What does it mean to live a Christ-centered life, and how does that compare to simply being a “nominal” Christian?
What does it mean to live a Christ-centered life, and how does that compare to simply being a “nominal” Christian?
The fastest shrinking category in American religion is still the largest catagory—people who self-identify as Christian, but whose religion is not a central part of their lives. We call these people nominal Christians.
Where I live in Tennessee, nominal Christianity is overwhelming and easy to notice. In the places I’ve lived, like Buffalo or Erie, it’s much less so, but still a large category.
However, this largest category is also the fastest shrinking.
To be blunt: nominalism is dying.
While this may not be good for a culture increasing in secularization, in some ways, it is a good thing for the church. Churches will have more of an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the host culture. Lives empowered by Christ should look different and now they increasingly will.
In spite of the decline of nominalism, there are pockets throughout North American that still have a heavy presence of nominalism. The Bible Belt, pardon the bad metaphor, supports some of these pockets.
Here are some dangers, difficulties, and directives of living in a nominal religious context.
Many American Southerners still possess a religious terminology that expresses they were saved at the age of 8, baptized at the age of 10, and are on the membership roll at the Crooked Creek Pentecostal Church or the Sugar Creek Methodist Church. Many of these individuals based their salvation on being moral, decent, and upstanding citizens, who love their families, their country, and even their God.
Living in such a nominal religious context presents some dangers, difficulties, and directives for believers who are passionately committed to king Jesus.
Dangers of Living in a Nominal Religious Context
The dangers of living in a nominal religious context aren’t the same as living in a zealous violent religious context like regions in the Middle East. Living in those areas can cost one their life. Living in a nominal religious context may not put one’s life in danger, but if not careful it can endanger a believer in other ways that are just as costly—just on a different scale.
There’s the danger of embracing a comfortable Christianity.
One thing about nominal “Christians” is that their faith doesn’t cost them anything. Their faith or belief is like a trinket or badge they wear. It doesn’t prompt them to give up guilty pleasures, to give generously of their time, talents, or treasures to the Lord or His church, or to vulnerably share their faith with someone else.
If not careful, passionate believers can allow such comfort to influence them so that they too become comfortable.
There’s the danger of domesticating the gospel. Lesslie Newbigin was one who landed on this idea when he came home from forty years of faithful mission work in India. Upon his return, he saw that the church, and thus the gospel, had been imprisoned by the cultural milieu. As a result, the gospel had been domesticated, stripped of its transformational glory.
Today, in many nominal contexts, something similar has transpired. The Bible has been turned into a self-help informational book rather than the divinely inspired book written by God for our transformation and His glory. Jesus has been relegated to a Captain America type of savior who came and died to save us from hell rather than a King who came to save us in order to reign in and through us.
Difficulties of Living in a Nominal Religious Context
Beside dangers to sound Christian theology and practice in a nominal religious context, there are difficulties to living in such a context.
There will be an evangelistic difficulty.
Because nominals are moral, they think they behave rightly; because they are theistic and biblical, they think they believe rightly; because they are Christian by name, they think they belong rightly; and because their life is fairly simply, they feel as though they are blessed rightly.
In short, they base their salvation on what they do and experience, not what Christ did. Sharing the gospel with people who already think they “have it" will prove to be difficult.
There can be relational difficulty.
When trying to call nominals towards a deeper understanding of Scripture and the gospel, they may become easily offended and agitated. They may feel as though they are being judged or attacked. As a result, relational strain and marginalization occurs. More specifically, friendships can dissolve. People leave or becoming angrier at the church.
In some places there will be revitalization difficulty. In churches where nominals may be present and in positions of leadership, there will be a stronghold of spiritual lethargy, gospel indifference, and missional paralysis. Leading and navigating change and transformation will be slow, methodical, intentional, messy, and possibly even intense.
Directives for Living in a Nominal Religious Context
The situation is not hopeless because there is power in the gospel. These directives, empowered by the gospel of Jesus Christ, will serve as antibodies that will ward off the virus of nominal, or weak, Christianity.
We must be gospel-centered. The gospel should be the sun around which the planets of our lives orbit. Everything we do—personally, emotionally, relationally, maritally, parentally, socially, culturally, vocationally, etc.—should revolve around the good news that Jesus Christ has saved us, redeemed us, and made us a part of His glorious kingdom. Being gospel-centered means that we constantly ask ourselves the following question: Is my life bringing glory to King Jesus?
