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Commentary by Matt Woodley, Editor of Preaching Today

The Toxic Belief of Moral Therapeutic Deism
If you’re depending on your own works to earn salvation, that’s a false gospel.

It’s a pretty common belief that bacteria are everywhere. Scientists believe there are approximately 5x1030 bacteria on Earth. What’s crazy about that is that some of our more “engineerish” and scientific-minded folk are trying to crunch the numbers their head right now. “Yancey, don’t be silly. That’s five gazillion.” We get it.

Not only do we have a lot of bacteria around us, we have a lot of bacteria in us. There are approximately 39 trillion bacterial cells in human body alone where most are rendered impotent by our immune system and some are even beneficial, especially in the gut system. And yet, as most of you know, there are some bacteria outside of us that, if they get into our body, can hurt us and even be deadly.

Toxic shock
Certain bacteria can secrete an exotoxin causing major damage to our system. It can lead to what is known as toxic shock. You’re healthy, then suddenly you get fever, low blood pressure, and mental confusion that can progress to coma and organ failure. Now it may be too late. That’s why time is of the essence when toxic shock surfaces. The longer you wait, the greater the damage. That’s power of toxicity: It takes something completely healthy and deteriorates it over time.

What’s true of body physical is true of body spiritual: We must take care of what enters it. In fact, I’d argue, the potential damage followers of Jesus can experience spiritually is just as if not more concerning. It can keep you from experiencing God’s power. It can make you feel like you know him well when you don’t know him much at all. It can create in you all kinds of fears, anxieties, and distance from your faith. And so much more.

No wonder we hear the call to followers of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 16:13a: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith…” (ESV throughout). So that begs the question, what is it exactly we are to watch out for? I think it is what Paul alludes to as he counsels his ministry protégé and church-planting apprentice Timothy when he says in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Did you see what Christians need to be on guard for to avoid spiritual toxic shock? Keep a close watch on your teaching. This means the spiritual toxic shock we must be aware of is not bacteria but beliefs.

There are certain teachings masquerading as biblical and helpful, but if followers of Jesus embrace them, they’ll be spiritually hampered if not flat-out damaged. The nefarious aspect to these beliefs is they don’t come from outside church but inside it­—mutating and corrupting the theology of people. What’s frightening is that these beliefs initially seem harmless because they are so common. But that’s what makes them all the more dangerous, and like biological toxicity, the longer you wait, the greater the damage, where it’s not just dangerous for the moment but dangerous eternally.

Over next few weeks, we’re looking at some common toxic beliefs that have arisen in the church so that we might work swiftly to know and rid ourselves of them for the sake of our spiritual health—because the longer we wait, the greater damage that can happen.

Let me begin by giving what I perceive to be one of the biggest toxic beliefs in the church.

The toxic belief of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In 2005, Dr. Christian Smith, distinguished professor of sociology at UNC–Chapel Hill, gave the results of a research project funded by the prestigious Lilly Endowment concerning spiritual views of US teenagers who identified as religious, many who professed to be Christians. His findings have been talked about ever since. Not only did they reverberate in the academic world but in the church as well. Because after sorting through the data, he and co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton suggested that the dominant religion among teenagers—who by the way, in 2018, are now adults in their 20s and 30s (i.e., millennials)—this de facto religion can be called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The creed of this religion goes something as follows:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Essentially, here’s why it’s called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its adherents believe that God is out there somewhere in the beyond uninvolved and unconcerned with our lives. Thus, it’s deistic. They also believe that God simply wants us to be good people overall in order for us to enter heaven. Thus, it’s moralistic. And finally, they believe that the end goal and ultimate good is to feel happy in life. This is how they get to define good. It’s what makes them happy. Thus, it’s therapeutic.

I see it all the time with people who claim to be followers of Jesus. It’s the religion I see everywhere. If you ask them about salvation, they might very well talk about Jesus, but they would also talk about their moral performance. They would add a person’s need to be good to be saved. They might say, “God doesn’t want much from me but to be a good person—I need to treat others well, be kind, and love my family—and he will take me to him when I die. I’ve been a good person!”

