Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thoughts on Cultural Moralism

I was having a fruitful discussion with Benjamin and Thopro after the Agora meeting on Tuesday night. One issue that came up was the relevancy of Christians in society. Perhaps, through my blog, I am able to articulate my views more clearly. So Benjamin and Thopro, if you guys are reading this, here are some of my thoughts. :-)

The question is, if we Christians want to be relevant, should we publicly speak out against moral issues such as casinos, homosexuality and abortions? Should Christians band together with non-Christians to address moral needs? How about movies such as Brokeback Mountain that promotes sodomy and adultery and cartoons that satirize religions? Do we join hands with heathens and pagans to call for public ban on immoral vices?

For my position on this matter, I would be in full agreement with John MacArthur, who has delivered an excellent sermon, The Deadly Dangers of Moralism, which explains his view on cultural moralism.

My chief concern with cultural moralism is that it puts the cart before the horse. Sanctification is treated first before justification. The fruit of the Spirit is preached without communicating the essentials of the gospel i.e. the fundamental nature of God, the total depravity of all men, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross etc. Thus, the gospel is devalued in favor of moralism.

John MacArthur aptly puts it this way:
This cultural morality reverses the divine order. It reverses the divine order. That is, it makes morality the power for salvation. The idea is if we can get a more moral America, then more people are going to believe the gospel. If we can clean up the country, that will give greater opportunity for the gospel. That's really a reverse of the divine order. Morality is not the power for salvation. Salvation is the power for morality, right? So if we want to change the nation, what do we need to be working on? The gospel.
Lest I am misconstrued as being apathetic to social injustices and the moral needs of society, let me assure my readers that this is not the case.

So does Christians need to assume their roles to moralise society? Sure we do. However, I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only agent of change by which we are able to do so. To moralise society without preaching the gospel is to assume that morality can be achieved without the work of the Holy Spirit. That is, of course, biblically untrue. And as we all know, we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in progressive sanctification. Progressive sanctification cannot be achieved on our own.

It is quite probable that some Christians, in their attempts to moralise society, hope to lure non-Christians into the church by promoting moralistic virtues. Even though their actions are well intentioned, unfortunately however, this is based on the unbiblical notion that man has the moral ability to seek God (Romans 3:10-11). Men do not come to God because of their wants for morality but through the preaching of the gospel. As ambassadors for Christ, I believe it is our duty to proclaim the message of the gospel, and allow the Holy Spirit to convict and convert the hearts of sinners to draw them to Christ. Cultural morality as a carrot undermines the call of the gospel and makes us no different from proponents of the seeker-sensitive movement who adopts various unbiblical methods to entice people into the church.

Another concern of mine is the yoking of Christians with non-Christians. It is written,
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. – 2 Corinthians 6:14-16
The trouble with these unholy alliances is that Christians become obligated to create out-of-bound markers, which discourage them from preaching the gospel to their non-Christian moral co-workers. Since Christians and non-Christians has decided to join hands together to address moral issues, any attempts to preach the gospel would create friction and discord in these already fragile alliances.

What’s more, participating in interreligious prayers and meetings clearly runs contrary to the Scriptures. Like what the Apostle Paul wrote, what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? The apostle wrote,
The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. – 1 Corinthians 10:20
If Christians are not to publicly voice out condemnations against immoral vices, then how do we regulate spiritual morality? I believe the Word of God has clearly prescribed a biblical way to do it, and that is through the ordination of elders, the leaders of the church.
Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. – 1 Peter 5:2-3
And as far as I can tell from the Word of God, only from within the Body of Christ are moral issues to be addressed, not outside the Body of Christ. Elders are to be shepherds of their flock, which is the sheep. If there is any public condemnation of immoral vices, it should be done with regard to the well being of the sheep, not of the goats or of the wolves.

At any rate, I dislike the politicization of moral issues in the name of Christianity. It implies that the Body of Christ is ill equipped to discipline its members on moral issues, and have to turn to the secular authorities for help. This runs contrary to the teaching found in the following passage, that judgments should be confined among the saints.
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? – 1 Corinthians 6:1-5
In conclusion, I do believe that we Christians must be relevant to society. However, our approach to society must be based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing else. We are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ, not to moralise the world. Morality is the fruit of salvation, not its end. For any real moral change to happen, it must happen through the work of the Holy Spirit who works through our prayers and the proclamation of the gospel. Thus, the call for morality must never be divorced from the call of the gospel.