We must be mission-oriented. We are not only saved from our sin and ourselves, but are saved to and for a mission. Being in Christ means that we are His means of advancing His mission in the world. Thus, we enact a posture towards the world for the glory of God. As a result, we come to live a life on mission—intentionally using how we live, where we go, what we do, and what we say as a means to share and show the good news of Jesus with the world.
We must be church-minded. The church isn’t a place we attend but a people we belong to. When Christ saved us, He made us a part of His family. Christ cares about His family—their transformation into His image as well as their participation in His mission. If Christ cares for His family, we should too. If Jesus is committed to His family—in that He will never leave nor forsake them—we should be too.
Nominalism doesn’t save. It’s the equivalent of those in the New Testament who not only wouldn’t enter the kingdom of God themselves, but got in the way of others who wanted to enter.
Nominalism can kill. But, Jesus, as Peter reminds us, “has the words of life,” and He is the better way.
Here are three ways Christians can be like Jesus in a polarizing world:
- Listen better to people who disagree.
Christians are too good at blurting out what we believe and yelling and people who don’t like it. We’re often too quick to jump to social media to punish our keyboard with our anger and scream at any disagreeing person in our path.
I understand many Christians grew up in historical traditions that say America was founded as a Christian nation. Wherever you are in that discussion if you still think America is a Christian nation your definition of “Christian” might need a review. We’re just not. We don’t function that way legally or socially. If America was ever a Christian nation, those days are long gone.
I think it’s time to have some conversations with secular people. Ask, “How are we going to peacefully coexist in our society?” and listen to what they have to say. Too often we’re quick to answer that question ourselves. We need to know how non-believing Americans envision living among religious Americans. In order to understand and grow, we must choose first to listen.
We must remember that the way we often win the ears of others is by learning to use our own. We follow a man named Jesus who commanded us to tell the world about him. If we’re too busy yelling, we’ll never make time to tell them that someone loves them enough that He came to die for them. And, they won’t likely listen if we do; who likes to be yelled at?
- Love people despite their disagreements.
Christ calls us to a better way, a way that requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves and treat others as we hope to be treated. Christians are going to have to learn to get comfortable interacting with unbelievers despite our strong disagreements.
We can’t love people we’re unwilling to listen to, and we must love people even if we don’t agree with their points of view. We can’t be so afraid of catching the “sin bug” or being infected with wrong theology that we’re unwilling to eat dinner with unbelieving neighbors, or grab coffee with an atheist from work.
Unfortunately, the Church is not known for loving people who are different. Our tendency is to keep outsiders outside, if not pushing them even farther away. That’s our fault and to our shame. Others adhere to a culture war narrative that has Christians crushing and hating enemies, rather than loving those who hate us and doing good to those who despise us.
But, we can’t hate a people and reach a people at the same time. Christians—words matter, even online, and the more we use our words to hurt and create division, the less opportunity we will be given to use our words to love. The opened door will be closed, and nailed shut. And have a piano pushed against it.
We must be more willing to show and share the love of Jesus.
I have heard too many stories of Christian leaders meeting in private with people on different sides of the divide, lest the leader be targeted by a circular firing squad of Christian peers.
We must be allowed, and be eager, to meet with leaders of movements, organizations, and ideologies with whom we disagree in order to make it clear that we don’t hate people even if we think they miss the mark on key issues. That’s part of loving someone. Actually, it’s integral to loving someone. It’s what Jesus did at the house of Simon, the house of Zacchaeus, and at the well with the Samaritan woman.
If current trends continue, and Christian perspectives and morals get pushed to the periphery over the next 20 to 30 years, unbelievers will be able to look at the quarter of Americans who call themselves Christian and practice their faith and say, “I really disagree with what those people have to say, but I know they care about me and love me, and everyone else.”
- Lead people to understand what we believe.
We need a renaissance of evangelism that grows from relationships. We need a renewed passion for evangelization in our churches that is currently lacking. The world is going to know we’re different by our positions; they should know we are different by our actions. Let’s tell them why we’re different, and live the kinds of lives that give us credibility. Perhaps part of the reason we’re known by our disagreement is that we’re not working hard enough to by known by our love.
We must be more willing to show and share the love of Jesus. We need a renaissance of mission.
Society is more secular and the contrast with Christians will be ever more clear.
We can’t expect people to want to hear what we have to say about Jesus if we make ourselves a banging gong or a clanging symbol on other, less eternal, matters. A Christian’s live should be a symphony of truth, not a cacophony of contradictory assertions. If our lips and lives don’t align, we really have nothing at all to say.
