Mike originally published a version of this article on January 6, 2012.
Even though New Year’s was a whole three days ago (which seems like forever ago now that everyone’s back to work), I’m betting there are at least some of you out there who haven’t totally given up on thinking about resolutions. While our New Year’s resolutions will take various forms and address various areas of life, differing from person to person, one thing that Christians’ New Year’s resolutions should have in common is that at least some of them involve focusing on ways to deepen and strengthen our relationship with Christ.
But there always seems to be more than a little confusion on what precisely that means. Exactly how ought we to go about pursuing a deeper relationship with Christ?
I’m reminded of a popular blog post I read some time ago, the author of which, a psychology professor and professing Christian, recounts an interaction with a student who wanted to “work on her relationship with God.” He goes on to lament that, according to him, working on one’s relationship with God all too often means “praying more, getting up early to study the Bible, [and] to start going back to church,” and too seldom has anything “to do with trying to become a more decent human being.”
And this perspective is not limited to the obscure corners of the blogosphere. There are plenty of conversations that I’ve observed and participated in in which professing Christians emphasize good works and pious deeds as central to what it means to be a Christian, while relegating doctrine and personal devotion to the periphery. Such an attitude is increasingly commmon in non-believing critics of Christianity as well. I’m reminded of the way Christopher Hitchens framed his interaction with Doug Wilson a few years ago: “Is Christianity Good for the World?” Note, the concern is less about the fact of the matter–i.e., whether the claims of Christianity are true or not–than it is about whether there is any real, pragmatic benefit that Christianity affords others.
In a sense, this is little more than the sounding forth of the late 19th- and early 20th-century modernist anthem: “Deeds not Creeds.” The 21st-century postmodernist rehashing of the liberalism of yesteryear has yielded a reverence for uncertainty, suspicion about truth, and aversion to doctrine. And, as the spirit of the age has infiltrated the church, at the very least we wind up with a mindset that champions “Deeds over Creeds.” “You want to deepen your relationship with God? Don’t waste your time with Bible study, prayer, and going to church. Volunteer at the soup kitchen, donate clothing, and, for goodness’ sake, be a good tipper!”
Root and Fruit
Of course, there’s a germ of truth there. Christians shouldn’t be jerks while patting themselves on the back for being “faithful” because they go through the motions of Bible reading and church attendance. It’s right to expect someone who professes faith in Jesus to bear good fruit. And it’s even true that we will know God more intimately and deepen our relationship with Him as we obey and walk in the manner He walked (John 14:21; cf. 1 John 2:6).
But what’s troubling about this ideology is the confusion of the root and the fruit of true Christian faith and spirituality. The fruit—the actions—are not the basis of one’s Christianity, as if all you needed to be a “true Christian” is good manners, politeness, and being an all-around nice guy. The fruit—the progressive conformity into Christlikeness—comes from the root of a continual beholding of His glory (2Cor 3:18), and that glory is perfectly revealed in His Word (John 17:17).
The spirit of the age rejects Bible study, prayer, and the fellowship of the saints (i.e., membership and the partaking of the ordinances in a local church governed by a plurality of elders) as too self-focused and introspective to do any actual good, and thus merely taking up valuable time that could be used serving others. But these are precisely the means God has ordained for us to deepen our relationship with Christ, our knowledge of Him, and our satisfaction in His glory. And having availed ourselves of such means of grace, the result of that deeper, more intimate knowledge is a compassionate, Christlike servant who loves God and loves his neighbor as himself.
Gospel and Anti-Gospel
See, if focusing on the fruit is the primary way to “work on your relationship with God,” you don’t need Jesus to be a Christian. The notion that you can improve your relationship with God by trying to become a more decent human being is like trying to staple fruit to a tree. It’s simply works-righteousness in a pious disguise. You improve your relationship with God by trying harder and being better. At that point, your religion becomes nothing more than moralism and self-righteousness, which doesn’t honor Christ. This is not biblical morality. It is anti-Gospel.
The Gospel tells us: you have totally failed at being a decent human being, and will continue to totally fail. For this, you need to cast yourself on the mercy of Christ for forgiveness. And forgiveness not first from other people you’ve offended, but forgiveness from God, whom you’ve supremely offended (Ps 51:4). The paradoxical reality is that you can’t become a more decent human being by aiming at becoming a more decent human being. You can only become a more decent human being by aiming at Christ. And you can’t aim at Christ without seeing Him. And you can’t see Him without His Word.
The only kind of loving actions that glorify God—indeed, the only actions that are truly loving—are those done precisely because Christians know themselves forgiven by Jesus and want to demonstrate the glory of God in Christ to the world. When the root of your good deeds is a worship-relationship with Christ Himself through the means He’s ordained (His Word, prayer, and fellowship) only then will the fruit you’ll bear be honoring to Him, because only then will your obedience make much of God and not yourself.