I was speaking to a woman today who was increasingly running into Christians who see no real differences between the decent Mormon neighbors around them and their own Christian confession. Sadly, this is an increasing trend as Churches fail to instill a number of important truths into the lives of their people, paramount among them being the nature of the Gospel. What is also lacking, however, is a clear understanding of the image of God that remains in man (though corrupted by the Fall).
As the Gospel has been increasingly displaced in many Churches, what has replaced it is no Gospel at all where many are looking to their inner experience and the morality of their lives as the yardstick for truth. People increasingly identify themselves as “spritual not religious” to the point that many demographic surveys list spirituality as an option in lieu of an identified religion. The truth content of any religious claim is supplanted by the idea that one has an “inner” understanding of spiritual truths that guide their lives and they are suspicious of any external authority that would attempt to draw clear dividing lines as to what is true and what is false concerning God. It is not only true that “every man does what is right in his own eyes” but “every man believes according to what is right in his own eyes.”
What unites many, then, is the common bond of an inner experience. If I have a deeply held belief and it helps me to be a moral, upright person then that works for me. What works for you is true. God is stripped of any objective content in this view so it is not surprising to hear evangelical pundits who like a politician’s moral stances to be unconcerned about areas they simply describe as “small matters of disagreement.” The point is not to enter into the arena of political dialog in this observation but to simply give description to it.
Consequently, if I attend a Southern Baptist Church and am guided more by the idea of an inner experience and my views of God are not shaped by anything objective outside of me then I have a lot in common with a Mormon who claims a profound inner experience. The doctrinal differences take not only a back seat to any consideration of concern for the salvation of my Mormon neighbor but it is not in the equation at all. I’m a decent person, he’s a decent person, I have inner experience, he has inner experience – our truth claims for God need not be compatible because the most important compatibilities (experience and morals) line up.
On the opposite spectrum are those Christians who treat the Christian faith as if the Christian alone has access to a “virtuous” life of self-sacrifice, integrity, family values, and the like. In fact, this form of the “gospel” sees the Gospel primarily as an agent that makes me a better and more moral person so the person who lacks the Gospel has no real hope of being decent in any way. Of course the problem is that it is hard to hold this idea in experience because a person from such a Church will end up meeting a decent Mormon or Muslim and it will shake the foundations because their foundations were built on the idea that moralism is the Gospel.
The Scriptures testify, however, to the reality that we were created originally in Adam to be obedient to the Law. In Adam, we have a default setting to be saved by our own righteousness but the Fall has made that impossible. Nevertheless, as Romans 2 testifies, the law is written on our hearts and all men, regardless of race or religion are naturally inclined to keep the Law in their consciences.
What this law tells us in our consciences is good. Mothers sacrifice for their children. Officers die for their Marines. Men live lives of integrity and value apart from any particular creed. Certainly Romans also testifies that we suppress the knowledge of God and so our attempts to save ourselves are ultimately idolatrous but it does not change the idea that the image of God and the increated bent to law creates much civic virtue. We do not In other words, understanding that men are created in the image of God removes a false tension that I have to pretend as if the good I receive from my neighbor is not virtuous to any extent unless he is a Christian.
This must be distinguished, however, from what the work of Christ was about. He came to uphold the Law, yes, and the Law is holy and good. But the reason Christ came into the world was that men were condemned in their sins and trespasses and they needed Christ to not only bear the penalty that their sins deserved but also to live the life of perfect righteousness that the Law demands. The law is an “inner light”. Our hearts may testify to the law as we try to be moral but the Fall creates an ethical hostility to recognize that we are unable to keep the Law’s demands. Christ comes, outside of us, dies on a Cross and rises again and proclaims that we are to look outside of ourselves and cast all our hope upon Him and away from ourselves. The true Gospel of Grace destroys not only the notion that my heart is good and to rely on my experience but it also destroys the idea that I’m any better than my neighbor because I’m a Christian. Indeed, the Gospel is powerful enough to save me, a Christian, for all my shortcomings.
In the final analysis, we all need to see with new eyes. We understand that the image of God that remains in every man is glorious and so it gives every man, woman, and child dignity and it imbues in every man varying degrees of civic virtue that we should rightly be thankful for and give glory to God for. We also understand, however, that the same law that gives all men a sense of the right cannot save them for they are fallen in Adam. We are all in desperate need of a Savior who is both the Just and Justifier of all who look away from themselves in despair of their sin and look out to that perfect Savior, Jesus Christ.