Michael Horton: Moralistic & Therapeutic Deism

I’ve enjoyed this conference tremendously,
and not just listening to the presentations but also engaging in the… listening to the
conversations and being able to participate in conversations. You know, really you guys are the Reformers. You go back to your churches, take all this
back, and hopefully it will be grist, not just for critique, much less for despair,
but to take back and really think through the issues with your elders and pastors and
friends and hopefully we can… we can see tremendous recovery, as indeed, it’s taking
place all around the country and around the world, as people focus again on the richness
of the gospel. One example, I promised my friend Rico Tice
I would mention, their excellent program, Christianity Explored. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, check it out online. That’s… That’s one great point of light out there
as far as introducing non-Christians to the faith for the first time, especially if you
don’t want to do the Alpha course. This is put together by Rico Tice at All Souls,
formerly pastored by John Stott in London, and it’s a fantastic outreach program through
the Gospel of Mark. And there are all sorts of really great resources
out there for introducing people to the true gospel. While I was doing a post-doctoral research
fellowship on the East Coast, a mainline theologian said that he decided to go to his daughter’s
and son-in-law’s house for Easter one year. And he said they go to a… one of these sprawling
evangelical church growth churches, based on church growth models and techniques, and
he says, “I thought it would be interesting to go with them on Easter Sunday.” He said, “I thought I’ll get them at their
best.” Everybody’s at their best on Easter Sunday,
talking about Jesus and the resurrection. He’s telling me the story. He said he went there and he knew that his
children were going to try to evangelize him because he’s a mainline theologian. And he said, “I walked in, and there was
nothing visibly that would suggest that I was in anything other than a mall. But I said, okay, I’m just going to sit
down, and… and it’s not… it’s not about that, I’m going to sit down and wait
for God to open His mouth and start talking to us with God’s greeting at the begin…. Well, there was no greeting from God at all. There was a greeting from the minister as
if it were his living room, welcoming people into his presence, but not God addressing
His people.” He said, “I went through the whole service. I kept waiting. I said, well, they’re evangelicals. They put everything into the sermon. There’s no liturgy, but they’ll put everything
into the sermon. The Word of God all gets poured into this
one half-hour presentation. I’ll wait for that.” And he said, “This was Easter. We had not yet sung anything about the cross
and the resurrection. We had never… We had not heard any Scripture read. And we had not prayed. There had been a couple of… of quick ‘hey
there’s’ but not real prayer, corporate congregational prayer.” He said, “So we got to the sermon, and it
was about how you can turn your scars into stars, and your crosses into stepping stones. Jesus conquered His opposition and so can
you.” There was no gospel in it. It wasn’t about what He had done for us. It was about how what He did can be done by
us too. They got in the car and drove home, and it
was pretty quiet. And the son said, “Well, Pop, did you hear
the gospel today?” And he said, “No.” He said, “Did it touch your heart?” “Did what touch my heart?” “Well, did… did the Spirit touch your
heart?” He said, “How could the Spirit possibly
have touched my heart? His Word wasn’t present.” He said, “I have been in liberal churches
where there was more of the Word of God at least in the liturgy, than was in the whole
service in what I thought was an evangelical church on Easter. For anyone coming in wanting hope for the
resurrection of the body on the last day, I was not a recipient of that myself. I don’t know how you could imagine that
I could have been evangelized today when God didn’t even show up.” This situation can be found across the board. I’m hearing it more and more. It’s not… You know, when I was growing up, we used to
be kind of… kind of arrogate about it. We knew the churches in town. They had the bells, the tall steeples, you
know. That’s… That’s where… That’s where it was Christless Christianity. But today you can’t… you can’t point
to anything. It’s across the board today. It’s across the spectrum from fundamentalists
to liberal, from Arminian to professing Reformed. You can’t tell from the marquee what is
going to characterize the service on any given Sunday in a lot of churches across America
and around the world. Yesterday, I mentioned Romans 10 as a way
of framing this, that we have this perennial tendency to try to climb the ladder, ascend
the ladder to either bring God down to us, or descend into the depths to try to bring
Christ back up from the dead, as if He isn’t raised and at the right hand of the Father,
whereas the righteousness which is through faith receives the gift of God in Jesus Christ
as He descends to us. We’ve heard about the second century heresy
of Gnosticism and how it is so often revived. It’s stated in bold terms today by Matthew
Fox when he says, “The way to kill the soul is to worship a God outside of you.” And when you put together those elements that
Peter Jones was describing earlier today with the heresy of Pelagianism, that is the heresy