The world needs the Savior and Christians needs to get on mission.
Into such a world, filled with sin, suffering, sorrow and death, came Jesus of Nazareth. He came not to make bad people good but to make dead people alive! He came to “deliver his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He was “Immanuel, God with us” (Matt. 1:23), who came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). His mission was reflected in his message. John the Baptist announced it by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). After John was arrested, Jesus began to preach “the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In him, the reign of God was breaking into the world in a new way with a fresh offer of grace, calling for a radical decision. Obedience to the command to repent and believe was the only acceptable response, for these were the essential requirements for true conversion to Christ and submission to God’s reign.
Today when we hear the words repent and believe, our tendency is to think we know what they mean. But do we really? In spite of being widely used in the American church, few people undertake a careful word study. As a result, many in the church are confused or misinformed. But help is at hand if we will examine the true biblical meaning of the words and refresh or revise our understanding as needed.
What, then, did Jesus mean by the word repent? And how does it apply to us today? The main Greek word translated repent in our New Testament means a “change of mind.” That is part of what Jesus meant by this word. However, Jesus was not a Greek but a Jew. And his understanding of repentance grew out of the key Hebrew word for repentance in the Old Testament, which means “to turn.” Through the prophets, God repeatedly spoke to the backslidden Israelites, urging them to repent, that is, to wake up to their sin, humble themselves, and turn back to him and his righteous ways. This call is prominent in the Old Testament and means not only a change of mind, but a turning of the heart back to God, manifested in forsaking sin and embracing obedience.1 In the New Testament, John the Baptist used the word this same way. Matthew’s Gospel records that John charged the Pharisees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (3:8). In other words, they were to demonstrate inner change through outward behavior. In Luke, when the crowd asked for specifics about the shape of repentance, John said, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” To tax collectors, he said, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” And to soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be content with your wages” (3:10–14).
A vivid and touching depiction of repentance is found in Luke’s account of the prodigal son, who willfully left his father, gave himself to a life of sin and experienced the hard consequences of his choices. When at last “he came to himself,” he recognized how far he had fallen and purposed in his heart to return to his father, confess his sin, and ask for mercy (15:17–20). This is a beautiful picture of repentance and (along with the two parables on repentance that precede it) shows the joy—yes, joy—that repentance brings in heaven and in us.
Summarizing, one noted scholar describes repentance in this way:
The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and life-style, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting to live a new life.2
This is what Jesus meant when he called men and women to repent. He was calling people out of darkness and bondage into a life of freedom and joy in the Holy Spirit. And in view of our terrible plight, this is exactly the message we all need. Clearly, the call to repent is an offer of grace, a call to awake to our sin and respond with obedience by turning to Jesus Christ. We must respond to God’s offer, but our response is not a “work” that human beings can produce through their own efforts. Only God’s grace can enable and produce such a profound turning within a person.
Jesus combined the call to repent with a call to “believe in the gospel.” In repentance, one turns from something; in believing the gospel, one turns to something or, rather, Someone. At the heart of the good news of the coming kingdom or reign of God is Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. Faith in Jesus and his work is essential for a right relationship with God and life in his kingdom. For our salvation is grounded not on what we do, but on what Christ has done for us.
What do we mean by faith? In the Bible, faith involves knowledge, assent, and trust. Faith begins with right knowledge about Jesus, as he is presented to us in holy Scripture. Today this would include, at a minimum, his identity as the incarnate Son of God, his death on the cross to pay for sins, and his resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven. However, such knowledge alone is not enough. One must also give sincere assent to their truth and believe that these things are literally true. While knowledge and assent are both essential, they are not sufficient. This may surprise some, but accurate knowledge of Jesus and assent to orthodox beliefs are not sufficient for salvation. James tells us that “The demons believe and tremble” (2:19). No, we must go on to trust ourselves to the object of faith, Jesus Christ the Son of God. Jesus and his work on the cross is the focal point of faith. Thus I must trust that on the cross he gave his life for me, me personally, and that God accepted his sacrifice as a full and complete satisfaction for my sins.
True faith, like repentance, cannot be manufactured from within. It is not simply the fruit of human thought, understanding, emotion, and will, though it includes these. Rather, its origin is in the grace of God, whose Spirit illuminates our minds to the Word, convinces us of its truth and draws us to a living faith in the risen Christ.
