Frequently, I dialogue with nice, moral people who genuinely believe that they are “good” and that Jesus came to help them discover their ultimate potential in life. They believe that he can help them by unleashing some kind of untapped, or dormant, power inside of them.
I’ve asked people who believe this sort of thing to explain to me what they believe Jesus meant when he said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Usually, I get an explanation that sounds something like this: “Well, Jesus can help us discover how much love and greatness we have inside of ourselves so that we can live better lives.”
In this type of religious system, Jesus the omnipotent God-man is reduced little more than a self-help guru. Sort of like Tony Robbins with a halo.
Those who are deceived (or have deceived themselves) into thinking such strange and unbiblical things are usually people who have some type of (very) limited knowledge of the teachings of Scripture, attend church on occasion (either presently or in their past), and know some facts about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I confess that, in the months leading up to the day I was saved, I believed something very similar to what I described above (although, for the life of me, I don’t believe I could have offered such a creative explanation as to what being “born again” meant).
Following are some excerpts from a fabulous book I am currently reading and re-reading. In it, the author adeptly addresses the type of culturally-popular / ungodly / vapid / powerless / counterfeit “spirituality” I just described above.
Excerpts from Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 78-80:
“Spirituality” is as successful as materialism in feeding our narcissism. Keeping us preoccupied with our inner self and its experiences, morality, and activity, the “search for the sacred” is as godless as atheism. There are plenty of resources on the market to feed our culture’s anxiety over self-improvement. But they are all different ways of dressing up the old Adam. Furthermore, their moralistic prescriptions never actually reduce stress but pile more expectations upon us to try to make ourselves acceptable to God.
We are not sick, but spiritually dead. We are not good people with room for improvement, but the ungodly. We are not children who need a little direction, but lost. The gospel comes not to help us get our act together, fixing us up for a night on the town, making us more respectable to ourselves or others. Rather, it comes to kill us and make us alive as completely new creatures. Not a new and improved self, but a self buried and raised with Christ, is the gospel’s message of genuine transformation.
Moralistic, therapeutic spirituality is part of that narcissistic complex about which Paul warned Timothy that makes us “lovers of self…, having an appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2, 5). And the power that it denies is the announcement of free justification in Christ, apart from works. The power of God does not lie in programs, strategies, self-help formulas, seven steps to a better life, or political reform. Like someone trapped in a burning building, we cannot rescue ourselves. There is no hope inside of us! There are no inner resources or possibilities – no Archimedean point at which we might pry ourselves open to God and begin to climb the stairway to heaven. Our whole nature is in bondage to sin, so we cannot even repair our condition by an act of the will. Our only hope lies outside of us, from the God who rescues us in his Son! Paul said that he was “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16)….
This gospel – the Good News of God’s justification of sinners in Christ – …is the ocean that we swim in, the air that we breathe, the identity that defines us….
The gospel is not a general belief in heaven and hell or hope for a better life beyond; it is not even confidence in a resurrection at the end of the age. It is the announcement that Jesus Christ himself is our life, for he is our peace with God. He does not merely show us the way; he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).