I was raised in rural America. My home community still does not have a traffic light, is politically conservative, and in a very real sense, has a collective moral ethos that much of the United States has relegated to antiquity.
In many respects, my home town is like many other small pockets of the country, reminding one of an enduring Mayberry not yet completely lost. The moralism of my home town (and much of rural America) is not bad in and of itself. Christians ought to desire a virtuous society. Heaven forbid we champion the opposite! However, many people are blinded to the reality that even traditional Christian values cannot save someone’s soul. Why is this the case? It his here where Christians have a major opportunity to engage rural America with the gospel. Allow me to explain.
The [Hidden] Deception of Moralism
Morality has been on the decline in this country for decades. Ultimately, the entire world has been in a moral decline since Eden. This is not a diatribe against having good morals. On the contrary, I desire to see this country’s moral fabric improve. However, we can easily convince ourselves that America was once a bit holier than we would like to believe. We must not forget that previous atrocities (i.e. slavery, Japanese internment) were part of a society where Christian values were more prevalent than today. No matter how steeped in the moral Christian tradition one is, without Christ and Him crucified, “traditional Christian values” are nothing more than a code of ethics.
I will defend the morality found in Scripture as long as I live, and Christians do not have the luxury of being on “the right side of history” in order to find social acceptance. Yet, following a system of morals, but without Christ, will send one to hell just as fast as gross immorality. God gives no one credit for being a good person, because none of us are good, and we cannot earn our salvation. Paul tells us,
There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom. 3:10-12)
Rather, the apostle tells us that we are “saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift-not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Good works, even in the form of traditional Christians values, are not enough to save anyone. They are nothing more than filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). We are saved solely by God’s grace through faith alone on what He has already done for us in Christ. Again, Paul is clear to what salvation entails:
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented him as an atoning sacrifice in his blood, received through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)
Does this render morals as meaningless? Absolutely not! Christians are saved by faith alone; yet, the natural outworking of this newfound faith will result in good works (Eph. 2:8–10). God’s standards do matter, and believers should live in a way that gives God glory. But so many people, especially in rural communities, wrongly believe that being a good person will save them. This is the deception of moralism.
Let’s proclaim the gospel to rural America so that more disciples will be made for the nations. In doing so, may more people see the Kingdom of God as ultimate. Adhering to traditional Christian values and believing in a generic God is not Christianity but moralistic deism. Let’s ensure those in rural America know the difference. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, writes:
We don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry can lead to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn’t come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. That crucified Messiah now stands on the wrong side of history but the right side of the Father.
Instead of clinging to moralism as our hope, may we look to that old rugged cross. Only by God’s work in Christ on Calvary will He transform us from being dead in our sins to being made alive with Christ (Eph. 2:1, 5). This is eternally better than moralism. As a natural outworking of their newfound faith, Christians are called to bear fruit for the Kingdom. This exceeds any system of morals society can generate without Christ.