In the New Testament, repentance (turning from sin to God) and faith (trusting Christ) are actually different sides of the same coin. They are the negative and positive aspects of conversion to Christ. You never find one without the other, because they are by the nature of the case inseparable. This is evident in Scripture, where we see these terms often appearing together. And in places where only one is used, the other is understood; in some cases, repentance is used to encompass the entirety of conversion, while at other times faith is used.
A significant point to note about the words repent and believe in Mark 1:15 is that in the Greek text both are present imperative verbs, signifying continuing action. So while there is certainly the initial exercise of both at conversion, when we are saved, in the process of ongoing sanctification there will be a deepening of repentance and faith as we discover the depths of remaining sin and encounter the many challenges of life. In other words, they continue to play a role in the lifelong process of being conformed into the likeness of Christ, restored to the image of God.
This description of repentance and faith is nothing new; it is rooted in the Scriptures and was the message of Jesus, Peter, Paul, the apostles, and saints and scholars throughout the history of the church.
Jesus called everyone who would follow him, that is, everyone who would be a true Christian, to a wholehearted commitment to himself. This alone can free us from our enslavement to self and liberate us for joyful obedience to him. We see this in Mark 8:34–38, where he issued a profound challenge to both the crowd gathered around him and to his disciples. Jesus said:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever will save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (emphasis added).
A brief overview of the context will help us better understand this much neglected but vitally important passage. Jesus is here addressing two very different audiences. He and his disciples were on a retreat in Caesarea Philippi, a pagan area and center for the worship of the god Pan. The crowds in that region would have been nonbelievers and his words to them pointed out the way of salvation and eternal destiny, as verses 35–-38 make clear. This, what Jesus says here applies to all people, not just his disciples.
For his disciples, however, these words were a reminder and further explication of the way of salvation, which they had embarked on when they accepted the invitation to follow him, that is, to become his disciples. This was vital preparation for what they would soon encounter when he would be arrested, falsely charged, and killed. During their retreat they had come to a clearer grasp of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, with Peter boldly declaring, “You are the Christ!” However, there was a problem. Like many others of the day, the disciples’ idea of the Messiah was one of a God-empowered leader who would deliver Israel from Roman control and usher in an era of unparalleled blessing. In stark contrast, Jesus told them that he would soon “suffer many things, be rejected by the chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).
These two ideas were totally incompatible in their minds. They expected a conquering Messiah; a suffering, dying Messiah was unthinkable. They had not understood that the Messiah would come first as a Suffering Servant. If their faith were to withstand the events just ahead, they would have to recognize that they were disciples of a Messiah whose devotion to God meant denying himself and embracing death for a lost and dying world, with all that that implied for their own lives. Ironically, many true Christians are in that same situation today; we find it hard to grasp that we are disciples of the Suffering Servant, whom to follow requires a costly obedience.
What, then, did Jesus mean when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”? The phrase “come after me” was commonly used to refer to following someone as a disciple. But what about “denying” oneself? Today we often use this expression to mean refusing oneself a legitimate pleasure of some sort, for example, giving up sweets during Lent. However, this is not what Jesus meant.
Professor F.F. Bruce, one of the greatest evangelical New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, explains, “Denying oneself is not a matter of giving up something, whether for Lent or the whole of life; it is a decisive saying ‘No’ to oneself, to one’s hopes and plans and ambitions, to one’s likes and dislikes, to one’s nearest and dearest, for the sake of Christ.”3 Another noted New Testament scholar, Professor C.E.B. Cranfield, says it this way, “to deny oneself is to disown, not just one’s sins but one’s self, to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness.”4 Denying self, then, is not giving up something, it is giving up someone. It is renouncing and turning from one’s old self as the center of life and embracing Christ as the new center of one’s life. It describes the fundamental shift of allegiance and reorientation of life that occurs at conversion. “This is not self-denial in the current sense of the word, but true conversion, the very first essential of the Christian life,” says R.C.H. Lenski.5 Likewise, William Hendrickson says, we “must once for all say farewell to the old self, the self as it is apart from regenerating grace.”6 One must say a decisive “no” to everything that stands in the way of saying a radical “yes” to Christ. In the Greek text, the aorist imperative verb here speaks of this action as a definitive event in one’s life. Yet how many people in today’s church are even aware that a wholehearted renouncing of self and commitment to Christ lies at the heart of true conversion and daily discipleship? How may have made such a decisive renunciation? Is this perhaps one of the reasons why we see so much self-indulgent, worldly living among believers today and so little authentic Christianity? Only those who have crossed this Rubicon will be able to proceed to the next requirement for following Jesus.
