White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Compelling Narrative of Christian Morality: Don’t Just Say No, Provide a Superior Yes

Published Monday, April 20, 2020 By Joshua Pauling

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s remembers well the Just Say No campaign as part of the War on Drugs. While the intent here is not to engage in a political debate about said program, it does provide a launching-off point to discuss how moral issues are framed. By framing the drug issue with the slogan Just Say No, the message was one of willpower and moral imperatives, and brought mixed results at best.[1] Similarly, when most people think of morality, they think in categories of do’s and don’ts, trying to Just Say No to various acts and behaviors.

Sadly, Christians don’t usually offer much better, as Christianity easily turns into such a moralistic list; after all, there are those words written in stone called the Decalogue. To be sure, the Law of God is good, holy and wise, and functions as curb, rule and mirror to drive us to Christ and to guide our sanctification.[2] However, Christians can go further than just presenting abstract statements of assertion or negation, especially in the postmodern world, where such an approach seems incomplete and unpersuasive. The tired and trite moralistic message of Just Say No proves ineffective at withstanding the unified forces of culture, schooling, media and celebrity, trumpeting an enticing narrative of uninhibited self-expression, choice and feeling.

For many Christians, let alone secularists, the Just Say No of the Christian ethic is all they have ever heard presented. Such a presentation is easily dismissed in today’s world as bigoted, limiting, and intolerant. Stand-alone truth claims don’t fare too well, when an alarming 83% of teenagers believe moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only a paltry 6% say moral truth is absolute.[3] Furthermore, recent surveys show that for a growing number of Christians, there is negligible difference between their worldview and that of unbelievers.[4]

A better, more biblical way is found in situating Christian morality within the narrative of redemptive history and a full-orbed Christian worldview. The Christian storyline of Creation-Fall-Redemption is the true narrative that humans seek, which brings liberation well beyond the competing narrative’s supposed call of freedom of expression. Christians must tell the superior yes of their story and explain the why to ground Christian principles in a compelling and unified worldview, which all centers on Jesus Christ.

Historical Veracity: “Christoricity”

Christianity stakes its claim on the historical events of Jesus’ actual life, death, resurrection, and ascension, uniquely positioning Christianity to break through today’s moral relativism and internalist spirituality with objective truth. The historicity of Christ, which we might call “Christoricity,” is the glorious lynchpin of the Christian system, transcending all of the culture’s dichotomies and philosopher’s dilemmas. Christ bridges the mind-body divide, fulfills the ideal and the real, connects the one and the many, and joins the objective and subjective. All of this he does as the God-Man, the Word made Flesh, and proves it by his resurrection from the dead. With Christ’s words and identity vindicated, Christian moral principles find their place in the story, beginning in Eden and looking towards the Eschaton, both of which Christ himself referenced frequently in his earthly ministry to situate the Christian ethic.

Edenic Morality: Ordered Towards the Other

Christian morality does not begin with the Ten Commandments. It begins with a story in a Garden. The Creation narrative situates humanity in an ordered creation, with interrelated roles and responsibilities. Male and female are ordered towards the other, designed to find fulfillment in self-giving commitment. This biblical view of humanity, gender, and sexuality is much more than just a prudish message of don’t look, don’t touch. It is a beautiful embracing of sex as gift, grounded in the created order and modeled after the inter-Trinitarian intimacy within the Godhead.

Amidst a culture where sex is marketed as product of self-gratification, this biblical picture is nothing short of counter-cultural. To be sure, the Christian ethic entails such perpetually unpopular virtues as mental and physical self-control and discipline. But it also provides much more than the message of Just Say No, which frequently fails in the face of titillating temptations.

Christians offer not just a product, but a captivating story in which the creative power and beauty of sexuality is rightly celebrated in the proper context of male-female marriage, and where its creative force brings life into the world, as displayed in Eden. Women and men are rightly valued as equals when equality is understood to refer not to their functional sameness but to their complementarity, which works by the principle of gift; that men and women, in their relationships with one another, sacrificially give of themselves in counterbalancing ways. This is further reflected in the self-giving act of marital love, which births new life and brings husband and wife further outside of themselves into the satisfying self-giving of child-rearing.

Eden’s resounding yes to human sexuality also fully recognizes the inherent beauty and erotic otherness of the two sexes, and the fact that they are biologically and physiologically ordered towards one another. These embodied differences are not just evolutionary accidents. They are a profound mystery. But so many men and women aren’t even aware of this better way, only being familiar with the messages of popular culture, or the stale thou shalt nots of a by-gone Fundamentalism. If the choice is between uninhibited expression and Just Say No, the solitary no quickly crumbles in the face of our alluring sexualized culture.

The Christian narrative beginning in Eden provides a more sustainable contentment and lasting pleasure. Men and women can see beyond the fleeting pleasures of a near-bestial view of sexuality peddled by pop culture when they realize that what they can then say yes to is far better: the deep and lasting fulfillment found in faithful monogamy, which allows erotic love its fullest expression and brings eros to its proper fulfillment in agape (sacrificial) love.

