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The Road of Moralism


In an article posted today, the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today (CT) published an excerpt from a book by David Brooks called The Road to Character. I want to be upfront about the fact that I have not read this book yet but I hope to get a copy from Random House to review soon. I give this warning because my initial thoughts on the book are limited by what I have read in CT’s post and in a recent post by NPR which also included an excerpt from the book. I hope to be surprised by the author’s conclusion after reading the book. I will eventually include a full review and will link to it here.

The excerpt starts off on a strong note. It appeals to the law of God and demonstrates that as a culture we have lost any sense of understanding about what sin is. Brooks rightfully says, “We’ve abandoned the concept of sin because we’ve left behind the depraved view of human nature”. Brooks goes on to show how, in our recent history (18th & 19th century), we understood what sin was and we spoke of it often. To all of this I give a hearty ‘amen’!

My disagreement comes in what was presented as the solution in this excerpt. Now, I grant that this is only an excerpt and not Brook’s full treatment of the issue, but what is before me in CT is not placed an any other context. As published, the article undoubtedly says that the solution to our lack of morality is to try harder. Brooks says, “some sins like anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint” (emphasis mine) and “Some sins like mockery and disrespect are like stains. They can only be expunged by apology, remorse, restitution, and cleansing. (emphasis mine). Here, Brooks is clearly saying that goal is morality and the road to morality is works.

By contrast, scripture tells us that the goal is faith and the road to faith is by the hearing of the word. The end result however is not a sense of self discipline and morality, it is faith in the living God who has fulfilled the law on our behalf. To be clear, I do understand that Brooks is not talking about what theologians call justification (being declared righteous before God) but what they call sanctification (the process of becoming holy). I also understand that scripture gives a number of imperatives or commands and that we are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. However, scripture is just as clear that it is God who is at work within us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

In almost every instance where an imperative is given in the Epistles, it is rooted in the indicative of what Christ has done for us. Paul in Romans tells us that the law is powerless to do what Christ has already done. Brooks turns the gospel of Christ on its head and insists that the solution is not our union with Christ and the good news of our justification, but rather his solution is to turn back to the very thing which Paul told us was impotent!

In case I misunderstood what Brooks was saying, I performed an internet search for more information on The Road to Character. That is when I fell upon the article by NPR. It too is an excerpt from the book and it reads much like the CT article. However in the case of the NPR excerpt, Brooks leads us to the 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and his view of the two Adams.

Taking his cue from the two creation accounts, Soloveitchik believes that Adam had an internal struggle within himself and Adam I won out over Adam II. He then extrapolates this to our current condition and concludes that the path to morality is to be found by reconciling the Adam I within us to the Adam II within us. The road to morality then becomes a cycle of living and dying to oneself in order to being about reconciliation between the two conflicting parts of us. While this sounds good on a psychological level it is downright dangerous theology.

Scripture does speak of a second Adam. However, Adam II is not to be found within us. Paul reveals Christ as the second Adam who was able to do what the first Adam failed to do. Paul says that the solution to our selfishness is not found in trying to fulfill those requirements on our own, but by placing our faith in the one who has imputed His perfect law abiding behavior to our undeserving souls.

The delimna is this: if we commit to a system of sanctification by works we will always fail. This is because the law is too lofty for us to attain and Christ tells us that the standard for law keeping is perfection. Even our best works, as the Westminster Confession tells us are accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. If the standard is perfection, even our best efforts don’t cut it.

I am looking forward to getting a copy of this book to review. I hope that upon reading it I hear a clear proclamation of the gospel rather than a call to place ourselves under the bondage of the law. Until then, the only indication that I have for Brook’s proposed road to character is that it involves looking into ourselves for a deeper motivation to do good works. That my friends is dangerous..

2 thoughts on “The Road of Moralism

  1. Petre Isai

    But what of our good works? Surely we don’t neglect them. And surely we battle the flesh and sin.


      Hello Petre, I would agree with both of your statements. Your question really addresses two separate things: actively doing good works and actively fighting evil works.

      Good works: I think that it is important to establish a couple of principles when discussing good works. The first one addresses the question of what is a good work. The answer to this is that God has defined good works for us in His commands. So we can’t say, for instance, that monasticism is a good work. We can’t say that crawling on your hands and knees over splinters of glass enroute to an alter is a good work. We cannot say that any kind of work that we devise in order to merit grace is a good work. Good works are those which are commanded by God and find their summary in the greatest command which is to love God with our entire being and our neighbor as ourself. So good works do have a role in our lives as a matter of obedience. But they do not produce obedience and they do not make us holy. They have no power to sanctify us because even our good works done in good conscience are accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. No matter how good they are always tainted by lingering sin which clings so closely to us that they infect any good we have. So our good works merit us nothing.

      The second issue is fighting sin within us. For this, scripture tells us that the law is powerless to fulfill God’s righteous requirement for us (Rom. 8:3). If the law is powerless to produce righteousness in us then does it make sense to point Christians back to the powerless law in order to produce righteousness? I just don’t see it. Instead, Paul offers the gospel as the power for righteousness. In Titus, Paul says it is the grace of God (not His law) that brings salvation AND teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts. He also says that it is this grace that makes us zealous for good works.

      So I really do appreciate the motivation that Brooks has in these excerpts… I just think the solution of trying harder to obey the law is futile because the law is powerless to make us any better. The law is not neglected or discarded, but in itself it can not produce obedience. For that we need the gospel which frees us to obey out of gratitude rather than obeying as a means to righteousness.

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