Moralistic therapeutic deism

What on earth is ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’?

This is a term used by Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of Almost Christian, a book based upon research into the faith of 3,300 American teenagers. According to a recent article on the CNN website it means:

… a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

The article is very good and I recommend reading it, whether you are a parent or a teenager or are simply interested in the state of faith in our society. While this is obviously about American teenagers and the failings of the church in that nation, I think it applies fairly well to New Zealand also.

I particularly like the recommendation of what parents should do to avoid teaching our kids a false gospel:

What can a parent do then?

Get “radical,” Dean says.

She says parents who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.

A parent’s radical act of faith could involve something as simple as spending a summer in Bolivia working on an agricultural renewal project or turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church, Dean says.

But it’s not enough to be radical — parents must explain “this is how Christians live,” she says.

“If you don’t say you’re doing it because of your faith, kids are going to say my parents are really nice people,” Dean says. “It doesn’t register that faith is supposed to make you live differently unless parents help their kids connect the dots.”

This is a challenge to me to consider my own faith in Christ and how I live it in the real world – is the call of Christ real enough to me to result in actions which make my kids ask, “why do you choose to live like this Dad?”

What makes me do what I do not want to do?

Looking at Romans 7:7–25, known by some as the ‘Dr. Seuss passage’.

There is a lot of debate about this passage, regarding the state of the person struggling with sin in verses 14 to 25 – is this a Jew under the law? Any non-Christian? A so-called ‘carnal Christian’ or a true Christian? At the risk of offending someone, my personal view is that these arguments generally miss the point. Paul does not have a flattened view of human nature, it seems that he sees our nature as a complex thing with many interacting influences and nuances which all combine to affect how we think and act. I find it helpful to think of an opal, which has many different colours and planes within it all reflecting light differently to combine and give it beauty.

I am not going to dig into the argument of that issue here, my personal view is that throughout this passage Paul is describing his own experience as a Christian. A significant factor contributing to my view on this is that I know I am born again, but I also know that this passage accurately describes my own struggles, not just in the past but ongoing in my Christian life.

With that clarification of my stance on interpreting this passage, I will now look at what it is telling us. To see this we need a quick recap of his argument so far: in Romans 2:13 Paul states that it is not hearers of the law who will be justified, but those who do the law. He shows that outward cultural conformity alone does not make someone a Jew but rather obedience to the law from the heart, by the Spirit.

So is there any advantage in being Jewish then, if even they do not gain life through the law?

Yes, they inherited the Scriptures. Yet their righteousness does not come from that, righteousness before God comes only by faith.

Does faith in Christ then overthrow the law?

No, faith upholds the law. Faith gives us access to the grace of God, this grace gives us the free gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ. This righteousness in Christ covers all sin.

So does this mean we can sin anyway since grace will cover our sin?

No! We are baptized into Christ’s death and so have died to sin. We should avoid presenting ourselves as slaves to sin, rather we need to present ourselves to God as slaves to righteousness. The wages of sin is death.

Does this mean that the law is sin since it brings death?

No, the law serves to show sin for what it is. Sin lies dormant until we attempt to obey God, then it becomes active and causes us to disobey God’s commands. It is sin that brings death. The law is holy, righteous and good.

So did what is good (the law) bring death?

No, sin brings death, its deceitful working through God’s good commandments shows how evil sin is that it can still bring death even using what is good as its device. Sin uses the weakness in us all to make us do what we don’t want to do. The fact that we hate the sin we commit shows that we agree with God’s judgment of sin as being evil.

Therefore, this section from Romans 7:7–25 is intended to show us that the law is not at fault for our sin, the problem lies within us as sin, we have a sinful nature ready to oppose every commandment of God’s. This is quite noticeable if you look for these two ideas in each verse from 13-25.

  • [13] Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
    • The law is what is good.
    • It is sin that produces death.
  • [14] For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
    • The law is spiritual.
    • I am sold under sin.
  • [15] For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
    • I do not do what I want (obey the law).
    • I do the thing I hate (sin).
  • [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.
    • I agree with the law, that it is good.
    • I do what I do not want when I sin.
  • [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
    • Sin dwelling in me is what makes me sin.
  • [18] For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
    • I desire to do what is right (obey the law).
    • Nothing good dwells in my flesh (only sin, which opposes what is good).
  • [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
    • The good I want to do is to obey the law.
    • The evil I do not want is the sin I commit.
  • [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
    • I do what I do not want (I want to obey the law).
    • It is no longer my overall will but sin which causes me to sin.
  • [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
    • I want to do right (obey the law).
    • But evil (sin) lies close at hand.
  • [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
    • My delight is in the law, not in sin.
  • [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
    • The law of my mind is the law of God.
    • The law of sin holds me captive to it’s will.
  • [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
    • Death is due to sin.
  • [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
    • The law is what I want to serve because it is good.
    • My body sins because I am serving the law of sin.

The main point is obvious, the law is good. The evil I do comes from within me and I have no power in myself to stop sinning.