of self-salvation, you have the perfect storm, and that perfect storm creates the phenomenon
of what we’re going to talk about in the next 20 minutes or half an hour here of moralistic,
therapeutic deism. Pelagianism is named after a fifth century
British monk who challenged the church’s teaching of salvation by grace. His main focus of opposition was the great
Church Father Augustine. And Pelagius taught that we are not born in
sin at all. Adam serves as a bad example. That is the impact and influence that Adam
has on us. And of course, if that’s all the problem
we have, the only kind of Savior you need is a good example, and that’s exactly what
Jesus is. He’s the… Finney was… or Finney, oops, I get them
confused so often. Pelagius… Pelagius was the first author of the What
Would Jesus Do philosophy of religion. For everything… The focus of everything was on what would
Jesus do without having a clue about what Jesus has done. If you have a little problem, you need a little
solution. And that’s exactly what Pelagius had. He had a little problem. You’re good, but you could be better. What will make you better? Good instructions. A more moderate version soon arose known as
semi-Pelagianism, not quite as bold in its denial of original sin and Christ’s substitutionary
atonement and salvation by grace. Pelagius didn’t even think you needed grace
at all. The semi-Pelagian said, “No, you need grace,
but freewill gets it started,” and then to keep it going you need grace. Both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism were
condemned by more church councils than any heresy in history. Did you know that? In the sixth century at the Council of Orange,
even semi-Pelagianism was condemned. You even have the words, “whosoever believes
that we are saved by the saying of a prayer, when it is the grace of God that leads us
to pray for salvation, let him be anathema.” I mean, these were… there were days when
there was a little bit more clarity about grace. But in the late Middle Ages, this semi-Pelagianism
came back with a vengeance. The bumper sticker in the Middle Ages was
Facientibus [quod] in se est Deus non denegat gratiam, “to those who do what lies within
them, God will give His grace.” You do your part, and God will do His part. And that’s why the Reformation was necessary
because of this renewal, this revival of semi-Pelagianism. Charles Spurgeon rightly said that Pelagianism
is our natural heresy. We don’t have to be taught it. This is… This is a doctrine we don’t have to be taught. This is what we naturally believe. Ask the average American what he or she believes,
and what you’ll get is Pelagianism or at best semi-Pelagianism. And so we’ve got to be taught out of it
and not at the beginning of the Christian life, but every single week. We have to be taught out of this native, natural
religion of our fallen heart. So the Gnostic component of this moralistic,
therapeutic deism is evident in the fact that our culture turns inward for its authority. It turns inward for its salvation. We’re not sinners who need to be rescued
by a God who is outside of us, but divine souls that need to be enlightened so that
they can have peace of mind and serenity and peace. So how do we substantiate this? What is moralistic, therapeutic deism? Let me first of all introduce it with a couple
of statistics, and then talk briefly here about Christian Smith and his coining this
term. First of all, George Barna writes, marketing
and polling consultant writes, “To increasing millions of Americans, God, if we even believe
in a supernatural deity, exists for the pleasure of humankind. He resides in the heavenly realm solely for
our utility and benefit. Although we are too clever to voice it, we
live by the notion that true power is accessed not by looking upward but by turning inward.” So even though I would argue his cure is part
of the disease that he’s documenting here, I’m pointing to his statistics to document
the problem. He says, “Unless something changes, it will
be every man for himself with no second thoughts or regrets about the personal or societal
implications of this incredibly selfish, nihilistic, narcissistic way of life.” He says, “Most Americans have at least an
intellectual assent when it comes to God, Jesus Christ, and angels. They believe that the Bible is a good book
filled with important stories and moral lessons, and they believe that religion is very important
in their lives.” But this same group of people, including many
professing Christians, also believe that people are inherently good, that our primary purpose
is to enjoy life as much as possible. The chief end of man is to glorify ourselves
and enjoy ourselves forever. Now, I mentioned that Medieval bumper sticker,
“God will not deny His grace to those who do what lies within them.” What is… What’s a typical American version of that? God helps those who help themselves. And Barna in his survey shows that 82% of
Americans and a majority of evangelicals thought that was a quotation from the Bible. He says a majority believe that “all people
pray to the same God or spirit, no matter what name they use for that spiritual being,
and that if a person is generally good or does good enough things for others during
their life, they will earn a place in heaven.” Then after citing a series of reports, Barna
concludes, “In short, the spirituality of America is Christian in name only. We desire experience more than knowledge. We prefer choices to absolutes. We embrace preferences rather than truths. We seek comfort rather than growth. Faith must come on our terms or we reject