“Taking up one’s cross” is another expression we use today to mean something very different from what Jesus intended his hearers to understand. When we speak of having to “bear a cross,” we are usually referring to some unpleasant or difficult circumstance with which we have to live. But what Jesus meant was far more demanding. Again, Professor Bruce:
The sight of a man being taken to the place of public execution was not unfamiliar in the Roman world of that day. Such a man was commonly made to carry the crossbeam, the patibulum, of his cross as he went to his death. That is the picture which Jesus’s words would conjure up in the minds of his hearers. If they were not prepared for that outcome to their discipleship, let them change their minds while there was time—but let them first weigh the options in the balances of the kingdom of God: “for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”7
Jesus was clearly asking those who would follow him to count the cost and commit themselves in advance to give up their very lives if faithfulness to him should require it. Once again, the text has an aorist imperative, speaking of this as a definite event. But how many of us have done this?
Only those who deny themselves and take up their crosses will be able to do the last thing Jesus said: “Follow me.” The reason is simple. When we answer the call of Christ, life becomes both easier and harder. It is easier because of the blessings of grace, but harder because we enter an unrelenting combat against our old selves, the fallen world around us, and the schemes of the devil. Faithfully following Christ in this battle is possible only if we wholeheartedly put his will and interests ahead of our own, regardless of the cost. For as long as we retain our personal autonomy and seek to preserve our self-centered interests, we won’t be able to submit ourselves to his will when it conflicts with ours. And as long as we value our physical survival more than his glory, we will not be able to stand firm in the face of death. Once we make these decisive commitments, we will encounter challenges that require us to reaffirm them again and again. And we will discover that as we do, they grow deeper and stronger.
What, then, did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me”? He meant we should obey his commands and seek to walk as he walked, live as he lived. The essence of Jesus’ commands and life was loving obedience to God and sacrificial service to one’s neighbor, regardless of the personal cost. Thus we are called to follow Jesus’ precepts and example by living a life of holy love, striving for that perfection in love that begins in this world and comes to fullness in the world to come where at last the image of God will be fully restored in us.
Such a life seems impossible when we consider our self-centeredness, sins, and weaknesses. And indeed it is impossible apart from grace. But Jesus knows how weak we are, and he has made the impossible possible for us through the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit creates the community of faith to nurture us. The Spirit makes the Word become alive and powerful in us. The Spirit pours out God’s love into our hearts. The Spirit enables us joyfully to abandon ourselves to God, to daily put to death the works of our fallen nature, and to be progressively transformed into the likeness of Jesus himself. The Spirit calls us to mission, gifts us for ministry, and enables us to fulfill the works God has prepared us to do for his glory. All these things and more he will do as we earnestly seek to be filled with the Spirit and walk in the Spirit. It is significant that the Greek verb we render “follow” is not an aorist but a present imperative, indicating continuing action. That is, Jesus asks us to follow him faithfully day by day to our life’s end.
He knows, of course, that we will not do it perfectly. Throughout our lives we will encounter temptations, trials, resistance, and persecution. And there will be times when we stumble and fall, sometimes tragically. When we do, it drives us back to the cross in repentance for our sin and in faith that the blood he shed for us saves to the uttermost. He who could forgive Peter, who denied him, will surely do no less for us. Then, like Peter, forgiven, restored and humbled, we march on with fresh hope and renewed commitment.
What Jesus teaches about true conversion and wholehearted commitment is not something most American church-goers will want to hear. As James Houston once observed, “Most church members don’t want growth, they want to remain comfortably asleep.” As a result, this is not something most preachers will want to address, since it will definitely “rock the boat” and might lead to reduce attendance and giving. But it is something we desperately need to hear again from the pulpits of our land.
Whenever individuals and churches have lost sight of these realities, the effects have been devastating on personal life, congregational life and the reputation of the church before the watching world. And that is where we are today. The greatest problem in the church at this time is that so many Christians have such a shallow grasp and experience of these transforming truths. But when these blessed truths have been recovered, it has led to personal revival, church renewal, and evangelistic fruitfulness. Such a recovery is what we desperately need today.
