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Christianity is not morality

It came as a big surprise. It shocked all who heard it. Jesus is approached by a rich young man who asks him how he can inherit eternal life. So Jesus points him to the Law, the Ten Commandments. So far so good. So the young man, feeling on confident territory, says that he has kept them since he was a boy. Then comes the shock, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Luke 18:22). The man, we are told, walks away sadly. He shows that even though he was as moral as it was thought possible, his treasure was his wealth. He did not love God with all his heart, mind, body and soul. He loved money so much that he could not do what Jesus asked. And if he put something on a par with or above God in his affections then he was breaking the very first of the Ten Commandments. This shocked those who were nearby. Jesus had shown how hard it was for such a person to enter the kingdom of Heaven. And in case you think, "Well that's not me, I'm not rich, and in any case money is not my concern," Jesus tackles other forms of morality as well. He tells a parable directly to those who "were confident of their own righteousness..." (Luke 18:9) A morally upright man walks into the temple, and he is followed by a thoroughly immoral one. The moral man thanks God that he is not like the other guy, and not like "robbers, evildoers, adulterers..." (Luke 18:11). The immoral man, on the other hand, "would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.'" (Luke 18:13). And it is this man that Jesus says goes home having been made right with God and not the other one.

Sceptics and genuine seekers often think that Christianity is about being a moral and upright person and also think that Christians think of themselves as being morally superior to the rest. Sadly that can sometimes be the impression Christians themselves give. But when we understand ourselves rightly we will agree with the apostle Paul who said, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst." Don't miss the force of that last bit. Christians understand that they are not good enough for God and when we compare ourselves to his good standard, we are not good at all. What puts us right with God is not our moral uprightness but trusting in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

In fact what our country needs is not morality but the gospel. Morality is deadly. It leads people to be deceived as to their standing before God. If the church teaches morality it implies, whether it means to or not, that the way to get right with God is through our own good works. And that is the precise opposite of the gospel. The gospel tells us that there is no one who does good (Romans 3:12) and so no one can get to God by moral goodness. Morality is man trying to gain a righteousness of his or her own. And we cannot do it. All of us know, if we are honest, that we cannot love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Not if we understand that our neighbour is anybody we may meet and that we are supposed to love them perfectly and all of the time. And if we cannot do that then we cannot truly live a morally upright life, not the one that really matters, the one that God says is the truly good life. We have to lower the bar on goodness so that we can squeak in.

The right standing that we need to have before God cannot be earned by us. It comes as a gift from God because we have believed in his Son, Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:21-26; John 3:16, 18). Jesus himself says it, when asked what work God requires of us he repled, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:28-29).

Morality is lethal precisely because it leads us to trusting in what we do or don't do, to us thinking we live a mostly good life. The gospel exposes that poiint of view and says we cannot do that, we cannot ever be good enough. But Jesus has done it all for us. Trust him and we will live. That is not to say that Christians can then do what they want. A life lived in the light of the gospel will be a transformed life. But it is to say that nothing that he or she does merits God's saving work in them.

And it is telling that Christianity has had the biggest impact in the reformation of morality when the true and simple gospel has been its message and not one of moral uprightness. This is an historically verifiable fact. In Wales in 1904 the revival of the gospel lead to miners no longer swearing and this had the unfortunate side effect of the pit ponies not being able to understand the commands they gave. Drunkness was drastically reduced, as it was during the days of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Neither of them preached morality. They preached that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone. And we need to make sure that this gospel is the gospel that is taught in our pulpits. Anything else is fatal to true spirituality. If you are not convinced read Paul's letter to the Galatians.

Jesus said that he had come to save sinners, not those who thought they were righteous enough not to need saving.

 

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