it. We have enthroned ourselves as the final arbiters
of righteousness, the ultimate rulers of our own experience and destiny. We are the Pharisees of the new millennium.” And the fact that George Barna seems to advocate
a view of the Christian life that’s very similar to this, that seems to feed this,
shows that as evangelicals we can nod at the problems. When we hear criticisms, we can nod, and then
what we do in practice is actually going on as if that weren’t true, as if we were still
feeding it. And that’s, I think, the challenge here. It’s one of the reasons I’m quoting his
surveys. So we can’t just tinker around the edges. We need a new paradigm. We need a God-centered rather than human-centered
paradigm. God defines the real world. You see, we don’t have a real world, and
then say, how does God fit into my… fit into the real world? Do you hear people say that? Yeah, but how does God fit into the real world? What’s the assumption there? What is… What are they calling the real world? They are calling the real world that which
the Apostle Paul calls the “age that is fading away.” The real world is the kingdom that cannot
be shaken coming down out of heaven. So first of all, we have to ask ourselves,
what is the real world? It’s not our lives that define the relevance
of God. It’s God who defines His own relevance. He’s our Creator, and therefore, He tells
us how relevant He is. In this context, as Newsweek magazine reports,
“Churches have developed a…” – I’m quoting here – “… have developed
a pick and choose Christianity, in which individuals take what they want and pass over what doesn’t
fit their spiritual goals. What many have left behind is a pervasive
sense of sin.” It’s great when you have Newsweek to tell
you what the problem is in the churches in America. A decade later, Newsweek added in yet another
cover story on the search for the sacred these words, “Disguised in the secular language
of psychotherapy, the search for the sacred has turned sharply inward, a private quest. The goal over the last 40 years has been variously
described as peace of mind, higher consciousness, personal transformation…” – it sounds
like a lot of the titles in Christian bookstores today and sermons – “or in its silliest
incarnation, self-esteem. In this environment, many searching Americans
flit from one tradition to the next, tasting now the nectar of this traditional wisdom,
now of that, but like butterflies they remain mostly up in the air.” Years ago the well-known secular psychologist,
Karl Menninger wrote that book, Whatever Became of Sin?, saying there’s a certain diagnosis
that we don’t have as psychologists, and your churches are putting a lot of people
on our couches because we can’t explain that phenomenon, and you’re not putting
your finger on it, you’re not identifying the phenomenon. You don’t have confession and absolution. You don’t have any forgiveness because you
don’t talk about sin. We keep having to hear these things from secular
psychologists and periodicals because it’s just not happening in a lot of churches. Episcopal Bishop C. Fitzsimons Allison calls
it pastoral cruelty not to tell the truth about sin. It’s pastorally cruel when people have this
aching sense of anxiety, depression, and guilt, not to tell them what the objective source
of that is, so that they can be forgiven. But we trivialize sin. Fundamentalism reduces sin to certain behaviors. So if you can stop doing those things, you’re
okay. Sin then is what those other people do out
there. Liberalism, exactly the same thing, sin is
reduced to social structures. In either case, sin is deflected from me to
outsiders. It’s not a condition that we all share together,
a mess that we’re all in, a common judgment and condemnation in which we all participate. It’s rather something that defines those
people out there, who of course are not like me. In his bestseller, The Triumph of the Therapeutic,
Philip Rieff describes how pop psychology has transformed our entire worldview. It’s not just that… This is not a tirade on… on therapy, anyone
who’s had counseling. This is… The critique here and that Philip Rieff makes
is that therapy has become our worldview. Now it’s our worldview. We think in therapeutic terms. And he says, and he is not a believer that
I know of, but he said, “Christian man was born to be saved. Psychological man is born to be pleased.” So how can I, a sinner, be justified before
a holy God isn’t even on the radar in a therapeutic mindset. It’s an answer to a question people aren’t
even asking. In a therapeutic worldview, it doesn’t even
come to consciousness that that would be a reasonable question. So Christian Smith has called this moralistic,
therapeutic deism. Christian Smith was at the University of North
Carolina of Chapel Hill when he and a group of colleagues put together a study from 2001
to 2005 of America’s teens and published it with Oxford University Press. He is now at the University of Notre Dame
and has just written another book. In fact, we just last week interviewed him
on this one too, this latest one, for the White Horse Inn, fascinating data on what
happened to these young people five years later. That book has just been published. It’s hot off the press. This one is Souls in Transition: The Religious
and Spiritual Lives of America’s Emerging Adults in 2009. And the one before it, that coined the term,
moralistic, therapeutic deism, was published in 2007. From his extensive interviews, Smith concluded
