St. Augustine arguing with donatists.

St. Augustine arguing with donatists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do Christian leaders and laypeople alike suffer moral collapses that rival the rest of the world? Why do we often remain powerless, confused, belligerent, stressed out, or discouraged? Why are we so quick to shrug and say, “Well, we do live in a fallen world” as if God left us with no means or responsibility to change?

The reasons are numerous and complex, but we can simplify one of them: We’ve overlooked Jesus’ warning about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

Academic, political, military, or religious debate and conflict nearly always begin in the higher institutions of learning or upper echelons of society. By the time it filters down to ordinary folk, we’re confused and torn in different directions. Far from anything new, it was this way in Old and New Testament times, and in every time period since.


A fairly recent example is from the early part of last century. In a backlash against the emerging Modernist school of thought, a large segment of the Protestant leadership in America declared Five Fundamentals to be essential to Christian faith. Accordingly, to be a Christian and thus saved, a person must check off all five items on a mental checklist, i.e., “believe”:

1.) The inerrancy of Scripture. 2.) The virgin birth of Jesus. 3.) Jesus’ death as atonement. 4.) Jesus’ bodily resurrection. 5.) The historical fact of his miracles. Prestigious seminaries debated this for years, so it was hardly a unified view, and still isn’t; but proponents came to be known as Fundamentalists.

Oddly, nothing of morality, conformation, Christ-likeness, or the at-hand kingdom of heaven made the list of essentials for well-being and eternal new life. Neither did the two fundamentals that Christ himself gave: Love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Many churches now consider these optional. Some even say they’re impossible because they must be done flawlessly. Therefore, Jesus couldn’t have been serious about them, and, in fact, came specifically to get us off the hook since we’re bound to fail. Hence the idea that securing forgiveness (#3) is more critical to being Christian than obedience is.

Neither Safe Nor Sound

Belief in Christ for salvation after death has thus evolved into a separate category from belief in Christ for living a life of sound virtue. It’s now widely accepted that, other than giving his blood, he has nothing essential to do with human activity. Jesus’ “finished work on the cross” was his only real mission. He’s done now, and sits at God’s right hand awaiting his cue to return to rule the earth.

So, the first priority is to believe the five fundamentals before it’s too late—before physical death or Christ’s arrival, whichever comes first. This “saving faith” is duly noted in the books of heaven to secure a future reservation there; and the believer simply “receives” new life. For multitudes, that’s today’s definition of a Christian and the extent of salvation. All else is secondary.

And it shows. Despite talk of a transformative walk with Jesus, not much changes personally or collectively. We love justification with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, but need accountability groups to keep us morally straight. We need frequent revivals to stay pumped up. We praise and worship—no doubt a new way of life for many—but we don’t live in solid, Christ-like territory. We don’t think like Jesus or react like Jesus, especially when facing difficult people and situations.

How could we when it’s considered non-essential?

Getting Untangled…

Let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus is the Master of life, the first and foremost expert on his own gospel. If he’s the living, breathing Word of God, we can discover what’s primary and what’s secondary by looking at his message. Whatever he preached is fundamental; whatever additional teachings the Apostles preached is supplemental.

For example, Jesus didn’t proclaim, “Repent, for the Scriptures are inerrant and I was born of a virgin.” Obviously, toward the end of his earthly ministry, he did teach about his impending crucifixion and resurrection. And he certainly referenced his miracles throughout.

But what Jesus proclaimed (and told others to proclaim) was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

“As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’” (Mat. 10:7) He specifically said that he had come that we may have life to the full (Jhn. 10:10); that we’re to remain in his love by treating one another as he has loved us (Jhn. 13:34, 15:9, 12); and that unless we get past Pharisee righteousness, we’ll never enter new life in his kingdom.

…And Beyond

He cautioned against the “yeast” of the prestigious scribes, Pharisees, chief priests, and experts in the law for good reason. It’s not that hard-working scholars are out to get you, or that thinking and discerning are evil, or that Jesus is picking on smart people. It’s that pride, image, and reputation in expertise will take over if we’re not careful.

Saving face, proving a point, or being right at any cost can easily become more important than saving anything else. It’s common and predictable because, after all, no one wants to be seen as an idiot. And who among us, Christian or not, hasn’t been obsessed at least once with winning an argument at the expense of our own well-being?

This is why belief in doctrines, no matter how valid and correct, shouldn’t displace belief in Christ for living a new life. The former gets tangled and torn in debates. The latter gets beyond that into a life-changing reality that holds up in a fallen world.