A Jagged Contention: The Heart of Christianity

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“Christianity at its heart is not a set of moral teachings or ethics—it is Good News. It is a story of redemption of man by God who became man. Take away Christ from Christianity an you are not left with moral teachings—you are left with an immoral religion built on the false promises of a deluded and defrauding megalomaniac. All four of the Gospels center around the last week of the life of Christ, thus giving emphasis to the centrality of His death for the sins of humankind. In fact, the old Lutheran dogmaticians called Christ’s preaching of the Law his “alien work” to make clear that a ministry of wrath and condemnation was not why the Son of Man came into the world. The Law does not distinguish Christianity from any other religions, as C. S. Lewis makes clear in The Abolition of Man.”

– Craig Parton, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel. pg. 74


Question:

How is this understanding of Christianity different from many popular understandings of the faith? Why is it that Christianity is so often associated with morality and ethics as opposed to the Good News of our crucified God? How does presenting the Gospel over and against mere morality impact our apologetic efforts?

Share your thought in the comments below

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4 thoughts on “A Jagged Contention: The Heart of Christianity

  1. I originally planned to make this a one paragraph answer. I really did. Forgive me for failing that plan.

    The big shift is the substitution of the ethic, “Love your neighbor,” for the declaration of Gospel, “Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen for the the forgiveness of our sins.” To compound this, our sentimentality mixed in with our self-justifying Old Adam wants to laud “Love your neighbor” as THE quantifiable evidence of being a Christian. That ethic is still extremely important and necessary in our lives as Christians, but it does not make us Christians. In the end, that ethic is still self centered and non-salvific (we do it because we are commanded to do it – a law). Moreover, that ethic is found outside of Christianity, making actions of many non-Christians indistinguishable from, if not better than, Christians (something that may shame us Christians to needing to repent for our failure to love).

    Ultimately there is a confusion of Law and Gospel and a confusion of the priority of righteousness. We start to operate from perspective that we must do something to maintain our righteousness (Law). We no longer trust that we have been declared righteous by God in Christ Jesus (given to us in Baptism and redeclared to us in Confession and Absolution, confirmed to us in His Body and Blood -Gospel) and then act in response to that declaration. If we switch the perspective from “being declared righteous, then acting in response” to “acting to make ourselves righteous,” we place the onus of our salvation on ourselves (or at best acting to maintain that salvation). This switch in essence removes the need to hear the declaration of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us because we are now making the righteousness dependent on our actions.

    If that switch happens, we no longer need to hear proclaimed (or proclaim) what Christ has done, but what we must do. When we consider the Gospel, “Jesus Christ, Crucified and risen, for the forgiveness of (y)our sins,” the words are offensive (you’re a sinner) and impersonal (Jesus died for you). We throw it out because there is no part we play in it, except the contribution of our sin (again, impersonal in the atoning process and offensive). Instead we replace the Gospel with an ethic we (think we) can do and maintain, “Love your neighbor” (personal and not offensive).

    Going back to our Old Adam, we want to believe we can contribute something to our salvation, and we uphold “Love your neighbor” as the key to or evidence of that. This ethic also sounds so much more appealing in a pluralistic society, for it makes the content of Christianity non-exclusive, more acceptable and palatable to all people. Tragically, this appeal says nothing of our fallen state in sin (inability to save ourselves) and the need for an “alien” salvation.

    The effect of this on our apologetics is, as Dr. Keith has said, “Evangelize (Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen for the forgiveness of our sins) first, defend (apologetics) second.” Correctly performing this task is extremely difficult, one needing patience and prayer. We must not neglect the perforative nature of the Word and the conviction of the Holy Spirit in those conversations, and we must also remember that we know not when and where the Spirit will move. In our results driven society magnified by an immediate gratification culture, we tend to expect the Spirit to work here and now and produce immediate results. (I think it’s a bad idea to regard Acts 2 as the standard outcome for evangelism and conversion.)

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    1. I’m not sure I agree that we focus on “love you neighbor” too much at the expense of the gospel. With Liberal Christianity, that may be the case, but I don’t think that’s where most people get their ideas about what Christians “really” believe.

