Some clarifications regarding holiness & moralistic therapeutic deism

One of my favorite things about Stanley Hauerwas is the way he says outlandish, exaggerated things to get a rise out of people. For example, in a recent lecture to the Duke Youth Academy, he shared that he wished the phrase “under God” could be taken out of the pledge of allegiance, because it promotes a generic concept of God that isn’t necessarily Trinitarian. I often try clumsily to emulate Hauerwas by saying things in a more provocative way than they necessarily need to be expressed. One example is my last post on moralistic therapeutic deism which I’ll admit was fairly sloppy. No, I’m not an advocate of bad, wishy-washy theology nor do I think Jesus is. But I have encountered arguments in which MTD is made analogous to the basic premise that love is behind everything God does and command us to do. The underlying question I’m wrestling with is how we understand the why’s and what-for’s of holiness.

This issue came up for me as I was interviewing confirmands this spring. I had helped lead their confirmation retreat and taught a few classes so I felt partly responsible for the answers I heard in our interviews. Some of the kids had a fairly solid grasp of Wesleyan theology, the three types of grace, etc. Others just shared a general sense that they wanted to live in such a way that they could be connected to God. At first, I was frustrated by the responses of the latter group because it seemed to me like a generic, amorphous form of MTD (which thus implicated my teaching). But then I thought about it and I wondered if it’s really such a bad thing to understand the purpose of life as getting connected with God since the genuine pursuit of this purpose will hopefully lead to a better grasp of important doctrine.

On their retreat, I hadn’t given the confirmands the “traditional” gospel pitch: that until we accept Christ’s atonement, God is eager to punish us and it would right for Him to do so because the smallest mistakes we make are infinitely offensive to God since He’s infinitely perfect. I find that way of talking unhelpful and unnecessary. What I told the confirmands was that God wants to connect to us and because our sin prevents us from seeing God, Jesus came to Earth and died on the cross to win our trust so God could clean the sin out of our hearts and connect to us more perfectly. In other words, I taught them an account of holiness that is therapeutic rather than juridical.

To me, the purpose of holiness is to achieve greater intimacy with God. It is a healing process rather than a proving process. In other words, it’s not so much that God lays out rules to test our faithfulness and bring honor to Himself but rather that He desires for us to relate to Him and each other in perfect love.

There are implications for this way of understanding holiness as something concerned with transformation rather than duty. And I do see it as a
“rather than” instead of a “both and.” God commands our obedience not because He needs our respect but because He loves us and
wants us to have the best life possible (even if this sounds too much like Joel Osteen).

When I assume that God’s teachings are 100% benevolent and 0% arbitrary, I’m going to approach the Bible with a different assumption about what is beneath the precepts and exhortations I encounter. I’m going to understand sin as that which opposes love of neighbor and God by causing harm and corruption. This means that actions which violate the social norms of ancient Israel must be harmful or corruptive for me to call them sinful. Sin displeases God because of the harm or corruption that it causes us. Again that’s the line of thinking I derive in Jesus’ incredible line that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath.”

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