Maybe even now some of you are thinking, “Goodness, Yancey, what’s so toxic about that belief? I know a ton of people who would identify as Christians but would say the same. I mean, I think that way. What’s the big deal? Are you saying that’s a toxic belief?”

I am.

I’m saying that when actually look at what the Bible says about salvation and Christianity, you’ll see that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism isn’t just a generation’s spirituality du jour but a danger. It’s toxic.

How? The toxicity of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that it fools people into thinking they’re Christians when they’re actually not. It creates the illusion that you are okay with God when you’re not okay with God.

Why does that kind of belief lead to such a dire end? Let me take you on a journey for that answer, a journey that begins by traveling through one of the most sobering passages in the Bible.

A most sobering passage

It’s in Matthew 7. For three chapters (beginning in Matthew 5) Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of God that he is bringing. He has been teaching and elucidating what that kingdom looks like and who can be a part of it. Toward the end of chapter 7, Jesus addresses a group of people who have a shocking surprise waiting for them at the end of the age.

Jesus says in Matthew 7:21–23:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

One thing this passage shows, and should make us pause in reflection, is that Jesus says some people will go their entire lives thinking they’re in when in reality they’re out. There are going to be people who get to Judgment Day believing there are saved or a Christian or redeemed when they aren’t. In fact, Christ will say, “I never knew you.” You weren’t mine, you’re not my followers.

And this text has him saying this not to pagan people but those who see themselves as religious—the kind of people who attend church services, get into a small group, serve in some ministry—but had a toxic belief about the faith that gave them the illusion of possessing the real thing when in reality they didn’t.

Let that settle in, folks, because this is a big deal, because this is the kind of bacteria that can kill you. Whatever belief they have, it would appear to be a very toxic belief: You think you’re in when you’re out.

Now we need to do a diagnostic for ourselves. Is that the kind of belief we have? How would we know?

If I were to ask you if you were a Christian, would you say yes? If so, if anywhere in your equation of what it means to receive salvation you have some kind of moral performance, in other words, you essentially believe God just wants you to be a good person (with a little bit of Jesus) because, like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, good people are the ones who go to heaven, I’d say you’re in trouble.

That belief is toxic. Seriously toxic. Matthew 7 toxic.

I want you to feel this with me. Not just know this but to feel how serious this really is. It’s one thing to hear a pastor talk about it, but I want you to hear the Scriptures address this. I want to take you to Galatians. We’ll begin in 1:6–9 then we’ll go back to 1:3–5.

Main text: Galatians 1:3–9

You see this kind of sobriety in the opening of Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia. Let me give you some context. Paul, the preeminent church planter, is writing to some churches he planted in Asia Minor. He has gotten some troubling news. He hears about some teachers within the church who have begun telling congregants that the gospel of Jesus, the message of salvation, is not merely rooted in the Person and Work of Christ but also tied to their moral performance (specifically of the Law). In other words, they’re teaching that God accepts us or makes us right before him based not just in believing in Jesus but on how well we obey. This is similar in spirit to the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist who also argues that salvation is tied to one’s ability to obey (or be good).

So Paul hears that kind of teaching is bubbling up within the churches of Galatia, and I want you to see how he responds. Really, I want you to feel how thinks about this. He sends them a Hallmark card, but it’s not a nice one.

Again, don’t just hear this but feel this.

Paul writes in Galatians 1:6–9,I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one …”

Which to me, if I were seeing this being tweeted out, I’d respond with a row of fire emojis because Paul is absolutely “lit” here! He is going off!

Let’s read it again:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Paul calls any belief that mixes Jesus with being good (your moral performance, your ability to obey) in order to receive salvation… He doesn’t just call that a problem but “a different gospel.” He’s saying if your version of Christianity has you depending on any level on you being a good person to get to heaven, you possess a counterfeit Christianity. You may think you possess the real thing, but that’s an illusion. It’s the kind of belief that will get you to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”

It’s also why Paul is so adamant that when churches talk about God and salvation that they get it right. He says if even an angel shows up. If an angelic being drops down from the heavens on a Sunday morning and says something different than what the Galatians have heard from Paul and the apostles about the gospel, let that being be “accursed.” The Greek, which is primarily the original language of the New Testament, uses the word anathema which means “to be damned.”

