Morality Minus Religion Equals Decadence
In Romans 1:18-32 the apostle Paul describes to us in vivid colours the terrible predicament of man lost in sin. He begins by telling us about God’s attitude toward human depravity; “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (v.18).
God’s Wrath Against Sin
The doctrine of God’s wrath has never been popular with man but it is a truth clearly taught by Scripture and demonstrated in nature and providence. Paul says God’s wrath is revealed from heaven. How is this divine wrath revealed? First of all, in the human conscience, that still, small voice within us that warns us when we are doing what we know to be wrong. Because man stifles his conscience and ignores its warnings, God also reveals His wrath in events, such as wars, acts of terrorism, natural disasters and personal tragedies, in order to teach us that the human race is under the divine curse because of sin. These things do not come by chance. They are the voice and judgment of God, revealing His wrath from heaven against man’s sin.
The Relationship Between Religion and Morality
Paul describes human sin as ungodliness and unrighteousness. Notice that he first mentions ungodliness, and then unrighteousness. This is no coincidence. By following this order the apostle teaches us the biblical relationship between religion and morality.
According to Paul, morality is based on religion. Until the middle of the nineteenth century this was the majority view in our Western culture. Morality or ethics was thought to be rooted in and growing out of religion, in this case Christianity. There was a consensus that man’s relationship to his neighbour and society in general was determined, or at least influenced, by his relationship to God. Few back then would argue with the biblical principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the source of right living.
Since that time a great sea change has taken place. Gradually, more and more emphasis was placed on morality distinct from religion. The existence of God was not denied, but increasingly He was relegated to the periphery of life. Preachers began to say that nothing really mattered but good morals and proper conduct. This went hand in hand with liberal teachings about the person and work of Christ. He was no longer seen as the Son of God who came to save sinners from God’s wrath against sin, but as the greatest moral Teacher and Example of all time.
The result of this century and a half-long development is that today the biblical order has been completely reversed. Morality has taken precedence over religion, and unrighteousness is viewed as deviant behaviour to be dealt with as a social problem. This in turn, has led to a steep decline of morals in Western society.
Like a cut flower, morality must die if separated from its life-giving source: religion. This is inevitable. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones says in The Plight of Man and the Power of God:
“Once the relative position of religion and morality are reversed from that which we find in our text [Romans 1:18], the inevitable result is what we find stated in such clear and terrible terms in the remainder of this chapter. Religion must precede morality if morality itself is to survive. Godliness is essential to ethics” (p.29).
Ungodliness has always led to unrighteousness. That is the story of mankind. When man turns his back upon religion, the result is always moral decadence.
Moral Decay is a Religious Problem
This downward process usually comes in three stages. As a rule, the decline of religion shows up in the second generation as moral rigidity, and in the third generation as the breakdown of all morality. Today we are going through stage three. What we are witnessing in our generation is morality’s complete severance from the Christian faith and its dreadful consequence: the dehumanization of all human conditions and relationships. The wine of life has been poured out; the dregs alone remain (Emil Brunner).
A few years ago, the late U.S. Senator Patrick Moynihan (Democrat) keenly observed, the crisis of our time is a religious crisis of people who no longer hope for God.” Discussing the problem of violence, he said:
Government cannot provide values to persons who have none, or who have lost those they had. It cannot provide a meaning to life. It cannot provide inner peace. Government cannot cope with the crisis in values sweeping the Western world. It cannot respond to the fact that many young people do not believe what those before them have believed.
What Moynihan says here amounts to this: the world’s problem is basically a religious one. Because former generations have abandoned belief in God, the present generation is rebelling against His law. To expect, therefore, that the government will be able to enforce law and order is not realistic. Unless there is first respect for the law and a willingness to obey it, the government is definitely limited as to what it can accomplish.
Such respect for the law is found only where there is, first of all, respect for God. Only those who fear God will honour His law and respect the authority God has placed over them. Morality needs the support of religion. Unless morality is rooted in religion, it ultimately lacks authority or sanction for man’s moral conduct.
Advantages of Living Morally
Moralists, of course, will urge us to live the good life. But why should we? The moralist will answer: because it is reasonable to do so. Living a clean, decent life benefits us and contributes to the common good. Living an immoral life, however, is harmful to us and unworthy of man’s dignity. But this humanistic ideal based on self-restraint and utilitarianism is rapidly being replaced by what is essentially hedonism or the philosophy that says, squeeze as much pleasure out of life as you can while you can. Live for the moment. Carpe Diem, seize the day.
As much as the moralists dislike this Playboy philosophy, they cannot refute it. Any moral system that is not based on religion has no answer for those who wish to indulge in immorality, because one opinion is as good as another. Therefore any man can do as he likes, for there is no absolute or ultimate authority.
