Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Morality and the gospel, or "Be good?"

Those of you who listen to me teach or preach regularly know that I get a little up in arms about this topic.  Specifically, the question is, what is the relationship between morality and the gospel?  Now, for those of you who think (or will think soon) that Jeff is off his rocker and that he has issues with teaching morality, wait just an antinomian minute.  (The theological sophisticates in the crowd will accuse me of antinomianism, by the way, because I'm going to come down on the side of saying teaching morality is not the gospel.)

Ooops.  I gave away the ending.

Well, plow ahead anyway.  What gets me so angry about this topic is that too often, people walk away from our church services believing -- no matter what we have preached -- that we have just advised them to go home, be good, behave, and if they do it right God will love them.

Note: I am not against good behavior.

But if you believe that God expects good behavior of you and that he's marking down good versus bad actions on some kind of cosmic spreadsheet, then your good behavior is standing between you and Jesus.

See, the Bible talks a lot about the expectation that our behavior will be good.  Officially and theologically, the term for this is "the law."  We teach this to children at home and in Sunday School.  We teach it to first graders when we expect them to stand in straight lines and not wipe their boogers on the walls.  We teach this to middle schoolers when we advise them that they should wait till marriage to have sex.  We teach it to college students when we try to help them be financially responsible.  We teach this to married couples when we try to teach them good communication skills.  Behave well, the message goes, and your life will be better.

It's absolutely true.

But it's not the gospel.

I spoke once to a junior high gathering.  The hundred and fifty or so students there were restless and totally immersed in the opposite sex.  They needed something -- a story, preferably -- that was going to grab their minds and open their hearts.  My job was to communicate the gospel.  So I told the story of Elaine, a girl about their age who got pregnant.  She went through all the shame and embarrassment and condemnation you might expect from a good family and a comfortable church.  She agonized over what to do with her baby, and finally decided for the baby's sake to give it up for adoption.  She traveled a long journey through guilt and shame and heartache and loss.  On the far end of it, she found an acceptance in the love of Jesus that she had not known before.  She discovered that her identity was not in her goodness, but in the love of Jesus for her even though she was damaged goods in the world's eyes.

The middle schoolers were spellbound, and you could see the lights begin to click on for some of them as they understood that Jesus doesn't love you because you're good; he loves you even in the midst of failure.

After my talk, a couple parents, serving that weekend as youth group chaperones, came up to talk to me.  They shook their heads and looked at the floor and mourned how I had missed such a great opportunity.  I asked what they meant.  A middle-aged man finally looked me in the eye and said, "You should have told them to keep their zippers up."

Christians have too often sold their inheritance -- the free acceptance of God through Jesus Christ, given to us without cost and without calculation -- for a bowl of oatmeal that has the words "be good" spelled out in raisins across the top.

In the New Testament, the best place to find this problem addressed is the middle of the book of Galatians.  In Galatians 3, Paul says that the law -- that system of requirements about being good and shaping our behavior -- is a tutor, a nanny, a custodian (it's a hard word to translate from Greek to English, but the idea is someone who has care of a child until the child grows into their inheritance) that has charge over us until we grow up enough to take possession of our inheritance.  The law tends us and protects us until we are ready for the glorious freedom of living as heirs of God, co-heirs with Jesus Christ. Then we are free from the law, because we are now governed by the much more demanding "law" of Christ that is not about behavior but about your heart.  (By the way, your behavior will naturally change if your heart changes.)

So the moralists among us are not bad people.  They want everyone to behave well, and they want strict rules to enforce that good behavior.  They're just immature, according to the Bible.  They just don't get what it means that Jesus sets us free.  They want the law as a guarantee because they don't get Jesus.

And if you think you're in Christ, if you think you get what it means to be free in him, do a gut check.  Are you using your freedom as an excuse to indulge your flesh, your own desires?  Are you giving in to pride?  Are you arrogant about making use of your own rights in Christ, and in your heart you despise those weak moralists who don't understand freedom?  Read Romans 14 and see what it says about caring for your weaker brothers.

If you want to see what real authority, real freedom, real gospel looks like, read the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet in John 13.  John makes sure, at the beginning of this chapter, that we know clearly that it is simply because Jesus knows who he is, where he comes from, and where he's going that he does this task -- the task of the lowliest servant, washing the filthy feet of the twelve.  Including Judas, by the way, for those who say, "I'll serve everyone except ..."

The gospel is total freedom.  It is total and complete freedom, that comes at the cost of your whole life.

Let's make sure we don't give in to the temptation to settle for being good.  It's just not nearly enough.

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