The Biggest Threat to Christianity

What’s the biggest threat facing Christianity today? That is, who or what is most likely to undermine the well-being and growth of the Christian faith and those who embrace it?

The answer might change depending on where you live in the world. Christians in the Middle East face persecution, dislocation, and death because of groups like ISIS. Chinese believers must contend with the attempts from by their government to regulate doctrine thought to undermine the state. Christians in America and other Western countries face broad cultural changes that make faithfulness to historic, biblical Christianity more difficult and seemingly far less appealing.

These and other challenges we could list are all very serious. But over the centuries, the Christian church has proven to be remarkably resilient against a wide variety of external challenges. Accordingly, they may all take a back seat to something else, an internal threat the Christian church has battled since its very beginning. What is that threat?

In a word: moralism.

I don’t mean simply caring about what is right and wrong. That’s a good thing. Instead, moralism involves the temptation to think that our fundamental acceptance from God is determined by our moral performance. In other words, instead of relying upon Jesus’s righteousness to gain God’s favor, we rely on our ability to do things that are right and good. Instead of relying on Jesus’s death to pay for our sins, we rely on our own ability to scrub our lives clean and somehow atone for what we’ve done.

The pervasiveness of moralism lies in the fact that it constitutes the default way that broken human beings attempt to relate to God. Over many years, I’ve asked dozens and dozens of people some form of the question, “Why do you think God should let you into heaven?” By far the most common response—even from those who confess to be Christians—is something like this: “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m basically a good person. I do more good things than bad. I mean it’s not like I’ve ever killed anyone or something like that.”

Initially, this approach leads to two different results, both of which are negative. Those of us that think our moral performance is good can swell with pride. (Never mind that to reach this verdict we’ve inevitably dumbed down God’s expectations to a level we believe we can manage.) Meanwhile, those of us who consider our moral report card to be reprehensible will eventually sink into despair.

But this pride and despair are actually just symptoms of a deeper, shared problem. In both situations, the true culprit is self-righteousness. One group thinks its doing well, one poorly, but both are looking for a “self-propelled” salvation. And that is something that Jesus assures us is impossible (see, e.g., John 3:3; Mark 10:17-31).

With this in mind, it’s easier to see why moralism poses such a threat to Christianity. Pursuing it not only keeps us from the grace that we so desperately need, but in feeding our pride and/or despair, it also can lead us to be unwelcoming, ungracious, and unattractive to outsiders in various ways. Instead of a thriving vine, the church becomes a lifeless husk. All this is why a former professor of mine called moralism the greatest heresy the church has ever faced.

I should note that the tendency toward moralism isn’t limited to those who don’t know and believe the gospel. I’ve trusted in Christ since I was very young. I’ve taught the gospel my entire adult life. And yet the single greatest temptation I repeatedly face is to fall back, even unconsciously, into building a spiritual resume in hopes that it can meet God’s approval. It’s what you might call “plan B” thinking: if this whole gospel thing doesn’t work out, then I’ll still have something to rely on before God.

But that’s fool’s errand, biblically speaking. There is no plan B. Jesus, and what he accomplished for his people through his life, death, and resurrection, is the only game in town. In the words of an old and wise catechism:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Plan A will be just fine, thank you very much, to keep the Christian church thriving until its Savior comes again.

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