The gospel and the world’s morality

A prayer letter I received yesterday had an introductory note that left me wondering. It was to the effect that only once someone is a Christian can their behaviour change, so Christians should not expect people to change before that work of the Holy Spirit. The writer questioned if the church gives the wrong message in this regard.

Now, inasmuch as the gospel is the offer of God’s grace to conform us to his Son, I say “Amen” to that. But I’m not sure I can think of examples where, in their public witness, the churches say anything different. I can’t recall seeing any wayside pulpits saying “Clean up your act and then come to church!” Can you?

In fact if anything churches nowadays seem to err on the side of not expecting moral change even in those who do have the Holy Spirit through faith, contra the message of James that faith without works is dead. As I consider the matter, at least the challenge of God’s moral requirements to the world seems to be an integral part of the gospel itself.

So I start by wondering just what my brother meant. Recently, Australian rugby player Israel Folau was sacked for allegedly homophobic tweets that could, I suppose, be interpreted as a call to a change of behaviour apart from Christ. But a little investigation behind the headlines shows that of the two tweets in question the first, a year or so ago, was reply to someone asking directly about the destination of homosexuals according to Folau’s rather Fundamentalist Christian belief, to which the he replied, “HELL! Unless they repent.” The second tweet was simply a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which lists a whole range of sins from slander to drunkenness. Admittedly Folau ended the paraphrase with another reference to Hell, rather than with the literal text about not inheriting the kingdom of God. But the meaning is, in effect, much the same, and is the teaching of Scripture for every sinner, which means every person.

There is a legal process going on in Australia at the moment, and much debate, about the justification of destroying Folau’s sporting career simply for expressing his religious beliefs ouside work, but whether you think he was being insensitive, or discriminatory, or not, the fact remains that implicit in both tweets was the need to come to Christ for forgiveness, and not simply a demand for moral reformation apart from Christ. In any case, pretty well all such cases are about outspoken individuals, and not what churches say to the world.

The only examples of the latter I can think of are like today’s news report on the Bishop of Truro’s report about Christian persecution worldwide. In this, commissioned by the Foreign Secretary jermy Hunt, he calls on institutions like the United Nations to protect the religious freedom of many millions of believers, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. That scarcely seems unduly moralistic, though it is a call for moral change made to non-Christians.

If it seems rather self-interested, remember similar calls made recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury and, I believe, the Pope, for the the end of the oppression of Muslims in Communist China. But such religious leaders have also made calls for the world to take more care of the environment, to oppose modern slavery, and so on. Would anyone really call it more Christian for them to keep quiet on these matters, and simply to wait for the Holy Spirit to convict those in the churches to act on them in their own personal lives, provided, of course, they don’t tweet about it and offend those who disagree?

The fact is that, historically speaking, it is precisely when the church has had the moral compass to speak truth from the gospel to an unbelieving world that it has most been “salt and light” to the world as a whole, demonstrating the coming of God’s kingdom.

One obvious example is that of slavery, in which although Deists and unbelievers were co-belligerents, it was the steady work of British Evangelicals like William Wilberforce that, for the first and only time in history, brought about the abolition of slavery. This not only led to the end of the transatlantic trade, and abolition in the USA, but the enthusiastic adoption of the message by the Royal Navy – not by any means a Christian institution – led to a virtual elimination of the Arab slave trade, of slavery in the Far East and Africa, and now to the international outlawing of slavery. (This, sadly, is still far from complete – old-fashioned slavery is still endemic in parts of Africa and the Arab world, and hidden under other names in Asia and even in the West, particularly in the sex trade.)

Would anyone have had the church keep silent and restrict its opposition to slavery to in-house sermons? Indeed, one common criticism of the church is that it condoned slavery for so long, as if anyone other than the Christians, with their radical new belief in the equality of all men under God, had ever come up with a persuasive case for slavery’s immorality.

But there are many less obvious areas in which it is because the churches spoke morality to society, and particularly to secular governments, that we have the benefits we have. It is easily shown that concepts like freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press all arose from the way the churches grappled with the concept of individual liberty after the Reformation.

Famously the US constitution was about the establishment of universal civil rights, based on a natural law theory founded on Christian theism. The fact that the founding fathers had a range of heterodox and orthodox views doesn’t alter the fact that Christian morality was held to be good for a diverse and free society, and even for those who did not choose to believe the gospel.

Even the disapproval of bribes and corruption in public office have their origin in the steady critique of graft-culture by churches. It is far less obvious in countries where Christianity’s influence has been historically weak, or has been occluded by other systems like Communism. When my former medical partner was a missionary in Zaire, he alone got through customs quickly because it was only the missionaries who steadfastly refused to countenance bribes.

In the Bible, too, there is a strong tradition of God’s people speaking moral truth to unbelieving power. In the Old Testament, remember Jonah being sent to pagan Nineveh to preach repentance from “evil ways and violence.” And Daniel’s words to Nebuchadnezzar, a devotee of Marduk rather than Christ, warned him about pride, albeit it in connection with the acknowledgement of the true God.

In the New Testament both John the Baptist and Jesus introduce their preaching with a call to repentance, accompanied by belief in the good news (Mk 1:4, 15), and John’s message to all is “bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” even in the days before Jesus gave the Holy Spirit.

It could be argued that their ministry was almost entirely to Jews, included already in God’s covenant and therefore in some measure “insiders.” But John lost his head for calling the marriage of Herod Antipas to his half-brother’s wife unlawful.

