Moralistic Therapeutic Deism ... Oh My!

In a recent book, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have posited that the primary expression and understanding of Christianity in America today (especially among teenagers) is what they have termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” or MTD for short.

The five primary beliefs that make up MTD are:

 1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

 2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Based upon the popularity of such books as The Purpose Driven Life and Your Best Life Now I am not surprised at the authors’ findings.
Many Christian writers, pastors and theology professors have attacked MTD as anti-Christian and call for pastors and teachers to raise the bar in order to help our young people appreciate theology and sound doctrine once again. They rail against pragmatic teaching, insisting instead that we view God as a jealous and angry God who hates all forms of sin and brings judgment upon the non-repentant. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that God hates sin, but I do not believe that God hates sinners. On the contrary, He loves sinners. And being that the Scripture teaches that ALL have sinned and fallen far short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23) that includes us. We are no better than anyone else. The sooner we realize that, the greater impact we are going to have in sharing the Good News of the Gospel with a broken, hurting world.

Now, I don’t entirely agree with the beliefs espoused by MTD; however, I am not altogether convinced that they are heretical either.
Most theologians would agree with number one. God is creator and He watches over His creation. But He is much more than that. That’s where the teaching needs to occur. Yes, God is watching over His creation, but He is also very involved in creation as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation must be preached. God became one of us. He resides with us. He is actively engaged in our lives and the lives of every person on this planet. Through prevenient grace He woos those far from Him and “would that none would perish but that all would come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9).

Number two is not so far-fetched either. The sermon on the mount is primarily a moral treatise on how to treat each other, is it not? Jesus’ new command – the one that provides the foundation for the entire Christian moral code – was to love one another. God does want us to be good, nice and fair to each other. The Golden Rule as spoken by Jesus in Luke 6.31 says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Like number one, however, we need to take it a step further. Why are we to be good, fair and nice to each other? Because God requires of us to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6.8). We are good to each other because God is good to us, and because Jesus was good to those who didn’t deserve it. And because we are called to be like Jesus. That’s why.
I wouldn’t say that the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about ourselves. After all, Jesus said that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9.23; however, He also said “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10.10). While I do not agree with John Piper on many things, I do think that he was on to something when he wrote Desiring God, Meditations of Christian Hedonist. Piper unpacks the statement in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that says “(m)an's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” In the book, Piper argues that enjoying God requires us to enjoy the life that we have been given here and now. I think he is right. Our aim should not be to find happiness however; our aim should be to serve God, endure trials, face suffering and difficulties through prayer and faith, and to extend grace to those around us. In so doing, I believe that we will find the kind of happiness that we are truly seeking. The belief is not wrong, it just needs to be tweaked.

Numbers four and five are very problematic though. Number four can be deconstructed and essentially eliminated by instilling the doctrine of Incarnation into our teaching. We have to remind all Christians, young and old alike, that God is not disengaged or uninvolved in the world. We have to teach on uncomfortable topics like sufferings and the problem of evil. It’s easier to imagine a God who is uninvolved and who only comes to us when we need Him. One of the challenges of Christianity is attempting to reconcile the brokenness of our world with the message of a loving God who is actively involved in it. But we must face the challenge. Christianity is not deistic, and we must rescue it from this misunderstanding. Number five is simply untrue and is the most dangerous of the five. No matter how exclusive it may seem, Jesus said ““I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6). We must preach that message and we must believe it. Do I know what that looks like in God’s eyes? No. But Jesus said it and I cannot minimize His words by reducing it to a statement about subjective morality. Could God have a gameplan that enables those of other religions to encounter Jesus in ways that I know nothing about? I’d like to believe that is possible. Believing that God could have a plan that we know nothing about does not excuse willful sin however. We cannot shy away from preaching and teaching about the reality of sin and the variety of ways that our disobedience to God separates us from Him. Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, and it is a quality that many of us would do well to cultivate, but it will not ensure us a place in God’s eternal kingdom. We have to be clear on this. None of us wants to imagine a God who sends people to hell because they never had an opportunity to hear the message of Jesus, but we cannot alleviate our discomfort with that idea by simply stating that all the good people will get in.
So maybe MTD isn’t quite as horrible as some writer’s think it is. Perhaps we just need to be a little clearer from our pulpits and in our classrooms with regard to the message of the Gospel. Some may consider Jesus’ words to be “hard teachings” (John 6.60) and “turn back and no longer follow him” (John 6.66). I certainly hope not. But I also know that we have to find ways to move past the relativism that postmodernity has forced upon us and find ways to help Christians to embrace the demanding principles of Scripture and live them out with love and grace in this broken and hurting world in which so many are searching for hope.


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