An important message coming out of this passage is that you are not the sum of your sins. Christ has paid for the offence of your sin against God and in verse 17 we see that as we sin it is a part of us that sins while another part of us hates the very thing we are doing. I can hate my sinful nature and wish it dead without being suicidal — God also hates my sinful nature and has in fact already crucified it in Christ. But even though my body is deceived by sin and dead as a consequence, the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells in me and will give life to my body also (Romans 8:10–11).

We live in the ‘already, not yet’ between Christ’s first and second comings. We are fully redeemed and cleansed in Christ but we are still awaiting the redemption of our bodies. These bodies we inhabit still bear the curse upon Adam — our bodies will die, they get sick, we are weak, we have desires that are opposed to the law of God.

This warfare between obedience to God and sin has been characteristic of being human right from the very start. In Genesis 3 the serpent deceives Eve and Adam. In Genesis 4:7 God warns Cain that sin is crouching at the door, it desires to master him but Cain must rule over it. The book of Job is about this struggle — Job continues to believe that God is good despite the calamity he suffers. God gives Satan permission to torment Job and in a similar way Jesus permits Satan to sift Peter — weakness wins temporarily and Peter denies Jesus. In Galatians 5:16-18 Paul warns Christians of this ongoing struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. Peter mentions the war in 1 Peter 2:11, James mentions it several times (James 1:13–15 and James 4:1–8) and John speaks of it in 1 John 2:15–16).

Regardless of what theological boffins might argue, we know that the struggle to live obediently to Christ is an inescapable reality of being Christian. The unrelenting nature of this battle can lead us at times to consider giving up, but we have been promised help. God does send His Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness, sin cannot totally master us if we are in Christ and we are forgiven for our sins.

Remember that you are not defined by your sin, neither are you defined by your human or physical weakness. You are defined by your status in Christ. If you are in Christ you are an eternal being of total purity and righteousness — the purity and righteousness of God. If you are in Christ you will know because your desire will be to please God. Even as you sin your heart will long to be obedient to Christ rather than being weak and sinful.

Take heart from Paul’s words in Philippians 3:12–14:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Even though you are weak, don’t wallow in weakness and sin — lift your eyes and heart to Christ. Then press on to be found in Him.

Spring-cleaning my soul

We are having a bit of an early spring-clean in our house — reconfiguring our storage spaces, sorting through our stuff and getting rid of whatever is not worth keeping. We are tired of tripping over clutter. There is also a certain pleasure in simply tidying up all those things which we use a lot and are necessary and valuable parts of our lives. And occasionally we realize we are running low on some essential because all the containers in the cupboard are nearly empty (tea seems to suffer this crisis most commonly in our house!).

My soul is in a similar need of a declutter, but the junk in there is a lot harder to clean up. It’s easy to go through life tossing stuff into the wardrobe of my heart and quickly slamming the door shut before too much tumbles back out. Accumulating piles of experiences, ideas and assumptions which I have good intentions of sorting through but never get around to doing. Then there is the stuff I don’t like, am afraid to open up, or hate to be reminded of, that is buried in there somewhere too. All this accumulates into a teetering stack which occasionally topples over, prompting me to kick and shove it into a corner, hurriedly restacking the pile so it doesn’t keep tripping me up each day.

Perhaps the wardrobe in my heart isn’t as big as some folks have, or maybe I put way too much in there. Whatever the reason, I’m finding that the door doesn’t close properly anymore and the hinges are broken so stuff kind of spills out. Unfortunately, I don’t have much control over what falls out, but I can control a lot of what goes in. I can actively choose what to read, view or listen to, even who I hang out with. I also get a lot of choice regarding not viewing, reading or listening to ugly, toxic stuff. Discernment and wisdom from others is also helpful in identifying some seemingly benign things which can fester and mutate into toxic, ugly stuff in my heart.

What about experiences over which I have no control or choice? This is where sorting through and processing the piles and stacks of stuff is really important. Every single experience, idea or assumption needs to be picked up, seen for what it is, and filed appropriately — much of the filing should be straight to the trash heap, not a ‘too hard’ pile in my heart!

Jesus talked a lot about the stuff in our hearts:

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (Matthew 12:34-35 ESV)

Whatever is stored up in my heart will be expressed out of my mouth, by my actions and in the overall course of my life. In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus explains what sort of things come out of our hearts and pollute us (and others). There are actually several issues causing this pollution — we are all by nature sinful (see Romans 7:18) and need to be made new in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Without such renewal through Jesus Christ, the outpouring of our hearts will always be corrupt.

Yet, even as a born-again Christian I don’t instantly become pure, I need to be progressively transformed by the renewing of my mind, which occurs as I refuse to unthinkingly embrace the ideas of the world around me and have a realistic perception of myself (see Romans 12:2-3). What has the power to transform my mind and give me a truthful understanding of myself?

It may sound simplistic, but the measuring stick I use is the Bible. Jesus prayed for His Father to purify us through His word, that’s enough recommendation for me (John 17:17). As I read the Bible, the Holy Spirit uses the disparity between what I’m reading and who I currently am to show me where growth or change is needed. In the Bible I also learn the truth about God and about human nature, which helps me to face and understand the lies in my own soul that can fester and corrupt all my interactions with others.

