Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism - "God wants me to be happy, believe in myself, and just be nice."
This doesn't sound so bad, right? "What is so wrong with this statement", you might be asking. The reason it doesn't sound bad is that unfortunately, this form of Christianity has seeped into churches all around us. Similar to the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, moralistic therapeutic deism is a version of Christianity where our purpose is found within ourselves, our life is about us and being happy, and God is really only there to bless us and help us solve certain problems (much like a genie). According to this worldview, our lives are about our talents, us, and being happy. Maybe you've never heard of this specific term before. I hadn't until the last months, either. Although I have been wholly aware of churches that deceptively preach such things for quite some time, I didn't quite have the name to put to much of what I knew was false, wrong, and leading people astray.
First I want to be clear, this blog isn't something I take great joy in writing. I would much rather teach on the attributes of God, the Christian worldview, the love of Jesus, apologetics, and seeing Christ prophesied through the feasts and festivals of the Old Testament. I've seen many Christians take their emotions and use them as fuel to start a Twitter war with other believers and that is not at all my motive with this blog. My prayer is that the months of research, studying, listening, and learning that God has brought me through would do one thing: draw you nearer to the actual truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; that the words that I write would not be filled with reactionary emotion to just be right, but instead would open your hearts to a desire to know the fullness of God's word. My heart has been, and always be, to teach and talk about God's inerrant word. It is with a heavy heart now that I am writing about the Bible in light of the deceptive, inaccurate, and self-focused versions of Christianity I hear more and more throughout much of the Western world.
To be clear, this type of teaching has been around for far longer than the recent 21st century that I now live in. Those proclaiming a gospel of self and man-made happiness have been a part of history long before today. Unfortunately, because we live in a time where information and data can be shared with a click of a button, I fear the spread of such false doctrines are oozing into the minds and hearts of both my generation, ones before, and those to come. My life's passion is not centered around "calling out" every person that is incorrectly teaching the word of God, but I would be remiss to neglect such passages that say, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (Timothy 3:16) Furthermore, as Jesus himself instructs us to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves," I believe we as Christians play a part in helping ourselves and others be able to recognize the wolves in sheep's clothing Jesus is warning believers of. My heart is never to be judgemental and self-righteous but to help others come to know and love proper exegetical teaching in light of what I hear and see around me rampantly claiming to be God's word.
I, myself, am an imperfect human that has spoken imperfectly in the past about God's holy, inerrant word. I write this blog now because, by God's grace and sanctification in my life, I have grown to see that the fullness of life Christ talks about is not from creating our own version of God's word; The fullness of life Jesus talks about is from honoring Him as Lord in our hearts, being corrected and grown by the actual truth of the Gospel, and wholly surrendering and devoting all of our lives over to Him who alone is worthy of our utmost praise. Although this seems to be spoken of less and less, the Bible's view on this has remained unchanging.
In order to both understand and write about this subject myself, I have dove deep into a variety of pastors (some well-known some not), churches, and teachers for over a year. I have heard and studied many sides to all of this because I believe we should never take correcting other's teachings lightly. I won't be writing names for those I reference partly because much of what they say can be heard in thousands of churches throughout the world in addition to their own. Furthermore, I want all of us to instead take an inventory in our own hearts for who or what we go to for 'sound and Biblical' teaching without getting caught up on defending a potentially idolatrous following of any man or woman. Even more, please don't take my words and use them as weapons to demonize anyone that aims to teach the Bible. I write all of this not as a way to divide the church more, but instead to draw us back to the truth of what God's word actually says and teaches believers. Ultimately, I always write in hopes that others would desire to know, study, breathe, touch, and live out the teachings of the Bible and then be able to by the Spirit discern what is good, sound, and accurate teaching of God's word.
As I see the church looking more like the culture around us, being molded to the likeness of the world rather than being a beacon of light pointed to Christ alone, I feel compelled to write on all that God has taught me in light of all that is being incorrectly taught about Him and His word. So to my fellow Christians, I pray that you read my words with an open heart while continually submitting all that you hear back to the truth of God's word. I pray that your hearts would be filled with a burning desire to know God's word for yourself. I challenge you to even take my words and see what the Bible says about all things I have written. I write all of this because I love God's church too much to let the culture of our fallen world inform what God's word says. Ultimately, I love God's people more than I love being comfortable in not using my words to point you back to the truth of who God is. I pray my words will reflect as Ravi Zacharias so eloquently instructs, "That we are to care more for the heart of the questioner (or person we are 'talking' to) than we do about being able to answer their question." So, it is with a heavy and burdened heart that I write on this subject. Holy Spirit, guide my words so that they may aim always at teaching for God's glory and our best.
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 1:4)
To start, let's unearth what moralistic therapeutic deism even is.