So, catch this! Paul’s essentially saying if someone comes preaching any message that claims God will make you right with him which includes your moral performance to make that happen, then let that person be sent straight to hell.

Why such strong feelings? Because Paul realizes how dangerous it is to mess with the Good News of Jesus.

The grace of the gospel

If I could boil the core tenet of the Christian faith into one idea, I would say it’s the love of God expressed through his grace, specifically the grace in the person and work of Christ. So grace is a big deal. What’s grace? Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. You break a law and the judge doesn’t punish you. That’s mercy because you’re not getting what you deserve. But what if he threw a party for you? That’s grace because, again, you get something you don’t deserve. The essence of the Christian message, the essence of the gospel, why we even call it the Good News (which is what gospel means) is that God gives us in the person and work of Jesus something we don’t deserve.

That’s why Paul is so on edge with the Galatians. Because the minute you talk about grace plus what you do is the minute you don’t have grace anymore. If you’re drowning in Galveston Bay and some old boy picks you up and brings you to safety, that is salvation, but if he just tells you, “I know the way to safety, and if you just swim really hard … because the current is strong, but you can do it if you can reach that point,” you will be thankful for him, but actually, you did most of the work. The latter is religion. It’s Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, not Christianity. Christianity isn’t about how hard you swim for your salvation. Christianity is that you are dead in your sins—you’re not even crying for help! God seeks you out, finds you face down in the water, turns you over, even gives you breath in your lungs to cry for help, picks you up, and safely delivers you not just to a beach but into his family to continue to give you his care and concern. And he does it all not based on your goodness to him but on his sheer goodness to you—on his grace.

And it’s that message of grace that Paul will not suffer to be messed with. The minute you mess with the gospel of grace by adding any kind of moral performance to it is the minute you lose the gospel. Get the gospel wrong and spiritual toxicity will ruin you forever—the longer you wait the worse it gets—and you won’t know it until it’s too late.

This is why Paul’s introduction to his letter is so helpful. Here Paul reminds us of the goodness of the gospel. You’ll find that it’s not some uninvolved God way out there that merely wants us to be good like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would say. Paul begins in Galatians 1:3–5, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Paul begins entire letter setting the truth of gospel before Galatian Christians. What’s the gospel about? First, it’s about God doing for you what you cannot do for yourself. Salvation is about —notice the first word in verse 3—“grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This helps us see the gospel isn’t about your ability to earn salvation by your goodness or morality. Will it impact your morality when you become a Christian? Absolutely! God changes us by his Spirit and that change impacts our behavior. But that’s different than saying my hope in God to save me rests upon Jesus plus me being a good person.

If it were, I wouldn’t need God’s grace for peace. Who needs the Cross? I can achieve peace for myself. I’ll just need to be a better swimmer! But the Bible is clear that we’re sinners one and all. No one is good enough. No one swims strongly enough. We need grace!

How does grace come? Look at verses 3 and 4, “Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.”

That’s the beauty of the gospel! The truth is that you’re not good enough nor am I for salvation (by the way, no matter how Moralistic Therapeutic Deists feel about their goodness, for God it always falls short because he is the standard of goodness). But don’t despair! The good news is that Jesus has been good for us all. He always did what was right and just, he always obeyed the law of God, and then he went to the cross as our substitute to take the penalty of our sins for all the times we didn’t obey (and don’t obey and won’t obey), that he might “deliver us from the present evil age” and bring us into his kingdom of God which has no end.

And he does this all by grace. The good news is that Christ has started and finished all work necessary for us to be made right with God. We don’t earn it. We can only receive it by faith.

For the record, this was always God’s plan. If you read the Bible and think it’s about God bringing us into his kingdom by our ability to obey the Bible, then you’ve missed the point of the Bible. On the contrary, it was never God’s plan that we would “work” our way to his kingdom by depending upon our goodness but solely trusting in Jesus’ goodness for us. That plan of grace in Jesus wasaccording to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 1:4b–5).

