The Gospel is the good news that Christ has atoned for our iniquities through his death and that we are united with him in resurrection by faith. This is not by works. Yet, etched into the core of our human essence is a penchant for seeking righteousness through our effort. Often implicitly and occasionally explicitly, Christianity is defined by the adage, “If I do good, God will bless me, and if I do bad, God will curse me.” Defining Christianity this way is lamentable as it has more to do with karma than the cross.
Christians affirm sola fide in their confessions and statements of faith only to preach and teach karmic principles in sermons, Sunday school, and small groups. Like Job’s friends, we invoke the Christian message while speaking retributive justice. Unbiblical views of sanctification, misguided pietism, and an overemphasis on practicality indirectly compromise the core of Christianity’s message.
This perspective enters through unrealistic, lopsided, and synergistic views of sanctification. When we falsely assume that we can spiritually progress in our strength or pursue a standard of achievable perfection that contradicts the biblical reality of our struggle with sin as Christians, we get sanctification wrong. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 reminds us that in all our striving to do what is good, it is God himself who sanctifies us. He will do it. Romans 7 establishes the reality of the Christian life as one where we will always struggle with sin, but will ultimately be delivered through Jesus Christ! While the biblical view points us to Christ, the distorted view inevitably leads to tally marks in our spiritual ledger.
Misguided pietism is another way this distortion of Christianity impacts the church. Such a mindset has exchanged a motivation of grace and peace for one of guilt and shame. Is the pursuit of holiness good? Yes. Is that pursuit fueled by self-flagellation and more strenuous preaching of the law? Too often, the answer is also yes. I’ve seen many Christians who feel bereft of grace as the church throws anvils instead of life preservers at berated believers in the troubled waters of their struggle. When they are desperate for a word of forgiveness, they’re scolded by a constant “stepping on your toes” style of preaching. Thirsting for a drop of grace, the church offers an outpouring of steps for improvement. Striving for holiness is part of our Christian lives, but doing so apart from the power of the Gospel is as futile as it is karmic.
Additionally, pragmatic practicality has supplanted the supernatural. When we relegate the means of grace God has given to mere symbolism and default to five-step curriculum programs to deal with matters of the soul, it’s no wonder that Christianity looks more like a corporation with training modules than the body of Christ. It’s incredible what we can accomplish in our strength when using human success metrics. Reducing Christianity to spiritual disciplines, actionable response steps to preaching, or participation in church programming should frighten us. Numbers, programs, and worship experiences are the contemporary version of itching ears. It’s just another way to satisfy our pragmatic desires while ignoring our spiritual needs. Perhaps more damning is that it creates an environment for us to plant seeds of self-reliance while pretending we’re reaping supernatural fruit. Input equals output becomes our mantra, and faith like a mustard seed is discarded as too small.
There are those within the realm of what is considered Christianity that outright teach salvation by works. In so doing, they are presenting the antithesis to the Christian message. We must decry this denial of the Gospel, mistakenly categorized under Christendom.
The Christian faith rests entirely on Christ, yet each of us tends to default back to a Christless Christianity of our striving. Whether implicit or explicit, karmic Christianity isn’t Christianity at all.
Calvinist Picard is a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies graduate and currently about halfway through a Ph.D. in Leadership program. He has worked in education and ministry in various roles for just a little over a decade. Follow him on Twitter at @CalvinistPicard and on Facebook at CalvinistPicard.