In a 2005 book titled "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers", two sociologists by the name of Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton interviewed thousands of teenagers with regard to their religious beliefs. Within the book, the authors introduced this new (but readily practiced) concept called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. You might be reading the word teenagers and wonder why we are taking this study seriously. If that is your question, I would in turn ask you, where did these teenagers learn this form of Christianity from? As the sociologists continued similar studies after this one, their findings only affirmed what this particular study addressed.
The authors define the premise for this term in their text after much of their interviews and research is conducted in this particular teenage population. In the book, they say, "A significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."
This misbegotten step-cousin can be summarized as such:
Moralistic - We should be good and moral people but not born-again, dead to our sin and old selves, alive in Christ, followers of Jesus.
Therapeutic - The goal of religion is not to completely make us into new beings because of the work of Jesus seen through His death and resurrection; it is not to worship and honor Jesus as Lord in our hearts. The goal of religion (according to this belief) is to provide the therapeutic benefits to those that follow or practice it.
Deism - God is the Creator of the earth, but He is not wholly needed in order to live a life honoring to Him. Rather, God is there mostly to help us with something or bless us when needed.
Fast-forward to 2020. We see much of these teachings either outright in words or weaved into the catchphrase, motivational speech-esque sermons at many modern churches. Although not as easily recognized in some of many peoples' favorite pastors, it is prevalent. Furthermore, due to the nature of social media and online platforms, it is in many ways getting worse. Much of this points back to the warnings of Jesus. He doesn't tell us that false teachers will come to us in plain and obvious sight. Rather, He tells us they will look like great teachers, but in their hearts, they are ravenous wolves. Or like Voddie Baucham so profoundly states it, "the false prophet that is the scary one is the one that has the meat of the lie covered with the skin of the truth."
In order to understand and see this further, I'm going to walk through a sermon I listened to recently from a well-followed and commonly listened to pastor in America. Again, this blog isn't wholly based upon any one teacher or sermon. Rather, it is a culmination of months of listening, learning, reading, researching, and studying many pastors. Please, please keep this in mind as you read. I do not come to divide but rather unite under the truth of God's word. I pray just as much for those I will reference as I do for all of us. I want them as well to experience the fullness of life that only comes from submitting all things under the inerrancy of God's word.
In this sermon, the pastor was defining the Holy Spirit as a great psychiatrist. Instead of going line for line unpacking everything that is incorrect, I'm going to go through some of the teachings that are not unique to his particular sermon. Much of what he said, although potentially different in delivery, is found in many of the modern churches that draw from the worldview of moralistic therapeutic deism.
The premise of the sermon is that the Holy Spirit is given to us to make us feel less weak, combat our doubts, and mitigate our fear. While not inherently incorrect at the surface, the way in which he teaches on the Holy Spirit points to the Spirit of God as a psychiatrist that works on our beck and calls doing what is good to us. When in reality, the Holy Spirit is a result of us being crucified and baptized with Christ, where our old selves have died and we are now made alive in Jesus. God doesn't unveil our eyes to our sinful nature in the light of Christ's glory so that we can remain the same and utilize the Holy Spirit as a psychiatrist that is there to coddle our emotions and fleshly desires. This type of behavior points to that we are not in fact walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17).
It is important to note, this pastor (among many others) uses the Passion translation for his teachings. This "translation" is wholly refuted as accurate among sound Biblical scholars and teachers. This particular "translation" is refuted as accurate for many reasons, but three of the main reasons are:
It was not translated by credible Biblical scholars who have knowledge of the original languages.
It has inaccurate additions (many texts are 50% longer than the original manuscripts).
The additions are based more on what we want the text to say rather than what both linguistically and historically it says.
With this in mind, let's continue. In his sermon, he aims to showcase the Holy Spirit as our great psychiatrist by teaching from Romans 8:26-28. In one of the most quoted chapters in the Bible, Paul is teaching on what life in the Spirit looks like, why we have it, and why we are dead in our sins without being made new in Christ's death and resurrection. In this sermon, the pastor uses one of the many common misguided approaches to teaching scripture that I see today - leaving the actual Gospel of Jesus out of your teaching. In the entirety of his sermon, he neglects to even say why or how the Holy Spirit dwells inside someone. Without teaching the actual Gospel of Christ, the teaching of the Holy Spirit is lacking its true definition, nature, and understanding. Without first teaching on why someone has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of them at all, it can lead to the incorrect ideas that 1) we all have the Holy Spirit in us and 2) the Holy Spirit isn't in direct correlation with the dead to our old selves, alive in Christ, and transforming work of being a believer in Jesus.