In this article, we have simply tried to restate the obvious: in laying down his life for us, and calling us to true conversion and wholehearted commitment, Jesus Christ is urging us to turn from a self-centered life that is the fruit of the Fall and to turn to himself and the God-centered life of the world to come. It is a call to a life of grace in all its fullness, freedom, and joy, a call to the only kind of life that will matter in the end. And the response he desires comes not from guilt, fear, idealism, or heroism, but from humble, grateful obedience, freely given out of love for him who loved us and gave himself up for us, and who said, “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15).
For a couple centuries of American public life, a soft reliance on the state to endorse Christian values seemed to work just fine. Since most people assumed America was a “Christian nation,” it made sense that federal and state laws tacitly affirmed a biblical worldview and actively promoted Christian morals. From gambling and alcohol prohibition to tax exemptions and modesty laws, nominal Christianity benevolently reigned over the public square. Everyone stayed buttoned up, and, for the most part, we appeared to be a virtuous people, a moral people.
But in the twentieth century, more and more people began to see Christian morality as standing in the way of a new moral code: the morality of self-fulfillment. Throwing off burdensome traditional mores, people began to imagine life without a bothersome God standing watch. John Lennon captured the zeitgeist in his perennial hit: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try . . .”
New research, as shown in the table below, highlights the extent to which Americans pledge allegiance to the new moral code, which can be summed up in six guiding principles.
The New Moral Code
Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements.
Source: Barna OmniPoll, August 2015, N = 1,000
As you can see, the morality of self-fulfillment has even crept into American Christianity. Large percentages of practicing Christians embrace the principles of the new moral code. Too many Christians have substituted comfortable living for a life changed by the gospel. The government’s tacit endorsement of vaguely Christian morals has made it difficult, in many ways, to discern what it means to be faithful, beyond showing up.
In recent years, the morality of self-fulfillment has begun to bear its inevitable fruit: people want to fulfill themselves by doing things outside the bounds of cultural Christianity. And they don’t want the law telling them they can’t.
As a result of this shift, we are seeing laws that endorse the broader culture’s replacement of Christian morality with the moral code of self-fulfillment. And according to that moral code, any competing morality—say, a religion—that seeks to constrain someone’s pursuit of personal fulfillment must itself be constrained.
If something or someone stands in the way of my fulfillment, that obstacle must be removed.
In contrast to the dominant culture’s embrace of self-fulfillment as the highest moral good, good faith Christians believe living under God’s moral order leads to human and societal flourishing. As Scripture says, physical training is of some benefit, but “training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Yet the extent to which the morality of self-fulfillment has taken hold of the hearts and minds of practicing Christians exposes an area of dangerous weakness in today’s church. This grafting of cultural dogma onto Christian theology must stop. In order for us to flourish as God’s people, his moral order must be allowed to rule our lives.
What are the principles of God’s moral order? Contrasting the new moral code are six statements about the way life ought to be, with Jesus at the center.
To find yourself, discover the truth outside yourself, in Jesus.
Loving others does not always mean staying silent.
Joy is found not in pursuing our own desires but in giving of ourselves to bless others.
The highest goal of life is giving glory to God.
God gives people the freedom to believe whatever they want, but those beliefs always affect society.
God designed boundaries for sex and sexuality in order for humans to flourish.
We’ve purposely expressed these six principles as a response to the six principles of the new moral code. Christians express something truly countercultural when we insist that real morality is rooted in something outside ourselves. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, we have an obligation, in good faith, to speak as a counterculture to the spirit of the age. Beyond using our voices, we need to do the hard work of being countercultural in our own lives and churches. Only when we are consistent will our lives stir outsiders to rethink their own moral compass.
Living counter to the new morality is an uphill battle. Some days it feels like keeping the wind from blowing. Nearly everything about the broader culture is expertly marketed to appeal to our comfort, well-being, safety, and satisfaction. A delicious meal. Your dream holiday. The perfect house. Great sex. What will fulfill you? For ages, humans have bent toward self-indulgence. In our advertising age, there are countless ways of making people crave.
But then there is the way of Jesus. The Westminster Catechism’s first question asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer, as generations of Protestant confirmands could tell you, is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” There are profound moral implications here. If the highest goal of life is God’s glory rather than our own enjoyment, then our outward behaviors and inward character will have a drastically different shape.
When we feel the cultural winds blowing against us, let’s be reminded how long the moral ideas of the Christian faith have rolled on—no matter their competition in each successive age. Rest assured, good faith is on the right side of history.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, Christians can confront the culture with a better way to live—the way of renewal, not of self-fulfillment.