus prohibits hatred and insult. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus lays out a moral code for his followers that is far beyond anything developed prior to that time, whether Jewish or Gentile.

So Christian morality is inseparable from Jesus—and it is only through unity with him that a person can actually live a truly moral life, according to God’s standard.

If you continue to follow the development of moral progress in the world after the time of Christ, what do you see? You see followers of Jesus fighting disease and plague while Roman pagans flee the cities. You see women gaining previously-unheard-of rights. You see Christians fighting against and ending slavery, which had been enshrined in human civilizations for all of history. You see the Church inventing the concept of hospitals and colleges, making huge advancements in art and music and education. Even the concept of childhood owes its existence to Christianity. That’s right, an article came out last year called, “How Christianity invented Children,”[1] explaining how Jesus’ attitude toward children revolutionized the ancient world, leading up to the modern time.

Christian morality is bound up with the person of Jesus. He is the best revelation of God’s moral character (Hebrews 1:1-2). He is the Creator of our world, and has the best understanding of how moral agents are to interact within it (John 1:1-3). He is also the ultimate human representative (Romans 5).

The moral bar he raises is actually an impossible standard to keep. But the Bible provides a solution for this. When Jesus died on the cross, he took all the moral failure of his people on Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21). In place of our moral failure (Romans 3:23), God attributes to followers of Jesus the moral perfection of Jesus Himself, and God gives the Holy Spirit to those same people, to empower them to live according to Jesus’ standard. Perfectly? No. But joyfully. Is it a struggle sometimes? Yes! But it is a struggle the follower of Jesus will ultimately win, by God’s grace.

So what about people who do not follow Jesus?

Can an atheist or non-Christian act in a moral way? Yes and no.

True morality, according to the Bible, is grounded in knowing God and loving him. Non-believers can approximate morality by doing moral things, yet if, in doing so, they are rejecting God, that cannot truly be moral.

Moreover, when a non-believer acts morally, he is actually being inconsistent. This is because, without God and the Bible, there is no way to ground morality in any kind of objective way.

So you have to ask yourself: Has God spoken about morality?

If not, then someone has to decide what is right and what is wrong. Who’s going to do that? It would have to be someone with comprehensive knowledge of the moral universe, in order to lay down any kind of absolutes. None of us possess that quality!

But then, maybe morality is subjective—varying from person to person or from culture to culture? This boils down to there being no morality at all. At least, it becomes impossible to differentiate between moral systems that are correct and ones that are incorrect.

John Frame, a theologian, asks this question, “How do you adjudicate between two different moral frameworks that sit before you, that each believe its morality is superior to the other person’s?”

James White, a Christian apologist, has pointed out, that the reality of the world is such that not every worldview actually desires peace and getting along. Ravi Zacharias, a Christian philosopher, has said this too: some people believe that they would “get along” much better without you in the picture!

How do we differentiate between these various worldviews? The Bible is the morally-infallible norm by which we do this.

So let’s say you answer, “Yes, God has spoken.” And there are moral standards that apply across the board.

Well then, are those moral standards found in the God of the Bible, as revealed in the Bible? If not, then how do we decide?

It boils down to something we have talked about a lot: presuppositions. When you presuppose the Bible to be true—that is, when you start with that assumption—you can make sense of the moral universe in which we live. When you start with anything else, you run into contradictions and self-referential incoherence.

To conclude: there are many moral systems out there in the world, but they ultimately boil down to two options: morality based on the perfect nature of God, or morality based finally on my ever-changing self and my own best judgments. With the radical, self-sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to live out, it ought to be plain to us which one is based on God’s character. Christian morality is not something any mere human could come up with, but it is something God calls each of us to.

The Bible says that, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

In other words, one day God will judge each of us by his perfect standard, which is his Son Jesus. Those who are his followers will have our sins forgiven and His moral perfection credited to us. Those who reject God’s offer will be judged according to the Standard. Will your life demonstrate that you loved God or hated Him? Your eternal destiny will reflect that!

So that is my best attempt to (somewhat) briefly explain Christian morality to you. Now, what questions do you have for me?

[1] http://theweek.com/articles/551027/how-christianity-invented-children

*I first heard of this theory from Derek Webster, lead pastor of Grace Pointe Church in Naperville, Illinois, while I worked there between 2013 and 2016.