Christianity: Not Just Another Code of Ethics

“[T]he world tells us that it will take our practical advice (of course, weighing it with other spiritual and moral therapies) as long as we stay away from the scandal of Christ and His atoning death for sinners.”  — Dr. Michael Horton, author, editor, podcaster

[5/31/2014, Prefatory notes: After publishing the original version of this post last week, I became increasingly unhappy with it. Not that it wasn’t good stuff, and if you liked it, I’m glad. I just felt that it was too, I don’t know, scattered. I wasn’t sure who my audience was and tried to cover too much material, mixing “code of ethics” with other stuff from Horton’s book. I/It was a bit unfocused. (I thought so, anyway.) So, I’ve decided to take another whack at it. Hope it hangs together better….]

definition of moralSometimes, it amazes me the lengths people will go to to diminish, “sanitize”, or otherwise make God’s Word more palatable. (Then, of course, I remember that we are all sinners who are naturally in rebellion against Him. So, I guess it isn’t all that amazing, after all.) Christians and non-Christians alike do this. Whether emphasizing a “better life now” or a “social gospel” or whatever, we try to make the Bible’s message less demanding — though, ironically, we sometimes make it more so — and less offensive. We want to take the “good” parts (e.g., be nice, do good, get rich (Whoops! How’d that get in there?)) and ignore the stuff that makes us uncomfortable (e.g., the “fearsome qualities” of God, the seriousness or existence of sin (as traditionally understood), the necessity of Christ’s work on the Cross, etc.)

Sometimes, Jesus is left out altogether and the Bible — particularly, the Ten Commandments and/or select passages from the New Testament — becomes simply a “moral guidebook”. It may not even happen on purpose but by our de facto attitude towards Scripture. This is part of a larger trend in America and, perhaps, elsewhere. It is a manifestation of what sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD).

In his book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton seeks to identify and counter exactly this sort of thing — i.e., heretical and heterodoxical teachings that permeate much of modern “American Christianity”. Horton thinks Smith’s diagnosis is right on point and sees this version of Christianity-as-MTD as a *huge* part of the problem. It betrays a common-but-false understanding or assumption that Christianity is really just another moral system — a code of ethics to be adapted & adopted like any other. Part of a smorgasbord of religious and ethical ideas. Obviously, this is a relativist and pluralistic notion, as if there is no objective truth, and we can just pick a guidebook (or not) and play the game of life however we want. As long as it doesn’t make us feel (too) bad.

“It is no wonder that the average person today assumes that all religions basically say the same thing and that singling one out as the only truth is arrogant. After all, who doesn’t believe in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? The moral law that we find in the Bible (especially the Ten Commandments) is quite similar to the codes of other religions and can be found in civilizations that predate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Some of its wisdom flows from that special covenantal relationship between God and Israel, but much of it (especially Proverbs) is simply a clear articulation of the way God wired everyone in creation.

If religion is basically ethics — getting people to do the right thing — then why get uptight over the different historical forms, doctrines, rituals, and practices that distinguish one version of morality from another? Let a thousand flowers bloom as long as people are being helped, right?

Reduce Christianity to good advice and it blends in perfectly with the culture of life coaching. It might seem relevant, but it is actually lost in the marketplace of moralistic therapies. When we pitch Christianity as the best method of personal improvement, complete with testimonies about how much better we are ever since we “surrendered all,” non-Christians can legitimately demand of us, “What right do you have to say that yours is the only source of happiness, meaning, exciting experiences, and moral betterment?” Jesus is clearly not the only effective way to a better life or to being a better me. One can lose weight, stop smoking, improve one’s marriage, and become a nicer person without Jesus.”

Oooohhh!! I know that must have given some of you pause. Is that true? How can a conservative evangelical say such a thing? But, really, I think if you give it some honest, careful thought, you will agree.

cover of Christless Christianity bookNow, here is the important point…

“What distinguishes Christianity at its heart is not its moral code but its story — a story of a Creator who, although rejected by those He created in His image, stooped to reconcile them to Himself through His Son. This is not a story about the individual’s heavenward progress but the recital of historical events of God’s incarnation, atonement, resurrection, ascension, and return and the exploration of their rich significance. At its heart, this story is a gospel: the Good News that God has reconciled us to Himself in Christ…. The real power and wisdom is not found in principles for our victorious living but in the announcement of God’s victory in Christ….

The central message of Christianity is not a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal and societal change; it is a gospel. From the Greek word for ‘good news’, typically used in the context of announcing a military victory, the gospel is the report of an appointed messenger who arrives from the battlefield….

It is not incidental, then, that this story of redemption is called Good News. If it were merely information or a program for self-improvement, it would be called something else, like good advice or a good idea or good enlightenment. But it’s Good News because it is an announcement of something that someone else has already achieved for us.”

To be sure, a lot more could be said about the Gospel message, what Jesus did and why, various theological definitions & distinctions, etc., and Horton does go into it some. But, that’s the difference in a nutshell.

To reduce Christianity to just another religion or just another self-help message or just another system of morality is evidence of playing fast-n-loose with special revelation — i.e., the biblical text. There is a whole lot more to the Bible — theologically, philosophically, historically, practically — than a mere “code of ethics”. We cannot afford to be duped and distracted by the notion that that’s all it boils down to, that the rest of the Bible is fairytales and other nice stories of questionable worth. No, I believe (and with good reason) that the Bible is much more than that!

Jesus has done the hard work, which we in our broken state could never do — namely, to provide The Way to be reconciled with the Father, the Holy and Just God, Sovereign Creator of all matter/energy/space/time. If/When we surrender our lives to Him, it is our job to follow the Great Commission and to serve Him, so that God’s eternal plan may be fulfilled, and Jesus may be glorified.


P.S.  This post is not meant to address the accusations of some that the Bible is “evil” and should not in any way be considered a “moral guidebook”. That is, quite obviously, a different discussion for a different time.


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