I say primarily quite intentionally. Christianity, of course, involves morality. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules creation according to his moral law. God calls his children to obedience. However, it is one thing to acknowledge Christianity’s moral dimension and a Christian’s call to obedience, and quite another to say that our moral performance is the center and crux of the Christian faith.
Is Christianity primarily about our moral transformation and performance? If you were to ask many people today, both inside and outside the church, they would respond with a hearty, “Yes!”
Think about the way that Christians often speak of their “testimonies” – i.e. how they share their faith. It often begins with how they were once quite sinful and how they turned to Jesus, sought forgiveness, and are now living a better kind of life. To what are they testifying? Sure, they mention Jesus, but what gets top billing is their moral performance. They’re testifying to themselves and what they’ve done or are doing for God in their works, not what he’s done and is now doing for them by grace. They’ve believed the right things and done the right things, at least better than they did before, and – voila! – they got right with God!
This subtle shift in emphasis is hardly noticeable, but it’s seismic nonetheless. It changes everything. It turns the most radical and redemptive message in the history of the world into one of the most powerless and pathetic. It shifts the focus of Christianity from Christ to the Christian, from the gracious performance of God for sinners to the feeble performances of sinners for God.
This has some big consequences. For one, it makes the source of confidence and security before God our own performance and progress. This leads to a life lived between two poles. On the one, when we think we’re doing a good job (going to church, being generous, practicing self-control, etc.), we’re given to a measure of pride and, frankly, some delusion. We start to think that we’re better than we actually are, and that we merit some status and security before God. Since others don’t quite measure up to our performance, we tend to think of ourselves as morally superior to many, maybe even most, of those around us.
On the other, when we think we’re doing poorly, we can quickly become depressed. We think we ought to be better than we are, and we conclude that we must not be very good Christians – whatever that means – or maybe even Christians at all. We also might wonder if God still accepts us or if his affections for us waver.
In view of our failures, we face several options:
1.) Performance – we can double-down and perform better (doing more, trying harder for the future).
2.) Penance – we can do some form of penance, trying to atone for the past.
3.) Pretend – we can pretend that we’re better than we are, faking it until we make it.
4.) Pass out – we can grow tired and weary of trying, and just give up.
To whatever degree we believe Christianity is more about the performance of sinners for God than God’s gracious performance for sinners, we will move about Options 1-3 until we finally realize that none of these produce peace. We’ll then ultimately go to #4.
As a pastor, I’ve seen way too many people pass out. They tried. They worked hard. They studied. They served. But it never seemed like enough or they never did it good enough. So, finally, in a fit of honesty and integrity, they threw their hands up in the air and quit. Their performances weren’t good enough, and they knew it.
It’s no wonder that more and more people today don’t see much of a difference between Christianity and other religions. If Christianity is just one more “pay your way” religious scheme, then what could possibly and meaningfully differentiate it from so many other works and merit-based religious systems?
However, what if the center and crux of the Christian faith isn’t our feeble performances for God? What if Christianity isn’t primarily about our moral transformation, our beliefs and behaviors? What if following Jesus involved growing in certain beliefs and behaviors, but these were the results of his gracious work for us – not means to his love and acceptance? In other words, what if it Christianity is not primarily about our moral transformation, but his gracious substitution? What if Christianity is about God being for us what we could never be for ourselves?
It is. And that changes everything.