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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Jesus and morality

One of the major questions we need to face if we are to proclaim Jesus biblically, faithfully, is what is Jesus' relationship to our sense of morality.

When it comes to the question of morality, most of us have never thought very deeply about our views. We assume that there is Good behavior and Bad behavior, and we rarely examine why we think that way, or what distinguishes one from the other. Some of you, right now as you read this, are thinking to yourselves, "Of course that's the way things are. Why is he questioning that?"

Be careful.

You might recall that it was the desire to distinguish between Good and Evil that got human beings in trouble in the first place, according to the story at the beginning of Genesis. The tree Adam and Eve ate from, disobeying God's command, was "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

So apparently, God's original plan for us did NOT rest on our being able to distinguish good and bad behavior, doing good and trying not to do bad. Yet most of us believe what God wants us to do is "be good." Do good and try not to do bad. Morality. By far the most common statement you'll encounter if you try to tell someone about Jesus and his love is, "Well, I've tried to live a pretty good life." Because in people's minds, religion is about being good.

And here's the deal: The church has caused this problem by preaching something called "works righteousness." Works righteousness means that in some form, you're made right with God by doing good. This is NOT the good news of Jesus, it is the old, bad news of morality. It's the stick we wave over people's heads to get them to shape up.

Or sometimes it's the carrot we dangle in front of people to try to get them to want to be good, like the half-stick of Wrigley's Spearmint gum my mom used to give me on those rare occasions when I was quiet and attentive all through a church service. Most often we do this with the idea of heaven. Be good and God will take you to heaven when you die. We would never say it like that, but we have dozens of ways of communicating that message without saying that way. It's all works righteousness.

The by-product of moralism, of works righteousness, is shame. Whenever you see a church or a religious person wielding shame like a baseball bat, you know it is moralism, not the good news of Jesus, that is in the driver's seat.

For most of us, this move -- separating Jesus from morality -- is a tremendously difficult leap to make, because "being good" and "trying not to do bad" have been so deeply entrenched in our thinking and our living and our internal shame. So let me put you a little bit at ease here by saying that I'm not going to suggest that it doesn't matter what you do. Quite the opposite. Our behavior is tremendously important, for some very good reasons. But being good and trying not to do bad is NOT what we are called to proclaim. It is NOT the message that Jesus proclaimed, nor is it the message he sent us to proclaim.

The trouble comes in when we set out to proclaim Jesus and then, either in our words or our actions, we tell people to shape up. Suddenly the non-gospel of Moralism leaps in to take Jesus' place, and we believe we have faithfully proclaimed the good news in a faithful, biblical way without ever realizing that we've done exactly what Paul railed against in the book of Galatians -- we have replaced Jesus with the Law.

In fact, the whole New Testament is chock full of this idea -- that knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, that "being saved" (though the New Testament only sparingly uses that language) is separate from our moral behavior, or lack of it. That's what Paul's letter to the Galatians was all about. That's what the first great council of the Christian church was about in Acts 15.

And it should turn our heads a little bit that it was the guardians of public morality who crucified Jesus.

So what was God's original intention, if not for us to be good people? What is the good news of Jesus all about, if not rewarding us with heaven? Stay tuned ...

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