Now not only was Herod not an actual king of Israel (merely a Roman Tetrarch), but he was the son of a half-Edomite father and a Samaritan Mother. Herodias, his unlawful wife, was the daughter of Petra’s Edomite king. Neither could be seen as within the Mosaic Covenant. Neither was Herod especially religious, as his actions show; he could best be seen as a cynical secular ruler.

But it was on the basis of God’s law that John, with Jesus’s obvious approval, criticised him. John’s action was close to being political: Josephus records his execution as being due to Herod’s fear of a rebellion, but makes it clear that the people saw a link between Herod’s defeat by the Edomite king’s army and his execution of John, a conflict partly arising from the business with Herodias which John had condemned.

Jesus himself, in addressing the rich young ruler, challenged him to give away his excessive wealth, thus demonstrating repentance of his covetousness, as the preamble to following Jesus. He seems, as a result, to have baulked at both, but to Jesus they belonged together.

Paul’s preaching in Acts, especially to Gentile “outsiders” repeats the same pattern of moral challenge accompanying the call, and invitation, to the blessings of Christ, which include the Holy Spirit. We need to factor in that the sermons in Acts are abridged and exemplary, but there is enough in them to show the truth of what I say.

Even Peter’s sermon to Cornelius, the first gentile believer, speaks of Christ as the one appointed to judge all men: sin before God is the reason they should come to Christ for forgiveness. Indeed, in Acta 11:18 it is clear that it was the work of the Holy Spirit to grant the gentiles both repentance and faith at the very point they turned to Christ. It is the Spirit who gives both conviction of sin and convinces of the blessings of Christ, and both must be proclaimed if both are to occur.

In Lystra, Paul’s call to the people to abandon worthless pagan gods and turn to the living God is accompanied by the explanation that God has, up till now, allowed nations to go their own way, but that that has now changed. Why? Because Jesus has been declared king over the nations: the message is not so much about choosing a new religion, as recognising a new moral authority in the true God.

In Athens, similarly, Paul tells the Areopagus Society about God’s former overlooking of idolatrous ignorance, but says that now “he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” Once more this is not a call to moral reformation apart from faith, but it puts turning from sin at the very onset of faith – and that implies that the pagan Athenians be informed of what sin, in Jesus’s eyes, is, so that they may repent of it.

In Ephesus, a bunch of John’s disciples, who have believed in his baptism of repentance, are rebaptized into Jesus’s name and only subsequently receive the Spirit. Later, the church grows as a result of those who believe the message openly confessing their evil deeds and turning from them (in the case of sorcerers, by burning their expensive books).

When Paul takes his final leave of the Ephesians in ch20, he summarises his preaching as telling people (a) to turn to God in repentance (two sides of the same coin, it seems), and (b) putting their faith in Jesus.

Finally, when the Gentile governor Felix calls on the prisoner Paul to account for his faith (really with a view to assessing the Jews’ charges against him), Felix is so scared by Paul’s emphasis on “righteouness, self-control and the judgement to come” that he terminates the interview. Paul is no political threat to him as John was to Herod’s imagination, so Felix’s discomfiture is clearly moral. Paul is, in essence, telling the governor that his moral status is not acceptable to God, much as John Knox did to Mary Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century, and (arguably) not too differently from the way Israel Folau has reponded to direct questions on Twitter. In this instance (and we may infer, in many others) Paul’s message consists of two inseparable elements: the coming judgement on (specific) sins, and the forgiveness available from Jesus, the judge, by faith.

I’m not sure that we Christians nowadays are up to speed on that. We seem to prefer the idea of a rather cheap grace, in which Christ first meets our needs, and then gradually, or even optionally, calls to our attention any problems he would like us to deal with through the Holy Spirit, even if the church neglects to teach us about them. A couple of sociologists labelled this in 2005 as “Moralistic Theapeutic Deism,” and attributed it to a large portion of American Youth. Its tenets are, according to them:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Note that “moral” in this context is a rather anodyne term, questioning no particular behaviour, but merely endorsing a motherhood-and-apple-pie concept of “niceness,” which could equally, I suppose, be expanded to “inclusiveness,” “being me,” or any other currently fashionable virtue. The biblical version seems to be significantly more morally challenging, being built around the unchanging law of God against fashionable virtues (as John the Baptist’s example showed). That challenge is, in the biblical model, to be made indiscrimately to all and sundry by Christians.

Neither Herod nor Felix, nor me in my teenage years, come to that, found criticism of their actual behaviour to be welcome. It can lead to anger: in Israel Folau’s case it has led to loss of a career. In John the Baptist’s case it led to the loss of his head.

I think the challenge to my acquiescence in people’s approval of my leaving them in peace is why I admire the late great Rev Gary Davis, who though blind was willing to face personal danger (and the theft of several guitars) preaching on the streets of Harlem. In the example that follows, it’s easy to imagine the street singer taking note of individual sinners as they come by, and addressing each particular sin (the Library of Congress version has more specific examples). Davis insists on the need to turn from it in association with the need for “pure religion and your soul converted” specifically, rather than in vague generalities. The song even includes his reply to a heckler – suggesting that such interruptions were frequent on the streets.

I’m sure he felt able to say like Paul, to the shop-front church congregation his recording fees enabled him to found:

Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Davis, you see, had told them from the very start that such a washing was required.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply