reprinted from the Nov/Dec 1987 Bethel Ministries Newsletter
by Randall Watters
The curse of man's imperfection is that our lives sooner or later slip out of our control. Not only are circumstances often beyond our control, but we find ourselves not living up to our own principles. We are unable to attain to a perfect moral structure, and this is troublesome to our conscience. When we sin against another person or our own bodies, this also bothers our conscience. This experience is not exclusive to Christians, but is common to all people, regardless of their religious persuasion. Even atheists must struggle with it. The mechanism of a moral conscience is inborn. Those who have resolved that they cannot live with a guilty conscience often seek some kind of moral structure to regulate their lives. They sense the need to respect themselves.
For example, most of us have heard of non-Christians or even atheists who are troubled by some act of petty thievery or tax evasion in the past that they could no longer live with, and they have confessed their moral failure to the party that was slighted, and acted to rectify the situation. Others may secretly send money to a person or organization that they feel they have cheated, but do so anonymously so as to avoid detection and embarrassment. All this because of a guilty conscience.
Some who have struggled hard with sin and guilt have become ascetics (those who live with strict self-discipline and denial) as a self-protective mechanism. It might come as a surprise to us that people often join religions, not so much because of their interest in God, but because the way of life espoused by the religion will assure them of a relatively clean conscience, and will provide the illusion that they are, in fact, doing all right. Living by strict rules and set patterns of daily living does tend to give the feeling of being morally clean. Many of the modern self-help and New Age religions are designed to meet this need, as they are actually a form of asceticism, but without a personal God.
Unfortunately, this situation is prevalent in many Christian churches as well. Not that the churches fail to teach about a personal relationship with God (though some fall into this category), but more often, the individuals who are part of the churches fail to actually reach out and grasp such a relationship. They seek moral structure, and that is all. We are talking about a tendency common to humans: taking the easy way out. It is easier to soothe the guilty conscience than to become committed to a Being that demands you go all they way in the healing of your sin nature. It is one thing to try to alleviate the pain of a troubled conscience; it is quite another to give up a selfish way of life for one that seems uncharted and difficult; and to commit yourself to a Person that you don't fully understand and cannot see. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that even in "Christian" religions that talk much of a "personal relationship with God," there are many that never actually seek such a thing; they simply want to live comfortably with themselves and their conscience.
Realistically, how much different is this from being a Hindu or a Buddhist? Because this search for moral security has been noted by the non-religious world, they correctly observe that "all religions are basically the same," that is, they meet an inner spiritual need for living a morally clean life. Universalists, perceiving this commonality of all religions in this respect, as well as the sincerity of the adherents, naturally conclude that all religious people will be saved in the end. So what distinction really is there, after all?
True Christianity is unique in pointing us to a God that is so personally concerned with our lives that he came down to us in his Son, to show us what we must do to be whole and complete. In God's eyes, it is not enough to live a "moral" life. We actually can't, because our concept of what is good and bad is shallow and distorted. The sin nature has affected our judgment of right and wrong, good and bad; a life that looks clean to us is not clean to God. We need an entirely new nature, a new "motor," so to speak. Jesus revealed the only way this could happen: God would have to somehow live inside of us, working out a transformation from the inside out, so to speak. He can only clean house if we let him inside, and give him carte blanche over our lives. "I will ask the Father," Jesus said, "and he will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you." (John 14:16,17) If the Holy Spirit comes in and takes possession of our bodies and our hearts, so also the Father and the Son will abide with us. (v. 23) With the Father, Son and Spirit living with us and "cleaning house," how could we continue to walk in the wrong direction? How could we fail to see things God's way? This is the beauty of Christianity, which the apostle Paul speaks of as "Christ in us, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).
We can thus more clearly the real and the counterfeit in Christianity (as well as religion as a whole). Religion in general, as does counterfeit Christianity, seeks little more than to alleviate the pain of guilt and one's moral shortcomings. Cults go a step further in promoting obedience to an organization, as a kind of "surrogate mother" in the place of a relationship with God. Christianity, on the other hand, expects you to surrender yourself to possession by God through the indwelling Spirit. As with Jesus, God will live and speak through you, if you but allow Him to do his work in you. Christ was a model, after all, of what we are to be. The Father and the Spirit spoke through Him; Jesus was transparent to the Father and the Spirit (John 8:28,29; 12:48,49). For us to receive this, we must answer Jesus' knock at our door:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me. --Rev. 3:20
It should come as no surprise to us to find people who merely go to traditional churches as a formalism, or at best to soothe their consciences. The fact that many of these
churches even teach about communion with the Person of God does not guarantee anything, as "you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink."
What is even more damnable are the groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, who teach that you cannot intimately know Christ, that you will never be with Him or see Him, and that the letters of Paul and the apostles were not even written to you, but to a selected few who have all but passed away. While spending much time talking about a "relationship with Jehovah," this is meaningless without the indwelling Spirit of God and the born again experience. One cannot know God without intimately knowing Christ (John 14:6,7). The Watchtower simply provides a morally clean atmosphere, yet devoid of any real interaction with Christ. In this respect, to be a Jehovah's Witness is, in actual practice, no different than to be a devout Hindu or Buddhist. To the Watchtower, "knowing Jehovah" really means perceiving and obeying rules and organizational policies. Following this procedure may give some a relatively clean conscience and a better outlook on life, but does nothing towards transforming the sin nature into the new nature of Christ. There is no actual access to Christ as the Mediator. It is another religion of moral regulations, like the Pharisees. "But we often speak about a relationship with Jehovah!" the Witness objects. True, but "Jehovah" has little meaning to the Witness apart from organizational structure and policy. Faith in Jehovah means faith in the organization--the two are inseparable, just as faith in the temple meant faith in God to the Jews in Jesus' day (Jer. 7:4). The Pharisees were proud of their religious structure, and felt better about themselves than all others of their day. They felt cleaner and closer to God than those less rigid in their lifestyle. Yet, in the end, they put the Lord Jesus to death. They studied the Scriptures, thinking that in them they would find eternal life, but they were unwilling to come to the Person Himself who alone could give that life (John 5:39,40). Because of seeking to prove their own righteousness to themselves as well as others, they failed to seek what God really considered righteous. (Rom. 10:3)
This was not new to Israel. This same scenario had been repeated time and again from Moses onward, especially as the nation began to put faith in the religious structure of the Law rather than the one who designed it. The prophets were stoned by the religious leaders, the ones most zealous not to have their consciences offended! How could this be? Didn't they love God, since they were trying to follow all of his rules? If not, what really did they love?
In the time of Jesus, we see a clear confrontation between a love for God and a love for moral structure. To love God is to love his character; which cannot be fully understood from just reviewing his rules. But to love a moral structure is quite another thing. It is the effort to relieve one's self of the damning effects of the sin nature on his own conscience; a basically self-centered motivation. The Pharisee would walk on the other side of the road to avoid an injured Samaritan, lest he be morally contaminated. He would tithe carefully the tenth of spices down to the last seed, lest his conscience be struck. He would bathe carefully and meticulously, lest he feel unclean. He would go beyond the requirements of the Law in everything, lest his sensitive conscience be violated by any possible breach of the rules. To the casual observer, the Pharisees were close to God. To Jesus, they were the height of selfishness and alienated from the Person of God.
Isn't it curious that we still look at things from the outward appearance today? The average person perceives the Jehovah's Witness at their door as a devout person with a very sensitive conscience about what he can and cannot do to please God. He will not wear a beard, he won't smoke, he won't swear, he goes to five meetings a week, and even goes door-to-door to teach his neighbors! Certainly this must be Christianity, or so they think.
The same was true in the days of the Roman Empire after the death of Christ. Judaism was the pearl of the Eastern world in terms of its ritual cleanness and moral outward appearance. Prominent women of many pagan cultures became converts to Judaism, seeking to appear clean before others and God. Their conscience bothered them living in such a pagan society! It was just the ticket. Christianity, on the other hand, was unimpressive to most. There still seemed to be moral problems infecting the faith, they were maligned by many as worshiping a dead man, and they seemed to live under no legislated code of ethics. They appeared as dung to the prominent ones; as ignorant to the intellectuals (1 Cor. 1:27,28). How could one feel secure in such an unorganized and casual bunch? Better to put faith in a secure structure!
What the casual observer failed to see was that Christianity looked beyond the laws of God to the heart of God. One could not fully discern the heart of God from trying to follow the outward structure of the Law; one must have a change of nature. The Law only served as a continual reminder that they couldn't keep it! So the paradox was that if a person came to the Law to gain a clean conscience, his very inability to fully keep the Law resulted in a guilty conscience. Whoever was sensitive enough to perceive this and be grieved over it was driven to Christ to seek the indwelling Spirit of God. The new birth was the final solution to the sin problem. Grace and peace in the rest of God became their inheritance. (Rom. 1:7; 8:6)
Recently a friend (who had once studied with the Witnesses) came up to me and said, "I enjoy spending more time with JWs than with Christians." I asked why. She said that she admired their love and their zeal for God. I asked how this love for God was manifest to her. The answer was found in their good outward appearance and their sensitive consciences. She felt better around these people, who all acted the same, than with Christians who did not always give a consistent outward appearance.
"There's a test," I said, "to tell whether they really love God." "What's that?" she said. "It is whether or not they want to be with Jesus," I replied. "The Bible says that one's love for the person of Christ is the measure of one's love for God, for God was only fully manifest in Christ. Anytime you develop a strong love for someone, you will automatically want to be with them for the rest of your life. Ask your JW friends if they want to be with Jesus. Their answer will be `No, I don't. I want to live on a paradise earth.' Then ask them if they love their organization, and do they want to live under it forever. They will answer `Yes,' because they love the structure it provides. Now, tell me, what really do they love, God or structure?"
How do they react when confronted with the person of Jesus? If the entire New Testament tells us that we need to be born again and be a part of Christ's body, and they choose the outward structure of organization over that, what can we conclude? Are they not virtually the same as the religious Jews of the first century?
One who has come to know Jesus will always say that he wants to be with Jesus forever. Furthermore, if he has received the new nature, he has the heart of the Lord latent within him, so that he has the ability to perceive and follow the will of God in any situation. Choosing to live under a system of rules would be a major step backwards! Paul considers it as apostasy (Gal. 2:15-21).
Structure was a stepping stone to Christianity; a tutor leading to Christ (Gal. 3:24). But, as Paul says, "now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." (Gal. 3:25-27, NASB)
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