I’m reading Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section on Pharasaism – and its modern analogue, the overbearingly judgmental and self-righteous Christian – he writes:
“Many people try to understand Christians along a spectrum from “nominalism”at one end to “fanaticism” at the other. A nominal Christian is someone who …does not practice it and perhaps barely believes it. A fanatic is someone who is thought to over-believe and over-practice Christianity … The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement.”
This is profoundly important, because it underlies much of the misunderstanding that crops up whenever we talk about “morality” in a Christian context. It is often pointed out that non-Christians can live in accordance with high moral standards, and I agree with that completely. (For some related thoughts on relative moral standards inside and outside the church, see my recent post).
Keller goes on to point out that the judgmental and self-righteous attitude observed in Pharisaic (or fanatical) believers is ultimately rooted in an idea of justification through right-living, or (if you’ll pardon the Christian jargon), a doctrine of “salvation by works”. But this is not the essence of Christianity. The fundamental message of the gospel is that we are saved through grace, not through our own efforts, and because of that we have no reason to be proud of our own moral standards.
This is a deeply humbling message. We understand by the doctrine of Grace that our personal moral behaviour will always fall short of God’s perfect standards. Therefore we have no right to judge others by comparing their behaviour to our own lives.
“The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed enough.
“Think of people you consider fanatical.They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement programme they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” (emphasis added)
Commitment to Christ is not a set of options between which we can pick and choose. We need to go all the way and let him rule our lives completely – we can’t just observe from the outside and try to emulate the bits that we like. True transformation can only come from indwelling of the Spirit, not from self-motivated imitation.