I heard a caller make this blithe statement on a radio show to which I was listening on the way home the other day. The show was not a Christian show on Christian radio. The host was talking about who to vote for in the presidential race -- specifically about Romney and his religious views. The host had stated that he would prefer someone with religious views than an atheist because atheists had no moral basis and he wanted someone with a basis for morality. It was particularly interesting because the host admitted he was "not particularly religious" himself. Still, he held this view. And, of course, it offended the atheist caller.
I've heard it too often before myself. It appears that, to the non-believer, all of Christian morality is based on fear of hell or hope for heaven. Further, from their perspective it seems that this is our only motivation for ever doing anything good or avoiding anything bad. I wasn't aware of that fact.
Historically, biblical Christianity has always held that the basic ethic for salvation is grace, and the basic ethic for Christian living is gratitude. I suspect that a lot of people, Christians included, have missed this point. Christianity is often viewed as a moral system, a way of making people behave. People can hear over and over, "It's all about grace and mercy, not morality," but they don't seem to get it.
I think Isaiah says it so well:
"In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength" (Isaiah 30:15).
Salvation resides in repentance -- turning from my sin -- and rest -- placing my sole means of salvation in God and His grace and mercy. Christian living resides in quietness -- placing myself in the hands of God -- and trust -- expecting God to do what is right. Nowhere in this equation do I find "avoid punishment" or "gain eternal reward". Not that these are bad things, but to the believer they don't play any part in the motivation.
The most comprehensive motivation for a believer to do what is right and avoid what is wrong is gratitude. The point is love of God. This is why Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). And it's not like this is a bizarre notion. My wife says, "It sure would be nice if we could go out to eat" and I "obey". It's not fear of punishment -- "I don't want her to be mad at me if I don't" -- or hope for reward -- "Hmmm, if I take her to dinner, she might give me something in return." It is love. So also is the Law to the Christian. It is God's listings of "I like this" and "I don't like that." Someone who loves God would naturally respond with "Well, then, I want to do this and I don't want to do that."
You'll hear it a lot. It's a common theme. "The only motivation for morality in religion is fear of eternal punishment and/or hope for eternal reward." I suspect that is largely true for religion in general. It is not true in biblical Christianity. Our motivation is to act out of love for God, not fear or greed. It's not that hard to understand.
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