that the dominant form of religion or spirituality among America’s teens right now is moralistic,
therapeutic, and deistic. First of all, he says it’s difficult to
define this somewhat a morph of spirituality, especially since ironically 22% of teen deists
in our survey reported feeling very or extremely close to God, the God they believe isn’t
involved in the world today. You see, this is part of the contradiction. You have to ask all the questions in order
to get a full… a full answer because it’s… it’s not… you know, we believe all sorts
of things in contradiction. Apparently, God’s involvement is restricted
to the inner sphere of one’s private world. God is very involved in my heart, but God
doesn’t seem to be very involved in the world. Smith observed that most teens, including
those reared in evangelical churches, who said that their faith is (quote) “very important”
in their lives and makes a big difference in their lives, are in his words “stunningly
inarticulate” concerning the actual content of that faith. He said interviewing teens one finds little
evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country, parents, pastors, teachers,
are being effective and successful with the majority of their young people. In contrast to previous generations that at
least had some residual knowledge of the Bible and basic Christian teachings, he says it
seems that there is very little serious ability to state, much less to reflect upon and examine
their beliefs, much less to relate them to daily life. What is moralistic, therapeutic deism? There’s a creed. The first article in this creed, according
to Christian Smith, is that God created the world. Everybody in America nearly believes that
God created the world. They say they do anyway. What that means is up for grabs, but most
Americans say that God created the world. Two, God wants people to be good, nice, and
fair to each other. God is the everlasting Mister Rogers. And this doctrine is taught in the Bible but
also in most world religions. Three, the central goal of life is to be happy
and to feel good about yourself. Four, God does not need to be particularly
involved in your life except when He’s needed to resolve a problem. You know, like a butler. You whistle, and here he comes, and otherwise,
he’s out of the way. And then five, good people go to heaven when
they die. So it’s moralistic. It’s therapeutic. And it’s deistic. It’s moralistic because all good people…
we’re all good people, could just be a little bit better. All good people go to heaven when they die
because they’re good people. It’s therapeutic because it’s all about
what God can do for me. Otherwise, He’s out of the picture. But can… how can He contribute along with
all of these other things and people in my life, how can He contribute to making me happy? How can He contribute to this movie that is
my life? A great title of a book published a few years
ago, Life: The Movie, Starring Everyone. That’s how we live, as if we’re in our
own movie. Here, can I grab you as a character? You’ll be a walk-on. I don’t think you’re going to be a close
friend. But you’ll be a walk-on, and I’ll give
you a few things, a couple of dinners or something out of it. Basically, the message is God’s nice, we
are nice, so let’s all be nice. Do young people raised in evangelical homes
actually believe this? According to all of the studies that I’ve
seen, yes, absolutely. In fact, we interviewed Christian Smith on
the first book a while back, and I said, you know, you’ve got to be talking about a difference
between Unitarians and Southern Baptists. He said, no, it’s across the board. There is no difference between denominations. Conservative or liberal, Roman Catholic or
Protestant, there is no difference, and on some of these points, the more a young person
attended an evangelical church or youth group, the more likely he or she was to embrace moralistic,
therapeutic deism. This is not something the culture is doing
to us. It’s something the church is doing to itself,
and it’s affecting the culture. A lot of this that’s going on in the culture
is really the result of religion, which has always been very powerful in this country. It has been a very powerful force. Smith points out in his book that in the working
theology of those I studied, being religious is about being good, and it’s not about
forgiveness. “It is unbelievable the proportion of conservative,
Protestant teens who do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the gospel concerning
grace and justification. It’s across all traditions.” (end quote) Recently, I came across a story in the newspaper
on the remarkable success of a website called “DailyConfession.com.” It receives as many as 1.3 million hits a
day, as young people log-on in order to share their intimate secrets and look for advice. One 19-year-old user of the site related,
“The idea of confessing isn’t necessarily about right and wrong. It’s about unloading a burden. It’s almost cathartic.” There’s the therapeutic narcissism. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s not about objective guilt. It… It’s… It’s about a technique that I need to use,
a therapy I need to invoke so that I don’t feel this way anymore. I can unload my burden. Far different is David’s confession in Psalm
95, even after he had committed such atrocious sins against Bathsheba and her husband, and
yet he can only say, “Against, You O God, and You alone, have I sinned and done what
is evil in Your sight. Do not throw me away.” That vertical dimension is what’s being