Blogger Ignatius said...

I've noticed you've recently added some Reformed Links on your blog. Nice to see more Christians having a Reformed understanding of the bible.Even nicer to see Reformed Thology promoted. Maybe a "Modern Reformation" may just occur!!

On your posting, can you elaborate further on:
1) "yoking of Christians with non-Christians"?
2)"hope to lure non-Christians into the church by promoting moralistic virtues"

On the point about not participating in interreligious prayers and meetings, I think I would agree with you. It clearly runs contrary to the Scriptures.

I like your " Morality is the fruit of salvation, not its end."If i'm not wrong, this is part of what Dr John MacArthur is talking about in his book "The Gospel According to Jesus"(Zondervan,1994)where he point out the importance of "lordship salvation" and elaborated on the biblical understanding of faith and works.

23/3/06 4:34 PM  
Blogger naniecheng said...

"...if we Christians want to be relevant, should we publicly speak out against moral issues such as casinos, homosexuality and abortions?"

So I guess you are saying that Christians do have the duty to speak out against immorality but should always do so only in the context of the gospel.

Morality is a very subjective thing. One man's meat may be another man's poison. Different people have different standards regarding what is morally acceptable. I guess this is a product of post-modernism.

For christians to speak out against immorality, we have to base our stand on something and that standard is scripture. And when we do state our stand e.g. on homosexuality, we should not be ashamed to say "because the Bible says so."

But I do concede that this makes us Christians seem very archaic, inflexible, narrow-minded and irrelevant in the eyes of the public.

Maybe that's why in the hope of presenting ourselves as being relevant so that they will listen, we try to focus more on morality per se rather than scripture dogma. Afterall, we are still advocating the same scriptural standards. Does it really matter?

But I get your point about the Holy Spirit being the sole agent of change.

It's a struggle though.

Just to share - Recently I returned from a mission trip where I saw such unbelievable poverty and social injustice. I think to myself, as a christian, is evangelism the only way to show God's love? Many of these people would reject the gospel but they would gladly accept humanitarian aid. So it's really much easier to put the gospel aside and do solely charity work. I know I may sound heretic but the struggle is so real.

24/3/06 9:50 AM  
Blogger beowulf said...


1) "Yoking of Christians with non-Christians"
Within the context of Singapore, the yoking of Christians and non-Christians can be best found in the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore. This organization’s objectives include:

- To inculcate the spirit of friendship and cooperation among the leaders and followers of different religions.
- To improve the conditions of the adherents of different religions in generally accepted moral principles.

The above two objectives can be interpreted as cooperation between religions to improve moral values among Singaporeans. If the goal of the gospel of Jesus Christ is simply to improve moral values, then I would say that this is a commendable effort. However, it is not. The goal of the gospel is to call all nations to worship and glorify God. This goal can only be achieved through the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing else.

Since our Great Commission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, I fail to see how establishing alliances with other religions is able to encourage missions and evangelism. Cultural moralism focuses on the good works of men i.e. moral principles and only seeks to glorify men, while the gospel of Jesus Christ seeks to glorify God. If anything, these interreligious alliances diminish the importance of the gospel that teaches the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Interreligious alliances also implicitly advocate religious pluralism as it makes moral values the unifying goal of all religions. This is obviously contrary to the Scriptures, which teaches salvation through Jesus Christ alone and that the goal of Christianity is to glorify the one and true living God.

2) "Hope to lure non-Christians into the church by promoting moralistic virtues"
Let me offer some examples. Non-Christian parents might encourage their children to join Christian organizations in the hope that moral values might be instilled in their children. Churches are perceived as places where bad habits such as smoking, drinking, drug-taking can be corrected and where strong family units are encouraged.

Christianity basically becomes one of the many options for people who want a moral lifestyle. Since religions like Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism also advocate moral values, Christianity is therefore perceived by non-Christians as being no different from other religions.

I find that this unbalanced portrayal of Christianity as being simply a religion of moral values grossly misrepresents the gospel. Most non-Christians seeking moral values would probably feel that they are generally good people. However, the gospel clearly teaches we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.

