Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How a desire for holiness and a passion for truth can lead to sin

You're going to have to stick with me for a minute to get to the point of this post. The connections in thought are there, I promise.

This morning I was reading from the Sermon on the Mount. I was struck by how non-Kantian Jesus is in his ethical teaching. Jesus doesn't just command we do right because it is our duty. Jesus ethic isn't one devoid of self interest. Instead, Jesus holds up the threat of punishment and the possibility of reward as motivations to do good and avoid evil. The actual word 'reward' appears 9 times in Matthew 5-7, but even that number doesn't do justice to how prevalent the theme is in Jesus' ethical teaching.

As I was meditating on it, I realized that I often shy away from appealing to peoples desire for reward. I don't often hold it up to them as motivation to do good. Instead, I appeal to duty ('Jesus is your Lord and he commands it') and to the purpose for which we were created ('glorify God'). Why do I shy away from appealing to peoples self interest? Because I see it done so crassly by Health and Wealth people and improperly by some types of evangelists who preach reward without the call to obey and take up the cross. My reluctance is a reaction to something I deem to be sinful - a manipulation of the gospel. But my reaction is wrong, even sinful. If Jesus' ethic had a healthy does of reward based motivation, where do I get off rejecting it? My passion for the truth, and hatred of distortions of it, has led me to swing the pendulum too far the other way, and into a (different, yet still sinful) distortion of the truth.

And it ain't just me. I've been reading a lot about the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy in the last few weeks for class. I see the same thing going on there. The sin of unbelief and doubt was sweeping through Europe, especially Germany and it's universities. As that wave rolled towards the US, many great preachers and theologians worried about the future of Christianity. What did they do? They found ways to safeguard 'Christianity' by accommodating it to the spirit of the age. The deemphasized the historical nature of God's revelation and stressed instead in the ethics of Jesus (without the real divine person of Jesus playing an important role). Others unmoored Christianity from its creeds and confessions, emphasizing Christianity of the heart instead of the head - it wasn't about dogma, but about feeling they said. They became the liberals, but they did so in an attempt to save Christianity. They were reacting to the sin of disbelief and tried to make Christianity more credible to a modern world. Yet their reaction was also sinful - a failure to 'contend for the faith once for all handed down to the saints'.


Others reacted differently. The fundamentalists did indeed contend for the faith - they stood against the tide of disbelief and accommodation with heroic courage. Yet, in many, the response to sin became sinful also - mean spirited, factious, etc. Many broke fellowship not just with the liberals, but with those who would dare associate with the liberals (second degree separation). Doctrines that had been held by the church for centuries took on new import and even became tests of faith. Inerrancy, which had long been taught and/or assumed by the church, became the most important doctrine. You can understand why - it is important. But can a genuine believer have a different understanding of inspiration and authority? Not if you were a fundamentalist. Other doctrines rose to the fore also - premillennialism, even dispensational premilliennialism became a test of orthodoxy. The fundamentalists became sinfully narrow, lacking humility and charity.

Beyond the 'big stage' kind of sins, I see the pattern daily. My kids sin. They argue, the get demanding or selfish, they complain and grumble. Yet, my reaction can easily become sinful - overly harsh, self interested, unloving, etc. The same can be said for my reactions to my wife. I can even see it in how I react to my own sin. I hate a sinful pattern in my life, so I react. I want holiness, so I work. But it's so easy to work out of the flesh or to become self righteous.

This whole train of thinking drives home again how sinful we all are. Even our good sucks. Noble desires turn into something twisted. Satan is crafty and can use so many things to lead us away from grace and God. How desperately we need the unmerited love of God and the righteousness of the cross.

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