The Failure of Moralism
Morality without (true) religion becomes moralism and must fail because it cannot supply the necessary power. It is all very well to say to a man, you must live the good life. But even if he doesn’t ask why, he may still ask how he is to lead that kind of a life.
To a certain extent Paul’s problem is every man’s problem. “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). Even if I know my duty, I still need the power and the will to carry it out. Here mere morality fails, because it is based on the false Kantian premise that “the ought presupposes the can.” The problem is: he cannot. Man fails miserably to live up to the standards set before him.
It is true that moral systems are successful to a degree with certain types of people. Those who are “naturally” good, and “naturally” interested in the good life may be helped and encouraged by them. Of course, when I say “naturally” good, I mean good in man’s sight, not in the sight of God; good in the sense of having an above average ability to control one’s passions. There are people like that, people who are naturally quiet and reserved, who try to lead a decent and respectable life.
But what about those who are more active, dynamic and full of energy – those who lack self-control and easily give in to temptations? Clearly, morality cannot help them. It is useless to say to them, do this and don’t do that, if you don’t at the same time supply them with the power to obey such orders. Yet, man has tried this, again and again. Repeatedly he has attempted to reverse the biblical order of religion and morality. But he has failed every time. The result has always been moral chaos.
The Only Solution
Therefore the only solution to this problem is to once again place religion and morality in their right positions. Religion comes first. It begins with God and it restores man into the right relationship to Him, reconciling him to God through the blood of Christ.
Only when the true gospel of Christ is preached again will we see a better society. Any attempt to improve society without the gospel as its basis is doomed to failure. No wonder Paul was eager to preach the gospel in Rome. “For,” he says in verse 17, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ alone has the power that can change man’s life. By that power dead sinners are brought to life, so that they are enabled to come to Christ and embrace Him as their Saviour and Lord. By that same power (dynamite, it says in the Greek) they begin to live a holy life, a life of sanctification to the honour of God and the well-being of the neighbour. Indeed, godliness comes first, and then the inevitable result will be righteousness or righteous living. As our Heidelberg Catechism says, “It is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (L.D.24, A.64). There alone lies the only hope for our pleasure-seeking and hell-bent society.
But it is also the only hope for those in our churches who are religious, even orthodox but whose law-observance is merely outward and does not proceed from true faith (L.D.33, A.91). Let us be careful lest we belong to those whom Paul describes as “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim.3:5).
God’s Grace Alone
We have seen that the moralist’s attempts to get people to live moral lives are doomed to failure because man lacks the power and even the will to forsake his sinful lifestyle. But a similar failure awaits the preacher who thinks he can persuade unconverted church members to give up their sins. They can’t do this either, though they must. Nor are such hearers willing to do so, unless God makes them willing in the day of His power. Certainly, sinners must be commanded to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; Mark 1:15; 1 John 3:23, etc.) but not on the assumption that it lies within their power to obey those commands. The Arminians at the time of the Synod of Dort believed that the preacher’s main task is to advise sinners to repent because that is in their best interest. The unregenerate should make the proper use of the common grace God supposedly has given to all men and thus make the right choices. Our Reformed fathers dealt with this issue at this Synod and rejected the errors of those who teach that the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle advising … and that there is no reason why this advising grace alone should not be sufficient to make the natural man spiritual, indeed, that God does not produce the consent of the will except through this manner of advising.
The Synod said that this is altogether Pelagian and contrary to the whole Scripture which, besides this, teaches yet another and far more powerful and divine manner of the Holy Spirit’s working in the conversion of man, as in Ezekiel: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh,” Ezekiel 36:26 (Canons of Dort, III&IV, Rejection of Errors, VII).
Given man’s natural inability and enmity, one may conclude that preaching the gospel is a waste of time and effort. But it is not. We are to call sinners to repent and believe with all urgency and seriousness. We must set forth Christ in His ability and willingness to save sinners, even the chief of them and the most hardened. With the blessing of the Lord and the application of the sovereign Holy Spirit such preaching will show results in due time. The gospel, faithfully preached, will become a power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. Such belief or faith will reveal itself in the production of God-glorifying fruits
True biblical religion will issue in true biblical morality. We will see faith working in love, walking in God’s ways, keeping His precepts, seeking His honour, serving His cause, edifying His church, reaching out to His lost. Yes, His lost.
Among the millions of our fellow travellers to eternity, who now live without Christ in the world and practice the kind of sins mentioned in Romans 1:18-32, God does have His elect, His sheep. Jesus said, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also must I bring and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). But how will they hear the good Shepherd’s voice unless we bring the Good News to them? “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).
[This is the Editorial taken from the July/August 2006 edition of THE MESSENGER, the official publication of the Free Reformed Churches of North America.]
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