lost. Either we’re turning inward, or we’re
turning outward on a horizontal plane, but looking upward in faith to the Triune God
who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ seems to be increasingly replaced by a human-centered
approach. And so the right rules and methods produce
the right results. We’ve seen that with Charles Finney. That’s… The pragmatism is already there. Joel Osteen says very clearly, if you just
follow these steps, you get these results. This pervasive tendency towards Pelagianism
in American Christianity is evident, as I say, across the spectrum. It’s worth observing that Norman Vincent
Peale and Robert Schuller were ordained in the Reformed Church in America. Robert Schuller wrote years ago in his book,
Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, “It was appropriate for Calvin and Luther to think
in a God-centered way, but the scales must tip the other way toward a human needs approach. In fact, classical, Christian theology has
erred in its insistence that theology be God-centered, not man-centered. Sin is any act or thought that robs myself
or another human being of his or her self-esteem. And so what is hell?” He says, “It is the lost of pride that naturally
follows separation from God, the ultimate and unfailing source of our soul’s sense
of self respect. A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem,
but the cross sanctifies the ego trip.” I quoted that when we had him on “The White
Horse Inn,” and asked him in the light of that if he would kind enough to respond to
these words from Paul in 2 Timothy 3, verses 1 through 5, “But understand this that in
the last days there will come times of difficulty, for people will be lovers of self, lovers
of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless,
unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving the good, treacherous,
reckless, swollen with pride, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance
of godliness, but denying its power.” And before I was able to finish that, he interrupted
and said, “Young man, I hope you don’t preach that stuff. If you do, you’ll hurt a lot of beautiful
people.” And when I pointed out to him I was quoting
a passage from the inspired apostle, he said, “Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t
mean you need to preach it.” Marsha Witten wrote a book, All Is Forgiven:
The Secular Message in American Protestantism, published by Princeton University Press in
1993. Marsha Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular
Message in American Protestantism. Isn’t it a horrible title to have to hear? All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American
Protestantism. She’s not a Christian. She says right from the outset, “I am not
a professing Christian.” But she said, “I wanted to study the texts
of 47 sermons on the parable of the prodigal son delivered from 1986 to 1988 by various
pastors of two denominations, the Presbyterian Church USA, mainline Presbyterian, and the
Southern Baptist Convention. So I wanted to get sort of the left… samples
from the left and the right, and what did I find?” She found essentially what we’re talking
about here, moralistic, therapeutic deism. Her sermons revealed that there was little
difference between the mainline Presbyterian and conservative Southern Baptist sermons. She says, “The Calvinist roots of religious
practice in Colonial America were long ago eaten away by popular ideologies of voluntarism,
democracy, and pragmatism, making the view that human beings cannot contribute to their
own salvation seem less plausible.” She adds, “When God is seen in transcendent
terms at all in these sermons, his fearsome qualities are either deemphasized or banished
from the discourse and replaced by portraits of a clear-thinking, well-organized, super-administrator
in the sky.” So there’s the deism part, God as the ideal
Director of Homeland Security – homeland defined as my personal peace and affluence
and happiness. She says, “We might even be inclined to
feel sorry for this deity, who’s just waiting for the prodigal to return, to come to his
senses. In fact, love overwhelms law. God sets aside any question of merit, or duty,
and simply embraces the prodigal.” This is that unconditional love thing that
Dr. Sproul has been talking about. God never really surprises us. Grace is never a surprise. It’s an “of course.” She says, “This relatively weak notion of
God is underscored by an almost complete lack of any construction of anxiety around one’s
future state. It’s negative feelings, not an objectively
negative danger, that these sermons stressed, as solved by the gospel. The transcendent, majestic, awesome God proclaimed
by Luther and Calvin, whose image informed early Protestant visions, has undergone a
softening of demeanor through the whole American experience of Protestantism with only minor
interruptions.” So for example, she says, “Drugs and promiscuity
aren’t wrong because they offend God, according to most of these sermons, but because they
can’t compare with the joy and happiness, and fulfillment, and meaning that you have
in becoming a Christian.” They’re not wrong. They are unfulfilling. They don’t last. “One of the sermons,” she says, “said
it feels good to be a Christian.” When you are trying to sell product like therapeutic
transformation, there can be no ambiguity, no anxiety, no… no complexity to life. It’s got to be upbeat, happy, – happy,
happy, happy, happy, happy all the time – until you go home and collapse when no one’s around. She says, “In the Southern Baptist sermons,
