Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin.
In the knowledge of good and evil man does not understand himself in the reality of the destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being good or evil. He knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows only himself and no longer knows God at all; for he can know God only if he knows only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil.
But man cannot be rid of his origin. Instead of knowing himself in the origin of God, he must now know himself as an origin. He interprets himself according to his possibilities, his possibilities of being good or evil, and he therefore conceives himself to be the origin of good and evil. (From Ethics, pp. 17-18)
I have a confession to make. I have started to read this book at least twenty times, and never gotten beyond this quote. If we understood this concept, it would revolutionize the way we think about good and evil, about a relationship with God, and about what it means to follow Jesus.
We see the consequences of our misunderstanding in well-meaning people who "believe in Jesus", but they see Christianity as a structure for living a good, moral life. In their minds the gospel can be summarized, "Be nice." Functionally these people are no different than the guy next to me on the airplane who, when he hears that I am a pastor, responds quickly, "I'm a pretty good person." Morally and socially, these are both good people. One has given intellectual assent to the person of Jesus, but the belief has no power to change their life. The other sees himself as an outsider to Christianity, but is still caught up in its moral framework to the point that he feels defensive when confronted with a pastor. Neither of these people has a clue what it means to know Jesus or of the power he has to transform the life of his followers.
This life is the edge of the knife, for we can fall off either side all too easily. On one hand we may mistake who Jesus is and substitute a mental or emotional idol of our own creating without every really knowing Jesus. So the person who substitutes a social gospel for the truth of Christ believes they receive all things through the need, the demand, that social structures should line up with their "gospel". This is a favorite error of liberal Christianity. We choose a particular social agenda du jour (advocacy for women, for gays, for the poor, for HIV/AIDS victims, for whales, for the environment, whatever) because we believe it is "good" and we superimpose it on Jesus, and from that moment on we hear Jesus recommending our social agenda. But this Jesus is an idol of our own creating. The error of conservative churches on the other side of the knife's edge is not really any different; they just substitute a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior" (we used to abbreviate it PRWJCAMLAS) for the social agenda. Their error is to believe that this personal relationship is my only concern and now that I'm saved, I have nothing to worry about except perhaps helping to save another individual here and there. I can take my fire-insurance policy and go back to my self-oriented life. Again, we have missed the real Jesus in favor of an idol of our own personal creation.
The danger here is tremendous. In both cases, we have substituted a societal agenda -- one from the political left, another from the inner-focused fringe of evangelicalism -- for Jesus. We are not governed by Jesus and his words to us, but by our sense of what is right. Many times I have heard "good" church-attending people -- even church leaders -- confronted by a statement straight out of the mouth of Jesus in the gospels, say "I don't think Jesus would ever say that." Sometimes we dress our prejudice up a little better than that., but once we make this shift away from an external understanding of who Jesus is, we can justify any behavior, any prejudice, any judgment, because we believe we're following Jesus. So the self-focused PRWJCAMLAS Christian can read the gospels over and over but never hear Jesus' heart for the poor, the sick, the blind, the leper -- all these things are spiritualized beyond any connection with reality. Similarly, the social liberal Christian can read the gospels over and over and like Nicodemus in John 3; all Jesus' words about being born again, born of the Spirit, run off their hearts like water off a duck.
External accountability is critical, because we are so capable of deceiving ourselves. If we are simply left to make Jesus in our own image, the gospel is no hope and no help. A good friend of mine is a master at equipping leaders for ministry. Early in their discipling he turns them loose on the gospels, recommending that they read all four in order to get to know Jesus. "Then what?" they ask. "After that, read the gospels," he says, "And then read the gospels again." We need to know Jesus for who he is, not for who we think he is. And knowing Jesus as he is, we need to surrender more and more of our lives to him -- relationships, beliefs, spending, saving, entertainment, social action, rest, laziness, parenting, driving, work, shopping, everything. Otherwise, if we hang on to our "right" to decide for ourselves what is good, all we have done is to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we have missed God.