 Cataclysmic Fall: Dis-Ordered Desire

Situating Christian morality in the Garden also helps make sense of the very real brokenness and distortions from this ideal in the present world. The doctrine of the Fall provides answers to the perennial human dilemmas of suffering, evil and disease. We need not shy away from these questions, or from dealing with misguided desires such as anger, covetousness, pride, dis-ordered expressions of sexuality, gender confusion, or any other manifestation of broken humanity. The Fall seats the whole human race around the same table, having partaken of the same forbidden fruit and now humbled in bondage to decay. With its consequences of sin and death, the Fall is the great leveler, which fosters human empathy and unity in our shared experience of suffering and evil.

We all experience fallen distortedness and brokenness in various ways throughout our lives, and Christianity has the ultimate answer in the redemption that Christ has inaugurated with his victory over death. Which brings us to the final portion of the Christian narrative; our ultimate liberation from captivity to corruption in our eschatological destiny of eternal union with Christ in the resurrection of the body.

Salvific Destiny: Ordered towards the Eschaton

Our experience of fallen existence brings us face to face with the fact that we can never live up to a perfect standard, whether it be from Eden’s Garden, Sinai’s Mount or the Sermon on the Mount. But by placing all of these standards within the context of the whole Christian narrative, the answer is consistently found in Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the letter and spirit of the law as the Second Adam, the New Israel and the Greater Moses. This all becomes ours in Baptism, Word and Supper, as Christ’s perfect work is delivered to us through the means of grace, giving us our ultimate identity as new creatures in Christ. This positional indicative is true reality, which then allows us to live out the moral imperatives from our new Christic identity. Union with Christ is what we are created for, and the recounting of redemptive history explains how it has and will come to be. This provides the proper backdrop for Christian morality, which compellingly answers the why question.

Surely, life as new creatures is an ongoing struggle as sinner-saints face down the evil trinity of sin, death and the Devil each day. But we are granted Christ’s forgiveness in Word and Sacrament which strengthens our union with the Resurrected, Glorified Christ, and reassures us that one day our re-making will be completed in the Eschaton. This eschatological telos to the Christian worldview gives sustenance in the face of temptation, persecution, suffering or opposition.

Early Christians viewed the world through this eschatological lens, which grounded their unique, counter-cultural morality in the ultimate salvific narrative which they understood as being fulfilled in their very lives and times. Since the New Age had dawned in the passion and resurrection of Christ, the law itself was viewed through this lens of fulfilment. “Early Christians stressed the gospel aspect of Torah (as story of God’s deeds), and because they seemed to insist that Christ provided a new identity symbol… it was necessary to recognize this new act of God in Christ as being like the ones in the Torah story but somehow climaxing them.”[5]

Christian moral principles according to the law were viewed in light of Christ as the eschatological fulfillment of the Torah story.[6] Rather than seeing certain Torah commands in the abstract, the Torah was seen as a story of God’s mighty acts prefiguring the coming Christ and his mighty acts of redemption. The early church understood Jesus as the “climactic eschatological analogy of the Old Testament; he is last priest, last sacrifice, and last king.”[7]

This ordering towards the Eschaton sustained the early church in the midst of cultural and political forces to the contrary; much worse than those we face today. Consequently, the church today has much more to offer their people—and the world for that matter—than a simple Just Say No. The church can issue its call to participation in the greatest story ever told, and to union with the God-Man, who undoes the Fall, re-orders our desires, and brings us safely to the eschatological feast for which are designed. And to that, we say a resounding yes. Or, better yet, Amen. (Yes, yes, so shall it be.)

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University, and has written for Modern Reformation, Mere Orthodoxy, Front Porch Republic, FORMA Journal, and Salvo Magazine. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his wife Kristi have two children who are being classically homeschooled.

[1] Matthew Perrone, “Fact Check: ‘Just Say No’ Anti-Drug Campaigns Have Shown Little Success in Past,” Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2017, https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-fact-check-anti-drug-campaigns-20171027-story.html .

[2] For an excellent treatment of how the Reformers and their present day offspring understood Law and Gospel, see Jonathan A. Linebaugh, God’s Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), which includes essays from prominent Lutheran and Reformed scholars.

[3] “Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings,” The Barna Group, Inc., September 18, 2019, https://www.barna.com/research/americans-are-most-likely-to-base-truth-on-feelings/ .

[4] “Competing Worldviews Influence Today’s Christians,” The Barna Group, Inc., May 9, 2017, https://www.barna.com/research/competing-worldviews-influence-todays-christians/ .

[5]James A. Sanders, “Torah and Christ,” Int 29 (1975) 374-375.

[6] James A. Sanders, “Torah and Christ,” Int 29 (1975) 374-375, 382; R.T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Illinois: Inner Varsity Press, 1989) 197.

[7] Jack Weir, “Analogous Fulfillment: The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 9 (1982) 75.

  • Joshua Pauling