Humans have a fascinating propensity to swing the pendulum. Like an instinctive throwback to our childhood days on the school playground, we almost find joy in stomach butterflies created by the repetitive back and forth. When we see an area of abuse, misuse, brokenness, or failure, we assume the opposite is the answer. We prescribe to offset the abuse with equal balance, rather than seeking to return it to wholeness and original design.
Not even the Gospel of Jesus Christ is immune to this phenomenon.
I see two main ways we completely miss the message of the Gospel – two swings of the pendulum, two opposite extremes, two ways of taking a portion of the message and turning it into the whole message – and I believe both are hijacking humanity’s understanding of true Christianity.
The first we’ll call Moralism. Or Legalism. Pharisaism (if you like big theological words). This side of the pendulum is typically associated with religious people, and understandably so. But moralism isn’t a religious problem, it’s a human problem.
Moralism screams, “There is a standard and I will meet it! In many ways, moralism the default setting of the human heart. We instinctively celebrate the meritocracy of those who “get it right” and malign those who so obviously and pitifully fall short of the standard. The only problem for moralists is that Scripture clearly says we all miss the standard.
Here are a few ways the moralism side of the pendulum swings away from the true Gospel:
- Moralism creates horizontal comparison and always leads to pride or despair. In Luke 18, the Pharisee arrogantly prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Last week on our way to dinner, my wife told me I was driving way too fast. My instinctive reaction was to remind her which of the two of us has more speeding tickets! My comparison was no longer with the posted speed limit, but with my wife’s driving record. This is what moralism does. We no longer compare ourselves to the Father’s standard but with other fallen people. When that comparison is favorable, we feel a sense of self-righteous pride. When it’s unfavorable, we fall into shame and condemnation. This isn’t the message of the Gospel.
- Moralism dumbs down God’s standard of righteousness to an attainable level. Moralists misdefine sin. They look at outward words and behaviors when Jesus so clearly looked at the heart. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t good advice from Jesus on how to live a nice, moral life. It was intentionally crushing demands from God incarnate intended to leave us pleading “who then can be saved?” Jesus didn’t lower the standard, he upped the ante! The Gospel does not offer us a dumbed down standard of righteousness.
- Moralism makes ME the savior. If righteousness is a standard I can meet, then when I achieve that standard I am my own savior. As a recovering moralist, the Gospel did not really come alive to me until I had lived long enough to realize how huge God’s standard of righteousness actually is and how far short of it I actually fall. The Gospel leaves no room for self-salvation.
But the answer to religious moralism isn’t the removal of morals. The opposite arc of this pendulum is equally off-base. We’ll call it Progressivism. Or Human Enlightenment. Or antinomianism (if you once again like big theological words). If moralism says I will meet the standard, progressivism says I will REMOVE the standard. This swing is typically associated with “secular” people, but unfortunately it finding it’s way into the Church, too.
Here are a few ways the progressive side of the pendulum swings away from the true Gospel:
- Progressivism seeks first to remove the standard. Romans 1:21 tells us plainly, “Yes they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship as God or even give Him thanks.” Individuality is one of the dominant gods of our day. When I was a kid, my parents wanted us to stop watching TV and do something together. Now I find myself begging the family to put down their own individual entertainment devices so we can watch a TV show together! Everything is personalized, even our definition of righteousness. And like the serpent in the Garden, our personal preferences whisper deceptively in our ears, “did God really say?” The Gospel leaves no room for self-defined righteousness.
- Progressivism always results in the creation of a new standard. “And they began to think up new ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.” (Rom 1:21). The problem with removing God from the equation is that human beings will always worship something. As our individualized worship begins to bump up against one another, a new set of cultural standards develops with new human arbiters. Our God-stamped identities long for the truth, joy, and beauty of His Kingdom, and so we try to create it (without the King). The Gospel leaves no room for other Kings.
- Progressivism makes ME the savior. If I can make the standard or just remove it altogether, I become my own savior. Or perhaps I just eliminate my need for a savior altogether. The Gospel leaves no room for self-salvation.
Sound familiar? It should. Moralism and Progressivism are just two sides of the same self-righteous coin. Moralism redefines the standard in a way I am able to meet, progressivism just removes the standard altogether. Both put me at the helm, me at the center, me on the throne. Neither swing of this pendulum is the Gospel. In fact, they’re the anti-gospel.
There are three aspects to what I’ll call a “Wholistic” Gospel:
- The Law Crushes. The purpose of God’s Law is not just to give us great advice to live by, it’s to completely destroy any and all confidence in our flesh. If we don’t first grasp the immeasurable weight of God’s Law, then there’s no need for Grace.
- Grace Resurrects. As Brennan Manning so eloquently put it, “all is grace!” We are incapable of living the lives God designed us to live without the merciful gift of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not about making bad people good, but dead people live!
- The Spirit Empowers. This is one element often left out of the conversation. Romans 6 tells us that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead now dwells in us! (Chew on that for a minute). We are now empowered to live lives pleasing to God because His very Spirit dwells in our grace-resurrected bodies. It’s not our ability to meet God’s standard, but His power in us!
This is the good news. The WHOLE Gospel. Jesus Christ has done for us what we could never do for ourselves! Get off the swinging pendulum and find real life in the center of this beautiful Gospel message.