Original Class Date: 10 March 2013

What is Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism?

The term Christian moralistic, therapeutic deism was coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and it is a combination of two concepts.

Moralism

Moralism is built upon the moral structures of a particular society or group.  We have a moral structure set forth by God in the bible however, by general revelation and common grace, all of humanity (generally speaking) has some degree of morality that is at it’s most basic level instinctual.  For example most people, Christian or not, acknowledge that murder is bad, rape is bad, genocide is bad, being stolen from is bad, being lied to is bad.  You don’t have to be a Christian to be a moral person.

Moralism is a reaction to the morality of a particular group.  We see this in scripture when the scribes and the Pharisee’s try to trap Jesus.  Their doctrinal systems elevate a works based theology to the point that they are willing to assassinate the Messiah to keep their moral code in ultimate authority.  We see it played out in our own culture when people say things like, “I’m a good person!” or “At least I’m not like ___________”.  It’s simply justifying ourselves by comparing our actions to someone or something other than Jesus.  Again, a non-Christian is perfectly capable of being a moral person, and I would even argue, a better friend than some Christians.

Deism

Deism is a worldview in which God created the universe and everything in it with natural laws and then simply removed himself from the picture.  He’s watching idly by as the events of the natural order play themselves out.  It’s been equated to as if God spun a top and stepped back to watch it go.  It’s God as a cosmic spectator.

What is Christian Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism?

Christian moralistic, therapeutic deism seems to be at the heart of many struggles for American Christians today.  Matt Chandler in his book The Explicit Gospel explains it this way:

“We are able to earn favor with God and justify ourselves before God by virtue of our behavior.  This mode of thinking is religious, even ‘Christian’ in it’s content, but it’s more about self-actualization and self-fulfillment, and it posits a God who does not so much intervene and redeem but basically hangs out behind the scenes, cheering on your you-ness and hoping you pick up the clues he’s left to become the best you you can be.”     – Chandler , 11-12 emphasis added

Chandler goes on to discuss the moralistic deism that many of his church members were brought up it:

The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in includes talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad 0 especially about feeling good about oneself – and God factored in to all of that, but the gospel message simply wasn’t there… For many young twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, the gospel had been merely assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central.”     -Chandler, 2012

Christian moralistic, therapeutic deism could be summarized as the thinking that Jesus saved us from our past sins and after conversion we have to take control of our lives and clean up our own act to justify ourselves before God.

What Does the Bible Say?

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”     -1 Corinthians 15:1-4

“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.”     -Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

“I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.  O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain?  Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?     – Galatians 2:20-3:5 ESV

Faith vs. Works Extremism

From my experience young believers can swing to one of two extremes: fruitless faith or faithless works.  The first is typically what I would refer to as “cultural Christianity”.  These believers claim the name of Jesus as their savior, but their faith is not active and ongoing in their day to day lives.  There is little-to-no sign of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in what they do, and often times it is difficult to discern a believer from a non-believer.

The latter is, I think, more indicative of the younger and more idealistic generations of Christian’s coming to relationship with Jesus.  This is the where I found myself for several years of my Christian walk.  It’s not a lack of faith in Jesus as savior, or even Lord, but an unbelief whether consciously or not in the miraculous power of God the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of providence.  It’s the idea that we are the hands and feet of Jesus and we need to do work to help people.  While this is a great thing it becomes heretical when we cross that line of doing good works and begin trying to bring about Heaven on earth right now.  It’s essentially a hero-complex.  We want to save people and change the world, all the while forgetting that that job is already filled by Jesus.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.”     -James 2:14-18 ESV

This is not an either or situation, it’s a both and.  It’s not faith or works, but works as a result of faith.  We are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ and then through the power of the work of the Holy Spirit we are cleansed inside and our outward actions and words are an overflowing of the transformation within.

Sources:

Chandler, M. (2012). The explicit gospel. (pp. 11-13).
 Wheaton, IL: Re:Lit.
 http://store.theresurgence.com/products/the-explicit-gospel

Smith, C. (2005). On “moralistic therapeutic deism” as
 u.s. teenagers’ actual, tacit, de facto religious
 faith. Manuscript submitted for publication,
 School of Christian Vocation and Mission,
 Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ,
 Retrieved from
 http://www.ptsem.edu/uploadedFiles/School_of_Christian_Vocation_and_Mission/Institute_for_Youth_Ministry/Princeton_Lectures/Smith-Moralistic.pdf
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