the world is the pigpen in which the prodigal wasted his inheritance, with many sermons
going into greater detail than Jesus ever did on cocktail parties, watching the vileness
of Sodom in their living rooms, trying to escape reality with cocaine.” (end quote) Like, where’s that in the text? She said that was what a lot of the Southern
Baptist sermons did. The pigpen is the world, and the church is
the home they need to come back to, the good place. She said, “The most common summary of the
prodigal’s fault in these sermons was that he rejected his own dignity and self-respect.” But she said, “For Presbyterian speakers,
on the other hand, it’s the dutiful religiously obedient, yet joyless and judgmental older
brother who is more likely to serve as the emblem of sin.” So in the Southern Baptist sermons the bad
guy was the prodigal who needs to come home, and for the mainline Presbyterians it was
the judgmental, older brother who was the villain in the story. But in either case, it’s those people out
there who are like them. She says, “They, all of the sermons, depersonalize
sin.” It’s not something done against a person. It’s something that will hurt you or harm
you. It’s depersonalized. Then it’s generalized – no sin in particular,
just living a way you shouldn’t live. And then it’s deflected to outsiders. Here’s one example, I’ve got to hurry
up here. “Without condoning their sin,” said one
Southern Baptist pastor, “we should go out to the poor, the blacks, the Hispanics, the
beer drinkers and the divorced.” What an interesting list. “Without condoning their sin,” what, Hispanics,
blacks, and the poor evidently are just inherently sinful because of their demographic – talk
about the outsider. This deflection of sin to outsiders is part
and parcel of both sides. She said the mainline Presbyterians did the
same thing. Now the outsiders are the conservative culture
warriors. But she said they did exactly the same thing. And she points to Finney and draws the line
from Finney to George Barna and others today who are making some of these same arguments. The bottom line is that we’re in a situation
that is very similar to the time where Jesus told His contemporaries, “To what can I
compare this generation?” You’re like children playing the funeral
game, and nobody cries. And then they turn and do the wedding game,
and nobody dances. John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking,
and you said, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and
you said, “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax gatherers, and sinners.” Jesus’ point was, you don’t know how to
have a good funeral or a good party. You guys don’t know how to laugh or cry. You don’t know how to really mourn over
your state and flee to me as your only salvation. I am the Bridegroom. John came in sackcloth and ashes, mourning. But I’m the Bridegroom coming for the bride. Come unto Me all you who are weary and are
heavy laden, and I will give you rest. But you will not come to Me. The bad news is too bad, and the good news
is too good. So you settle for so-so news, improving your
lives, following these steps, and these rules, and these principles to try to get back on
track. The funeral game is just the warm-up for the
wedding game. John the Baptist has to come, but he’s not
the main attraction. Jesus is. In the 1950s, Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr
gave this pithy and tragically accurate summary of liberalism. A God without wrath brought men without sin
into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross. And that could describe our situation today. That is moralistic, therapeutic deism. But when people like Niebuhr and J. Gresham
Machen in his book Christianity and Liberalism were describing Protestant liberalism, now
it describes evangelicalism. That’s the difference. That’s the difference. Machen in that great classic in the 1920s
asked the liberals, “I have heard your exhortations, and they will not help me. But has anything been done to save me? That’s all I ask. Just tell me the facts.” That’s what people need today. They need to hear the facts. They need to find themselves like that publican
in our Lord’s parable, who couldn’t lift up his eyes he was so ashamed, so full of
guilt – find themselves addressed… they cry out, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” You go home justified today. Remember, it was the Pharisee who thanked
God that he wasn’t like those other people, deflecting sin to outsiders, but thanking
God that he wasn’t. He wasn’t a Pelagian. He was a semi-Pelagian. He believed he needed grace to be better than
other people. But the good news is not, good people can
be better, you can have your best life now. The good news is that God has been merciful
to sinners in His Son. And that’s good news not only for us but
for the whole world, even for Christians. And may it become once again the focus of
all of our preaching, our music, our teaching, our sacraments, our prayers, our witness,
and our very lives. Let’s pray. Gracious Father, we thank You for sending
Your Son out of Your love for us and proving that story from Genesis to Revelation as the
trail of sacrificial blood leads from types and shadows to fulfillment. Help us, Father, to search out that scarlet
thread of redemption throughout all of the Scriptures and to find Christ there as the
Bread of Life and the Savior of the world. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.