      I think us conservatives have done a terrible job in our involvement in politics and culture by too often sounding like a bunch of angry fundamentalists. I live in Sacramento and I used to work across from the state capitol building. Around the same time Proposition 8 was circulating, a group of fundamentalists used to march outside the captiol with signs that read “God hates gays.”

      Certainly, I would never say such a thing, and I hope the vast majority of my fellow conservatives would likewise shy away from such hatred, but I think the gospel often gets lost on unbelievers because many Christians act as if they’ve got it all figured out, like they’re getting in cause they’ve got the righteousness they need (and I don’t mean an alien righteousness). I know I’ve been guilty of acting that way!

      While we certainly must be faithful to explain the gospel to those whom the Lord brings into our lives, we must also act as if we believe the gospel (i.e. with humility, grace, and mercy) if we want others to understand what it means to be saved by grace through faith in Christ. We need to be careful that we do not communicate an “I’ve got it all taken care of” kind of attitude. May God grant us forgiveness and grace!

      Along similar lines, please pray for my Muslim friend, “M” who came to church with us this past Christ the King Sunday. He seemed offended at the mention of radical Islam and the declaration of Christ’s Lordship over all, and left the service early. He hasn’t responded to my follow-up text. Please pray that the offense might lead to the opening of his eyes, repentance from sin, and faith in Christ our King.

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      1. Mr. Miller,

        I don’t think we’re disagreeing on the practice of “Love your neighbor.” Lord knows we stumble over it at every turn (or maybe just that I do.) I should have spoken more broadly in terms of substituting an ethic for the Gospel itself. In theory, the ethic, “Love your neighbor,” or better “Love as I have loved you” (John 13) should be the overarching/best ethic of the Christian. Unfortunately, to our shame, many Christians, especially conservative Christians, fall woefully short in fulfilling that ethic.

        While not excusing that failure, the recognition of that should drive us back to the Cross. Again, the Cross is not an excuse for failing (Romans 6 would speak heavily to that), but the Cross offers the change of perspective -no matter how well or pitifully we perform as Christians, our righteousness is not based on that performance, but on Christ’s performance in our stead. And He has done this for every living human being. All that is to say, replacing the proclamation (and reception) of the Gospel (Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen for the forgiveness of sins) with an ethic/moral code (be those as terrible or wonderful as we judge) undermines the whole message of Christianity.

        On your thought of Christians “having it all taken care of,” I think you are onto something big, and insidious, within the church. While I would say that all things are taken care of in Christ (and will be completed on the Last Day), for us day to day, it is a struggle. (For those who do have it all figured out, maybe they have reached Wesley’s perfected state… but I digress.) I think this is why Luther writes that our lives should be that of daily/continual repentance.

        Something from my youth that has stuck with me from a Roman Catholic mass was their chanting/singing prior to communion, “… we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” While the mystery is not a puzzle to be solved, it emphasizes the awe and magnificence of God’s will for us in sending Christ to redeem us -that which is believable and trustable, but not fully comprehendible -at least not here in this sin riddled world.

        I have carried on too far again.

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  2. “Why is it that Christianity is so often associated with morality and ethics. . .” Most of the famous religious speakers of our day promise that God will change your life (not redeem from the curse of sin). The idea of imputed righteousness has been abandoned in pop-church culture. Often times this ends up being a new flavor of self-centeredness. It is almost always where the biggest confusion of law and gospel occurs (many believe the Gospel to be the changed life of the believer; not the risen Lord purchasing his lost, hopeless people).
    Our ego-maniacal selves surely steer us toward theologies of glory. Perhaps, though, some who have taken depravity to all time lows see the law as novel, revolutionary, and hopeful (for a hopeless drug addict, sustained abstinence is truly a God-send). When these testimonies are shared, the Gospel is confused (or altogether replaced) by a message of sanctification. In this context, many times the Gospel is lost entirely. I would imagine that Screwtape smiles in such times.
    Jesus came for the lost and the sick. That means that my friend who drank himself to death last year is in heaven because of the work of Christ(as is the case with all the saints). But in modern churches, this story isn’t victorious/hopeful enough to be talked about very much.

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