I couldn’t think of a more powerful, more insightful lesson leading up to Easter than what John Coe taught in his article on Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation. Coe’s lesson is to run to the Cross rather than give in to doing good or trying to do better in our spiritual life.
The problem, according to Coe, is that Christians give into moral temptation. What does Coe mean by this?
“The moral temptation is the attempt to deal with spiritual failure, guilt, and shame by means of spiritual efforts, by attempting to perfect oneself in the power of the self. It is the attempt of the well-intentioned believer to use spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, ministry, service, obedience, and being good in general- as a way to relieve the burden of spiritual failure, lack of love, and the guilt and shame that results. It is the temptation to try to relieve a burden that Christ can relieve,” (Coe, 55-56).
We use our spiritual efforts for growth to mask or hide from God. While reading this article and listening to a CFC Mentorship discussion led by Dr. Ross Inman, I recalled and played out scenes in my head of the times I’ve failed spiritually. How many times I’ve responded to those failures and shame with something like, “I’m gonna pray more,” or “maybe if I read my Bible more,” or “I’m gonna volunteer more at church.” The struggle is to find spiritual growth in the spiritual works, not the Holy Spirit. There’s even more danger in seminary, where my degree is based on my efforts. Or, for those in ministry, it feels like ministry growth is based on your efforts.
Coe highlights the story of Adam and Eve. We know this story, but Coe points out that they hid from their shame rather than “seeking out God as the proper solution.” They did the work themselves. We do the same thing by hiding our guilt and shame with work.
Coe offered two tests to find out whether you’re a moralist, one who gives into moral temptation. The first is whether you attempt to fix yourself when you find yourself in guilt. Whenever one is faced with conviction, either they feel this guilt as condemnation or blame, which is reflected in the response of the hidden heart. For Coe, a person’s hidden heart with guilt as condemnation tells them they should try better. The hidden heart of someone with guilt as culpability says, “I cannot do this apart from the Indwelling Christ; I do not want to do this in my flesh apart from abiding in Him.” Notice that response; one says I will do better, and the other says give me Christ. The heart of the guilt as condemnation is obeying self-desire to do better. It’s a self-desire for perfection we cannot obtain. The heart of the guilt of culpability is the obedience to Christ, who is perfect and the only one who can help us.
The second test is whether one represses awareness of sin. How often have we said, “this sin isn’t that bad,” or “at least it’s not x or y?” The point is not the magnitude of sin; the issue is the sin. We shouldn’t minimize our sins. A sin, no matter how small we minimize, led Jesus to the cross.
So there’s the problem, we’re moralists attempting to do better in our life without having the ability to obtain that. While reading the article, I was also thinking, what then? How do we make it out of this cycle? Which ironically is a moralist response.
Coe gives three applications for us:
- Realize that all our sins are imputed on Christ, which means there is a full pardon. There is no reason to hide from our actions or hide in our prayer life, (Coe, 74-75).
- Christ’s righteousness is ascribed to me, meaning I am accepted by the Father, and there is no need to cover myself up, (Coe, 74-75).
- The same Holy Spirit that regenerated you is also our source of spiritual life. There is no need to grow under our power, (Coe, 76).
Christ on the cross is why we have salvation. We accept that, and our lives are forever changed. Our work does not change our life. We are changed by the same Holy Spirit that regenerated us. A moralist life is lived with the cross in the background and a continual effort of our own moving forward. The Christian life that Coe describes is constantly looking to the cross, abiding in Christ as he is the giver of life. As Coe puts it, this means that we are to “be open to the Spirit, unafraid of seeing our sin and the daily need for Christ is love and work on the cross. And on that basis – in the light of our sin and his righteousness, in the light of full pardon and acceptance – let us freely give ourselves to a life of obedience and regimens of spiritual formation” (Coe, 78).