Over the weekend I had the honor of serving as a fill-in guest preacher for a local church where my brother-in-law used to pastor. Over the years, I have filled in for this congregation multiple times and had gotten to know them fairly well. Because of COVID, it had been over a year since I’d last been with them. Before, when my brother-in-law was pastor, he’d usually assign me a topic in keeping with his own preaching schedule. This time, I had to come up with my own topic. After praying about it, I decided that my sermon would be just a presentation of the gospel.
It may seem strange, at first, that a guest preacher in a small, relatively conservative, traditional congregation would choose a presentation of the gospel as his sermon topic. After all, aren’t the folks sitting in the audience already familiar with the gospel? Isn’t that why they became Christians in the first place? As it turns out, one cannot really be sure.
According to recently released research from the American Worldview Inventory 2021, the dominant American worldview perspective is syncretistic and best described with the label of “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This worldview is not just vaguely Christian, it is a form of counterfeit Christianity. As the researchers describe it, its primary, core set of beliefs are:
- Belief in a God who remains distant from people’s lives
- People are supposed to be good to each other
- The universal purpose of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself
- There are no absolute moral truths
- God allows “good people” into heaven
- God places very limited demands on people
This worldview is held by nearly 40% of American adults. In addition to that statistic, there’s the one from the Pew Research Center which has just over 70% of Americans identifying as some sort of Christian. That means that there is likely a statistically significant portion of people sitting in the pews of Christian churches who are not really Christian, despite what they or their co-religionists might claim. I say this because the tenets of moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD from here on) are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is revealed in the Bible.
This means that, as much as I’d like to believe to the contrary, some of those people who heard my sermon are lacking when it comes to basic Christian doctrine. That also means that many of my Christian friends might also be lacking when it comes to basic Christian doctrine. This leads me to the conclusion that it is not possible to overemphasize the basic message of the gospel.
My primary text for the sermon was Romans 3:21-26. I chose that text because it describes many of the core pieces of the gospel message. First, the gospel is a demonstration of God’s righteousness, not any person’s, and the righteousness of God is demonstrated through Jesus. When it comes to human beings, there is no distinction to be made between them in regards to righteousness because everyone is a sinner. But God, being righteous, has provided a way for sinners to be justified, not by keeping a set of laws but by having faith that God, through Jesus, will justify sinners. The Law and Prophets testify to both the righteousness of God and his ability and desire to justify those who have faith in his Messiah. In fact, the Law and Prophets are that which call sinners to repentance and to have faith in God. Paul very specifically alludes to this when he says that God has “passed over” the sins that people had committed previously.
As an illustration of what happens when this message is preached and received, I relied on Acts 2. There, we are told about members of the Jewish diaspora–i.e., Jews from all over the world–gathering together in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. They weren’t just gathered together for no reason. They were gathered together to celebrate the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai. Peter preached the gospel to this group, a gospel that has at its core a God who is not only interested in human affairs but one who actively intervenes in human affairs in order to bring about good, righteous ends. This message would travel from Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire (symbolized by the flaming tongues and the hearing of Peter’s message in their native language). As it traveled, it changed the world.
Over against moralistic therapeutic deism stands the gospel. The God of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not distant but close. This gospel compels love for neighbor because it recognizes God’s love for us. The gospel recognizes that the universal purpose of life is the glorification of God. The gospel sees that happiness comes not when one feels good about himself, because we are all totally depraved sinners in need of redemption, but when one rests in God’s provision of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. We know that we are sinners because in God’s law we find a perfect reflection of his character which is an absolute standard of what is true and good. Because there are no good people (Rom 3:23), God allows into heaven those who by faith are justified by his grace. God’s demands are by definition good, right, and just. In its essence, sin happens when human beings, in rebellion, place their own demands above God’s will. Thus, accepting the gospel is to reject the supremacy of one’s own will and to surrender to God’s will. Stated another way, to accept the gospel is to reject, in all its points, moralistic therapeutic deism.
That moralistic therapeutic deism is the reigning worldview among the American adult population is reflected in our public policy, public discourse, and public values. If God is distant, with little demands beyond the vague command to “be nice to one another,” then individuals will look to supply their own desires as the ultimate source of good. It’s no surprise, then, that goodness becomes happiness and self-affirmation. In this moral system, to “be good to one another” is to affirm each other in whatever one desires and to assist others in achieving their desires. Moral truth is absent because each person is a law unto himself as expressed in his desires. Everyone assumes they’re good enough to get to heaven because everyone is subject only to their own desires and goodness is measured only in achieving one’s desires and helping others to achieve theirs. This is how we wind up with a world in which chaos and disorder are everywhere. That’s to be expected when the religious worldview held by most members of society is, by definition, anarchic.
What I’m trying to get across is several points.
First, when Christians think about and engage with public, social, and political issues they have to realize that many of their fellow citizens appear to share similar worldview presuppositions but, in fact, do not. This goes for the folks sitting in the pew next to you as much as it does your apparently irreligious neighbors and coworkers.
Second, the only way to overcome the problem is to challenge the prevailing worldview with the gospel. The gospel is the only worldview that can (and will) defeat moralistic therapeutic deism, secularism, postmodernism, or whatever other “-ism” you wish to insert.
Third, we cannot take it for granted that one will hear or encounter the gospel inside a “Christian” church. It’s important to remember that Jesus himself said that many who act in his name are unknown to him (Matt 7:21-23). That many churches, congregations, and denominations are going along with the MTD’s prevalence in society should be telling.
Our theology, our politics, our social engagement, and our cultural activity must be derived from the gospel. Full stop. Not the gospel . . . and; not the gospel . . . but; just the gospel.
Everyone is a sinner in rebellion against their creator. The law and prophets testify to this and expose this rebellion. Once we realize this, we must understand that there is nothing we can do to solve the problem. Only God, through Christ, can solve–has solved–the problem. We must surrender to his grace and ask for the ability to repent and obey.