What makes Christianity Christian if not Christ? That is a self-evident question with an obvious answer; however, the church’s current status betrays that foregone conclusion. There is a spectrum of moralization and motivation that removes faith, grace, imputed righteousness, and Christ’s atoning work and resurrection. What’s left of the faith after such removal isn’t Christianity at all.
When Christianity is a paradigm for moral reform, we ironically strip it of its impact on morality. We are quick to criticize pursuing Jesus for the sake of bread instead of the one who speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6). Still, we fail to see that pursuing Jesus, who curtails our cursing and modifies our behavior, is no different. Seeking the side effects instead of the source is no less real when we substitute moral lives for bread.
Let’s be clear. All Scripture is profitable, and Christians must live their lives in light of the revelation of God’s character, as seen in the Bible. However, this is a result of God’s working in us, not the basis for God’s working in us. When we moralize the faith, we view Scripture as a rulebook that helps us balance the ledgers. With this view, we could hand out copies of Aesop’s Fables to the same effect as many sermons.
When the Christian faith is moralized, we’ve traded the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Gospel and the Sacraments for an evangelical form of operant conditioning. Preachers ring the bell to produce the prescribed response, with obedience expected. But we are humans created imago dei, not dogs, pigeons, or rats, to train into compliance. Scripture is profitable for training in righteousness, but the righteous shall live by faith (Galatians 3:11). We must “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
If we reduce Christianity to the spark that ignites the human engine of pursuing dreams, then it collapses like a neutron star. A merely motivational Christianity should defer to Tony Robbins or Dave Ramsey and hold pep rally conferences instead of services. Such motivational showmanship is increasingly common, and we are less aware of the absurdity.
The human condition is dire. An energetic speech to boost morale and productivity is insidiously and pragmatically effective. We may lift our heads and set our hands to the plow as we’re distracted from the true problem of our sinful condition and achieve a measure of bootstrap success. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul” (Matthew 16:26)?
When motivation becomes the focus, then elements of Christianity become tools to improve our outlooks, performance, and lives. We misdiagnose the disease, and the wrong prescription is issued. In critical need of spiritual defibrillation, today’s Christianity offers the placebos of pamphlets, inspiring talks, and action items. The best motivational tools fail to produce a broken and contrite heart, which is the sacrifice God requires (Psalm 51:16-18).
How can we engage with morality and motivation gone awry? One dangerous impulse is to minimize the law, so we invert Paul’s question and rebuke on continuing in sin that grace may abound. Another is to burrow under our actions and link our faith to the sincerity and passion of our hearts. Both are problematic.
No creed but Christ is a naive, reductionistic attempt to simplify Christianity and reclaim focus that equally misses the mark. Christ and creed would be a better paradigm. Christianity is the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Christ alone is the means of our salvation, and this divine savior has affirmed and fulfilled sacred Scripture. This is not a call for reductionism but for focus. True Gospel centrality goes much deeper than a cursory nod toward the atoning work of Christ for sinners on any given Sunday. However, it does not bypass orthodoxy and the whole counsel of God in Scripture in the process.
One proposed antidote to superficiality is the approach of Jonathan Edwards and John Piper to point us to the affections. The trouble is that beneath the behavioral level of our sin is the corrupted heart level of our sin. Calling people to fix their affections is no better than calling people to correct their behavior. We need a Savior outside ourselves to take our sins and impute his righteousness. Once we die and rise with Christ, new desires and the fruit of the new birth will naturally follow.
Making Christianity Christian again defies nebulous, shallow motivation and rigid behavior-obsessed moralization versions of the faith. It shines the spotlight on Christ crucified for sinners because that’s where the Scriptures place it. We’ve falsely assumed or surrendered to the notion that the true power of Christianity is to live victoriously or produce results. Ironically, faulty motivation and moralization suffer from the same fatal flaw. They make idols out of the product of faith. The true power of Christianity rests in humility and death (Philippians 2:6-11). Morality and motivation are supernatural works of God through Christ’s redeeming work given to us in word and sacrament. To make them the aim instead of the result is to strip Christianity of what makes it Christian.