To draw people to the church by emphasizing moral virtues is to preach the gospel the wrong way round. I believe the gospel must start with the non-Christian’s position with God – that he is at enmity with God and is a sinner who is unable to save himself. That all the moral values he supports and all the good works he has done in his life counts for nothing (Philippians 3:7-9).

Therefore, men do not come to God for their wants for morality. Taking on this premise would lead to the mistaken assumption that all men are generally good and earnestly seeks to be better people. Christians should preach the gospel that emphasizes on repentance; a gospel that stresses on the sinfulness of men and their inabilities to save themselves.

24/3/06 3:10 PM  
Blogger naniecheng said...


I visited the IRO website that you mentioned and read through the "Christianity" section.

What they've written is true about Christianity and yet they deliberately left out certain key tenets such as salvation comes through Christ alone. It's like the emphasis is only on the peace portion but forgetting that that peace comes only through Christ.

The Christianity description in IRO is so attractively packaged...but so deceptive at the same time.

I sometimes wonder if this is how the Muslim radicals / militants feel about the moderate muslims? I do not know much about Islam so cannot comment on which interpretation of the religion is correct. But sometimes I can't help but feel that the moderates are kinda like the form of Christianity we see in the IRO. Very politically motivated and it totally sideskirts "the more sensitive" tenets of the faith, especially the portions that preach exclusiveness.

25/3/06 9:27 AM  
Blogger ddd said...


Looking at the Christianity section of the IRO website, I saw this:
'Each tradition, whether Catholic (Roman or Eastern Orthodox), Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, etc. is like a bright window on the mind and heart of God. Whichever the tradition, God is always at the centre with Jesus, the Christ.'

Analysis: Since when did RC became Christians, or Eastern Orthodox churches? They worship another 'Christ' and believe in another 'gospel'. And traditions are NOT 'windows into the mind and heart of God', which is a New Age phrase. Only the Bible is the revelation of God's character to Man, and nothing else.

'Christians believe that in Jesus Christ, God is breaking down the walls, barriers and prejudices that separate us as races and as religions.'

Analysis: 'breaking barriers of religions'? Advocating the heresy of inclusivism.

Whoever these Christians are who are involved in this apostasy (IRO), I would tell them to repent immediately of their sin, or the wrath of God will fall on them. (1 Peter 4:17; Rom. 1:18)

26/3/06 8:49 PM  
Blogger ddd said...


'Just to share - Recently I returned from a mission trip where I saw such unbelievable poverty and social injustice. I think to myself, as a christian, is evangelism the only way to show God's love? Many of these people would reject the gospel but they would gladly accept humanitarian aid. So it's really much easier to put the gospel aside and do solely charity work. I know I may sound heretic but the struggle is so real.'

Perhaps it would be good to read on how the Puritan early missionaries like William Carrey, George Muller, Amy Carmichael et. al.? They did humanitarian work, and also preached the Gospel. For them, it was both ... and. In their daily work, they preached the Gospel wherever they are, not making hearing the Gospel a condition of receiving the aid (i.e. no bribery), but they would definitely reject any attempt that tries to stop them sharing the Gospel.

If these people are in such a condition of poverty and injustice, then if you want to help them through humanitarian means, by all means go ahead. But you must share the Gospel with them also, even if they do not want it and oppose you.

27/3/06 2:39 PM  
Blogger beowulf said...

Hi naniecheng,

I understand your struggle with regard to poverty and social injustices. It is easier to be performing humanitarian work than preaching the gospel as it is more socially acceptable. At the same time, the material needs of people suffering from poverty and social injustices appear to be more pressing than the redemption of their souls.

However, I believe this line of thinking runs contrary to the Scriptures. For it is written, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) To emphasize material needs over spiritual needs diminish the critical necessity of the gospel. That is why I strongly disagree with the stance of organizations such as World Vision.

Despite claiming to be a Christian organization, World Vision says, “World Vision respects the religious beliefs and practices in countries where it operates, and seeks mutual understanding with people of all faiths. World Vision does not proselytise. We do not coerce nor demand that people hear any religious message or convert to Christianity before, during or after receiving assistance.”