In his sermon, we are left with a version of the Holy Spirit who is dumbed down to a personal psychiatrist for each of us. According to that same chapter he references, "You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness." (Romans 8:9-10) Subtle but yet vastly and critically different than his teachings, right? This scripture points out that the Holy Spirit does not in fact dwell in every human on earth. Rather, we only have the Holy Spirit inside of us when our eyes are opened to our sinful nature and by God's grace and as a result, place our faith in the saving work of Christ alone. In addition, Paul teaches numerous times how those who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them are living a new life in Christ; not the one of their nature of wrath and flesh. Through God's sanctifying grace and power in your life, those who are walking by the Spirit bear certain fruit; fruit that was not there when we were dead in our sins. In Galatians 5:22-24, Pauls says, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control: against such things there is now law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
As this pastor continues on, he makes the argument that all of our problems in life can be "boiled down to two major categories." These two categories, he teaches, are "emotional problems and intellectual problems." Again, on the surface, this doesn't sound that bad. When in reality, all of our problems in our life can be boiled down to one thing. One. Paul describes this well in Ephesians 2:1-3. In these verses, Paul writes, "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the world, following the prince of the power of the air (the devil), the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience -- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." The problems in our life are a result of sin entering into the world when Adam and Eve rebelled against the perfect and holy God. The problems in our life are a result of the nature of wrath that is inherently in all of us and as Paul says, it is only overcome by being made new and alive in Christ. As we read above in Galatians 5, if you have the Holy Spirit inside of you, your life will be characterized by the transformation that happens only as a result of Christ's saving work.
To build the constructs of an entire sermon for thousands to watch saying that the Holy Spirit is our psychiatrist to work through our emotional and intellectual problems is to handle the holy, inerrant word of God incorrectly. For that, the Bible has a serious warning. (Reference 2 Peter 2:1-22) The remainder of the pastor's sermon is centered around the idea that the Holy Spirit's main reason for being in our lives is to "deal with or massage" our fear (emotional problem) and our doubt (intellectual problem). He states that God sent His Holy Spirit this way because, and again I quote, "that God's ultimate will for your life is your peace and your freedom."
Unfortunately, this idea that God's ultimate will for our life is to serve us in some way is not unique to this pastor's teachings. Seen both in moralistic therapeutic deism and many churches today, many have developed an idea that God serves us and we don't serve Him; that God is about giving us peace and freedom from our problems and not that we are to find ultimate joy as we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It is a destructive, shallow, and false teaching to say that God created us so that He can serve our happiness, peace, and joy instead of us finding satisfaction knowing that the Creator of the entire universe even decided to show us abundant mercy and grace through Jesus Christ.
As outlined above, moralistic therapeutic deism says that Christianity is simply about being nice people, receiving blessings from God, and making life's purpose about ourselves. Christianity from the Bible teaches that we were dead in the trespasses and sins that we once walked in and that God being rich in mercy and grace gave life to those that place their faith in Jesus. "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) Christianity of the Bible teaches that our purpose in life is not found in ourselves or God serving us by giving us what our flesh wants. Our purpose is to serve Him who alone is worthy of our praise by living in such a way and boldly proclaiming the magnificence and majesty of Jesus's saving grace.
There is much more that could be said about this sermon, but I will summarize both his and others teachings, allowing for you to search God's word for what is truth. I'll begin here: Anything that proclaims more of you than it does Jesus should warrant much concern. Although fancy in words, moral therapeutic deism is quite simply this - to live a life that serves you and looks at God as a way to do that. This sermon, and many others I listened to, teach a version of Christianity that is ultimately meat of lies covered in the skin of truth. This broad gate teaching looks a lot more like that old dead self than the one made alive in Christ. This teaching talks more about serving you by looking at God more in the image of you then in who He really is.
Maybe this blog post sounds harsh. This is what as Voddie Bauchman describes, narrow gate living (Matthew 7:13-14). It is not with great pleasure that I refute such teachings. Rather, I do it because I care for God's church and where others will spend eternity - including these pastors and teachers. There is much more that could be said, but I will end with this.
The Bible is described as being sharper than a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12); not because it physically takes on the appearance of a two-edged sword. The Bible is sharper than a two-edged sword because it alone cuts through the lies, deception, and false teachings that the devil so cleverly and commonly uses to lead people astray. The Bible is one of God's many great mercies on us. It allows for us to test every spirit and word another says through our own proper studying of it. God's word is the primary place where you come to know the true nature of God - the holy, perfect, Creator. So, friends, I pray that God would grow in each of us a burning desire to know the fullness and truth of His word. I pray that through correctly knowing, studying, and honoring God's word as holy, we would come to see anything less than His truth is not where the joy is. Lastly, I pray that our hearts would submit all teachings to the Bible, knowing that new life is found in Christ alone.