The Gospel - Part 4: "God's Third Way"

Man is incurably religious. The problem is that because of sin we are hopeless to find our way into the truth apart from the intervening grace of God (Romans 8:7-8). The Gospel, the message that Jesus died on a cross in the place of sinners, is not something that will appeal to man unless God opens his mind and heart to the truth. The good news is that once a sinner comes to realize his hopeless plight the Gospel becomes sweet truth indeed. But until man realizes his sinful state he will always distort the truth of the Gospel. There are primarily two ways that religious man distorts Gospel truth: relativism and moralism.

There are religious relativists and irreligious relativists. The religious relativist is a Baptist, Taoist, or Hindu not because of a belief in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” but because of strictly pragmatic reasons. They are a Christian (or other) not because Christianity represents the truth of God and must therefore be yielded to but because it “works” for them. Irreligious relativists defend their agnosticism on much the same grounds. But being good relativists they will give an approving nod to a Christian or a witch for finding the thing that works for them.

The relativist denies the Gospel because he sees no need for a substitutionary atonement because God is not a righteous Judge who demands that sin be punished. God is a kind loving grandfather figure who, in the end, will let every sinner off the hook because He is so nice. Likewise our sins are not indicators of a heart that is hopelessly inclined away from God but simply human frailties that God does not hold against us. Relativism does not see sin as an offense against a holy God but, rather, common weaknesses that can be overcome with enough effort and positive thinking.

Moralism should not be confused with morality. Moralism is what happens when we look to moral behavior as a means to gain favor from God. It is morality for my sake; morality for the sake of putting God in my debt. By insisting on good behavior as a condition for our acceptability to God moralism denies Scripture’s promise that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). But the religion of man has a strong hold on our hearts. We insist on believing that we must add something to Christ’s atoning work on the cross if we are to be acceptable to God. At the same time it operates on the assumption that we are capable to doing something that will make us acceptable to God. In the Christian context, moralism is always “Christ plus.”

Moralism seeks to compel obedience through external pressures. Its message is, “I must obey in order to be accepted.” Gospel-driven obedience on the other hand is radically different. The Gospel teaches us to say, “I am accepted by God through Christ, therefore I gratefully obey.” If we obey God’s law without believing that in Christ we are accepted by God then our obeying is really a striving after something other than Jesus for life. The ultimate end of this striving is always the same: idolatry. We come to worship whatever feeling or lifestyle we believe our obedience can earn us rather than worshiping God alone.

Moralism is deceiving because it can be a very religious way to live. However, as the Gospel always directs us to be supremely concerned with God’s glory moralism is inherently self-focused. It offers a twisted kind of virture that is conditioned on bargaining with God. “I will do such-and-such and surely God will give me the life I want in return.” Obedience becomes a way toward self-salvation by controlling God. This is man’s religion.

The Gospel drives our obedience for very different reasons. Obedience generated by Gospel truth is not a frantic search for favor from God. In light of the Gospel we obey God from a place of rest knowing that God fully loves and accepts us in Christ. The Gospel tells us that there is nothing we still must get from God. We are heirs with Christ so that all that is His is ours and this all because of grace. Therefore we obey out of sheer gratitude for the kindness of God. Jonathan Edwards helps us understand how this works in relation to honesty. Why should we be honest? Certainly we should be honest because God commands it. But even a lost person can be honest for the sake of outward conformity. Edwards however defines true virtue in honesty as being honest not because it profits you or makes you feel better but because you are struck with the beauty of God who is the essence of truth and sincerity and faithfulness. Only the Gospel can do that to the otherwise idolatrous and self-serving human heart.

The relativist sees no need for justification because God is not a Judge. The moralist sees justification as something that can be achieved through enough effort. He is the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) who is convinced that his good behavior has earned him good standing with his father. Relativism does not understand truth. Moralism does not understand grace. As a result the relativist cannot then truly understand the grace he says he loves because he has not rightly understood truth. In the same way, the moralist cannot properly understand the truth he claims to champion because he has failed to properly understand grace.

The Gospel, on the other hand, is entirely different from both of these systems of thought and religion. The Gospel is not a way in between relativism and moralism making use of “the best of both worlds.” The Gospel is a distinct third way. It tells of God’s acceptance of sinners through Jesus Christ so striving for acceptance can now finally cease. It also offers a way of obedience that is free of any bargaining with God. Obedience becomes an offering given freely out of a heart that is endlessly amazed by grace.