Time out

You may have noticed that my blog posts have been somewhat infrequent over the last week or two. I have a lot happening in my life currently which has consumed my time, focus and energy, meaning no resources are left for writing blog posts. This has been bothering me, I feel that I made a commitment (to myself, at least) to post every 2 — 3 days and am failing to meet that commitment.

However, I read an interesting post this morning from Tim Challies about the tendency towards communication idolatry. The whole article is worth reading and pondering, but particularly relevant to me is the final paragraph about the quality of our communication. This encouraged me to be honest with myself and see that I am showing signs of making my blog an idol by expecting myself to communicate regularly despite having nothing worthwhile to say right at the moment.

Therefore, I hope you will continue to read posts when they do appear, while not expecting much output from me over the next two weeks.

By the way, thanks for reading my rambling thoughts!

By grace alone

A review of By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me, by Sinclair Ferguson (published by Reformation Trust, ISBN 978-1-56769-202-0). This book review has taken me a long time to get written, largely because the book is so good that I have actually read it twice and been greatly helped by doing so.

As the title suggests, this is a book about the grace of God, based upon a hymn of the same name by an African pastor, Emmanuel T. Sibomana. It is clear that the grace of God is very precious to Sinclair Ferguson, but as he points out, “we frequently take the grace of God for granted,” we have become so accustomed to expecting God to be gracious towards us that we lose the very meaning of grace.

Chapter One begins with discussing the bondage we are in that requires grace to free us. Using Jesus’ unflinching statements to the Jews that they are in bondage, we are then also shown that Jesus offers freedom from that bondage. With clear, yet deep explanation of the theology of redemption this chapter lays out the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. I know all this stuff, but found reading this chapter refreshing and inspiring. Even as I read it my heart lifted in worship to our God of grace.

In the following chapters the unconditional grace of God is illustrated by unfolding the parable of the prodigal son, emphasizing the importance of the third son, the Son of God who is telling the story in order to draw us to Himself. The expense that His grace cost God is discussed, and the title ‘Son of Man’ that Jesus applies to Himself. We are given insight into the religious and civil trials of Jesus, the variation in charges He is accused of in each trial – blasphemy and treason – the very things we are each guilty of before God, and see that he died by grace for those very charges.

Then comes the question, “Why the God-man?” introducing the topic of reconciliation, the need for someone who could take the place of sinners as payment for sin, someone who is human but has never sinned. Real guilt, real forgiveness, real reconciliation.

My favourite chapter is about guaranteed security. I love the emphasis in this chapter on the practical outworking of faith, the use of our knowledge and faith rather than the mere possession of it. This description of the fight for faith is one of the best I have encountered, very real and because of this very encouraging, like Prozac to a perplexed soul.

“We are not accounted righteous in God’s sight either by regeneration or by sanctification. The fact that we have been born again does not justify us. It gives us a new heart, but in itself it does not provide the forgiveness of sins. No, the gospel that saves us is entirely outside us. It is Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified for our sins, raised for our justification, who saves us.”

Our security has nothing to do with us our what we do, it rests on the work of Christ:

“Your salvation rests not on what you have done but on what Christ has done. You, therefore, can be sure of it, no matter how weak the faith by which you hold on to Christ, no matter how strong the attacks and accusations of Satan may be. “

Then the theme turns to how the grace of God carries us when our faith is being battered by our adversary, looking at Job’s experiences of Satan’s arts. Job is in darkness, but not complete darkness. He needs answers to two questions: “What is God really like?” and “Where can I find help?” This is the part of book that I personally found to be most helpful.

“The question of God’s nature is foundational for the Christian life. In a sense, every failure in the Christian life can be traced back to a wrong answer to this question. How we live the Christian life is always an expression of how we think about God.”

“All of us at times find ourselves faced with these two great questions.
They are far from trivial. They are the most important questions in the world:
“What is God really like?” and “Where can I find help?” The answer to both questions is found in a single word: Jesus. If you are in the dark, whether inside the kingdom of Christ or outside the kingdom of Christ, this is where you need to go first: to Jesus the Savior, who died for us on the cross. Trust in Him. He foils Satan’s arts.”

Sinclair Ferguson shows how a slightly warped understanding of what God is really like can seriously twist our view on life, leading to despair and unbelief. Suffering amplifies such feelings and Satan exploits them in an attempt to destroy faith in Christians. How can we be helped out of such darkened understanding about God, who can lead us into truth?

“You cannot rely on your experiences to prove the love of God. They may indeed give you evidences of it. But when you are in the dark, those very things may seem to mock you.”

In summary, I would highly recommend By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me to all Christians, and even to folks who are not Christians but are curious about the meaning of grace. This book takes a good look at the core of what it means to be Christian, stuff that we never outgrow.

Sometimes we imagine that our greatest need is to move on to the “higher” or “deeper” teaching of the gospel. But in fact, our real need is to get a deeper and firmer grasp of the main truths of the gospel. Weakness here tends to lead to weakness everywhere.

Material Connection:

I received this book free from Reformation Trust Publishers as part of their book review program. This review is my own opinion, no arm-twisting was involved.