I am in agreement with you over the IRO. This organization’s goal is to build bridges across various religions. However, the exclusivism of Christianity does not allow such ecumenical attempts. To deemphasize salvation through Jesus Christ alone by focusing on moral values insults the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

It is quite revealing that the forgiveness of sins is not mentioned at all in the IRO website. The word “sin” is not even mentioned. The most well-known verse John 3:16, which contains the important phrase, “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” is not quoted.

I also feel very much the same way as you on Islam. The Islamic world, which despites its moniker as the “religion of peace,” appears to be quite silent over the recent cries of the Muslim clerics for the death of the Afghan convert to Christianity. This is so unlike the recent outburst over the Danish cartoons, which have a much stronger response, culminating in public demonstrations and riots. The nagging question is, where are the moderate Muslims calling for the freedom of religion in Islamic countries and the immediate release of the Afghan convert? If there are no Muslim protests, so does it strengthen the case that the freedom of religion is anathema to true Islam?

27/3/06 3:40 PM  
Blogger naniecheng said...

ddd & beowulf,

Thanks for taking time to reply. So if a country were to say that you can do humanitarian work there but not spread the gospel, would you still do humanitarian work in that country?

28/3/06 8:40 PM  
Blogger ddd said...


For me, in such a situation, if I wanted to do humanitarian work there, I would still go and preach the Gospel secretly. Of course, you must weigh the consequences if you get caught but if you really love these people and have a burden for them, by all means go ahead. (Acts. 4:19. The context is also interesting)

28/3/06 11:55 PM  
Blogger beowulf said...

I agree with ddd. Acts 4:19 certainly places the preaching of the gospel above the laws of men. And just like what ddd wrote, there are consequences and we must be prepared to lay down our lives for the Lord. If we really care for the heathens, we should be feeding them with more than just food. For it is written, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Here is an inspiring article by John Piper titled "You Will Be Eaten by Cannibals!" Courage in the Cause of World Missions.

29/3/06 10:32 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Ho said...

Hi Beowulf,

I think the point I was trying to drive at is not to promote some form of morality (that is devoid of the Gospel), but rather in the articulation of morality (through "non-Gospel" terms - that means we don't have to invoke the name of Christ each time we challenge a social policy), demonstrate and challenge the unbeliever's assumptions upon which his entire worldview stands or falls. That does not mean he would convert to Christianity (it's the Holy Spirit's duty to effect regeneration), but it only means that without the foundation of a Christian-theistic framework, his morality is a futile one.

personally I also see nothing wrong in establishing certain humanitarian alliances with those who may not share the same faith... part of our duty after salvation is to demonstrate our goodworks. The only difference among believers and non-believers within these organisations is that believers have the proper base upon which they base their works upon, while non-believers don't. Far from ostracizing ourselves from them, we should conduct ourselves in a manner that would challenge those who disagree with us (over faith matters) to re-examine themselves.

29/3/06 3:03 PM  
Blogger beowulf said...

Hi Benjamin,

I think the idea of challenging social policies is where we differ. I believe the world is utterly opposed to the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). That the world is at enmity with God and thus is unable to be reformed except through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, participating in activities such as speaking out against homosexuality, gambling and other immoral vices are futile.

I believe the biblical way to change or speak to society is solely through the preaching of the gospel. The fruit of the Spirit can only be effectually brought about through the gospel alone (1 Corinthians 6:11, Galatians 5:22-23). And that is why I do not like the idea of having totalitarian and authoritarian societies where the work of the Holy Spirit is denied (i.e. just look at Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia for their support of moral values and where people are persecuted for how they think). I do not agree that moral values should be forced down on society. I strongly believe in principles such as freedom of religion, speech and expression. I believe these principles works towards the goal of preaching the gospel without persecution and repression. Therefore, I agree with the saying, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.”

I also do not see any indication that the early Christians, in the Acts of the Apostles, were politically or socially active. If there is any good works being done, it would be done for the benefit of the Christians. Take for instance, Acts 4:32-35. Any engagement with secular society would be done through the preaching of the gospel. I believe the Acts of the Apostles set a very clear precedent and that is how we should engage with society today – where the name of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is preached in order for moral values to flourish.

I believe the involvement of the government in the area of moral values should be at its barest minimum. Unless the government openly declares that its chief goal is making disciples for Jesus Christ, I don’t think the Body of Christ should ally with any organization that is opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For it is written, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

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