God, in ages past, determined to redeem a broken world and the people that live in it through the gracious work of his Son. It would be by God, from God, and ultimately for God. No wonder Paul adds this doxology, “to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Sign of gospel reception: Worship

Let me give you a little secret. You want to know what to look for in people who have really connected with the truth of the gospel versus people who are merely dilettantes, those who just play church instead of truly being the church? Maybe this isn’t a watertight approach. Maybe there can be exceptions, but you’d be hard-pressed to make them. But I would say if you want to find authentic faith, look for people who want to worship God.

Like Paul in verse 5, they are so overwhelmed by the fact that they did nothing for their salvation. They realize God has done everything for them in Jesus. They know somebody came to them while they were without hope, face down in the water, and carried them to safety. They are clearly aware that because of Jesus they receive mercy instead of judgment, grace instead of condemnation, life instead of death. And all of it as a free gift in the gospel that cannot be earned but only received by faith.

And that gospel, the true gospel, overwhelms the heart. It creates in us a grateful love for God.

This doesn’t mean they perfectly obey from this point on or that they always want to worship God the best way every time they can. It means there has been a real shift in their heart by the Spirit. Instead of seeing themselves as the center of their faith, as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would have it, that perspective gets blasted out by the gospel. And when the dust settles, who do we see sitting upon the throne but a Sovereign God who has rescued us for no other reason but that he loves us and has deemed to show us grace.

One thing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot produce is real worshipers. Worshipers of self, yes, but not worshipers of God. But the gospel—the real, Jesus-our-substitute, we-as-sinners-can-but-only-receive-grace gospel—that faith enflames heart for worship because now we see God as he is: our Rescuer, our Father, and our King.

Real salvation doesn’t leave you as yourself, unmoved, as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does. No, the gospel right-sizes things. Now we not only see ourselves as sinners in need of grace but God as One, Holy, Sovereign King who saved us when we had no other hope but him. In the gospel, each player takes his rightful seat: God on his throne and we gathered around it.

O, “to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Indeed!

Conclusion: Are you toxic? How is your worship?

Jesus met with a woman one time where they discussed religious matters, and they came to the topic of real faith and worship. And Jesus doesn’t just tell her, “Hey, it’s all about me. I’m going to the cross and will be resurrected, etc.” He frames the conversation differently. He says in John 4:23, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”

Let me ask you this. I don’t know what you believe. I don’t know if you’re essentially a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. I don’t know if you have toxic beliefs or not. I would just ask you, “How is your heart for worship?”

The Moralistic Therapeutic Deist doesn’t want God; they just want to use God. But people who embrace gospel Christianity, what I would call authentic Christianity, want God for God because they realize how greatly they’ve been rescued and loved by God in Christ. And that’s the kind of worshiper God seeks in John 4: real believers in the gospel of grace.

Friends, where’s your heart? What belief do you have? How you feel about God—how is your heart is for worship? Has something shifted inside where you quit worshiping yourself, really, and worship God in Christ? Or are your hopes for eternity essentially on your shoulders, where you have to swim hard enough, where being a good person is what counts? Know this: That isn’t remotely Christianity. No. It’s a toxic belief that will leave you before Jesus in Matthew 7 where Christ says, “I don’t know who you are because you never were mine in the first place.”

I realize this is a somber message to hear, but it’s good for us to get around this today because toxic beliefs are real. Here’s what I would ask you to do: Ask God to reveal in your own heart what you really believe about God, grace, and the faith. “Do I truly trust in Christ’s work for me or do I think my salvation has somewhat to do with how good a person I am?” Some of us might say, “Yeah, I’ve kinda been playing a game. I am counting somewhat on me. I need to embrace the gospel.” Others might really believe in the gospel but find their hearts wandering from its truth, needing to deepen themselves in the goodness of God’s grace. I surely know that. I get like that. So, I just need to be reminded that I’ve been rescued so that my heart and walk with God might strengthen today in the gospel. However the Holy Spirit seeks to work in us, I pray that he does right now.

Let us pray.

Yancey Arrington is the teaching pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in Houston, Texas, and the author of the newly released Preaching That Moves People (2018). He blogs at YanceyArrington.com

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