Virtue Signaling Justifies Nobody: Paul and Galatians 5:13-21
In the Church, the cry is, “He loves,” and it is that message which transforms our worldviews from taking to giving, from radical individualism to trans-demographic inclusivism, from selfishness to selflessness, from “tolerate my rights” to “loving rightly together.”
What is the Christian difference when virtue-signaling is the latest manifestation of self-justification? Take, for example, congresspersons kneeling and donning stoles before the lord of public opinion, evocative of a pastor leading confession and seeking absolution from the Almighty or, say, the compulsion to “Say His Name” for civic vindication or, indeed, tweeting support for the cause célèbre. Does justification tend toward groupthink and Zeitgeist behaviors?
Restated in Pauline terminology, “Shall the Christian use their freedom-in-Christ to conform to the patterns of this world?” Shall the baptized think, speak, and live in a manner indistinguishable from the unregenerate? No, argues Paul in his epistles. There is justification but also, and at the same moment, regeneration which entails an endowment with the Holy Spirit who brings an entirely new Kingdom-of-Christ ethic. This ethic, found everywhere in Paul’s epistles, goes far beyond self-justifying value-signaling. It is about love. Love and truth; these need to be clear preached. And it needs to be preached to address the need for true change in the Christian congregation.
But it also needs to be preached to purge fashionable social justice agendas and political self-justification from our midst. The great sin of our times is not racism or injustice (although they are insidious sins, to be sure). Rather, it is inordinate self-love that finds vindication in something as shallow as groupthink. Here, again, the Church finds itself back at square one concerning societal ills of racism, classism, sexism, and elitism — namely, the inability of the law, be it the law of social conformity (e.g., totalitarian political correctness) or legislated laws, to change the hearts of people. The law cannot produce love for the other. Period. But, through regeneration, the Holy Spirit can and does produce love for the other. This is the Christian difference and it must emerge as the difference now. Justification liberates the baptized to live like resurrected people in the here and now because they have the Spirit of God, the Spirit of divine love.
The law cannot produce love for the other. Period. But, through regeneration, the Holy Spirit can and does produce love for the other.
The fact the baptized are, in one sense, free to ruin their own lives and disrupt the lives of others, does not mean it follows from being freely justified. Sure Christians are free to live shackled to past values and priorities. But that kind of so-called freedom is nothing but bondage to something broken. Freedom from restraint, if it is to be of any use, must be matched by a sense of freedom for a particular purpose. Once set free, what is freedom for? We are set free in Christ to be a renewed humanity, free from a blurry vision of right and wrong or, more applicable, free from the things we have allowed to identify us as our primary person: A subculture, a talent, an addiction, a reputation, a skin-color, and/or a tax classification. In any freedom we gain, it is a freedom from our former state (or indeed our present state) that restrains our baptismal identity. Christians are freed from something for something to be someone. This has little to do with a choice of vocation, college, talent, or (and perhaps especially) political affiliation and identity politics. Preach it. Preach it again and again.
Those justified in Christ are not regenerated in baptism and sanctified by the Word of God and Jesus’ Sacraments to be occupationally an artist or a welder or a singer or physician, or (subculturally) a gamer, an alcoholic, or a political activist. The Christian’s truly freed self-emerged from the waters of Holy Baptism, yet the virtues that come with it (the Fruit of the Spirit delineated in Galatians 5:22-23) hardly find cultivation; certainly nothing in comparison to the time and effort given to hobbies, habits, and careers. The reality of regeneration very likely may have taken a back seat to self-justifying pursuits which contribute little or nothing to the believer’s holiness, virtue, righteousness, wisdom, prudence, valor, loveliness, or even likability. This seems evidenced by the collapse of Christian witness during a time of social tumult and Zeitgeist demand for uncritical conformity, usually parroted in supposedly exonerating clichés; professed Christian sports figures and corporate-branded individuals being the foremost examples. Preachers must find the courage to address the aberration of self-justifying virtue-signaling by speaking to the change justification initiated. Christ’s justifying sinners is the bedrock of our identity. Baptism objectifies its occurrence as a historical reality for each individual. The plague of our times is the crisis of personal identity. Baptism is the cure since it confers one’s justified identity in Christ as fixed, pervasive, and communal.
Paul has spent a devoted part of Galatians arguing that all those who believe in Jesus Christ are free. The Church is filled by people who are free from their pagan pasts, free from ignorance about reality, free from divine judgment, free from bondage to sin, free from the bonds of a hopeless death, free from the dark kingdoms of this world with all of its self-justifying ideologies and “-isms” that name and claim vast swaths of humanity. But he also argues they are free from the claims the Jewish law makes on its adherents as the defining marker of who is and is not the renewed, released people of God. Paul has made plain to them—as I hope he has to us—freedom is a given for the baptized. Freedom is the result of a divine deed when Christ exchanged places with people in bondage to selfish sinfulness and received the just recompense of the cross for our treason. Instead, this same Messiah liberates through new life to be lived out in the fruit of the Holy Spirit. As in the deliverance from Egypt, God put behind His people the bondage of the past, but then—and this seems to be the point of all Paul’s epistles—God draws them into the future and the future is about living free from what condemned and enslaved; living, in other words, for Christ in the kingdom ethic of the Holy Spirit’s love.
The Christian is free from asinine, self-defined religion, of course, but also the dictates and pressures of every political, social, and ideological agenda the world has to offer. “Take inventory,” Paul seems to preach. “What fundamentally defines you?” If any of us were to ask a person to offer a sentence or two about you, they would define you by what you imitate or, put differently, what holds you: Sport, performance, business, victimization, political identity? Could it be said that Holy Baptism, cultivating your redeemed self, defines you? Thomas á Kempis called it the imitation of Christ. Living it is called imitating Christ — who by virtue of the same justified-by-another-baptism is now in the believer with the virtues of God’s Holy Spirit.
Justification results in love. Christian freedom is for love and, so, the Christian is free to love. The Christian has passed through the Red Sea of the baptismal font to exit the matrix of this world and be unshackled from the selfish, self-loving human nature the world of politics, economics, technology, media, academia, and entertainment manipulate, into a kingdom defined by love for God and neighbor.
Christian freedom is for love and, so, the Christian is free to love.
In the Church, the cry is, “He loves,” and it is that message which transforms our worldviews from taking to giving, from radical individualism to trans-demographic inclusivism, from selfishness to selflessness, from “tolerate my rights” to “loving rightly together.” In the Church, the Christian is free to love, not compelled by the dictates of political correctness or coerced to do so because of fashionable tolerance ethics. Christians love because we have been given a different Spirit from the world and, when we gather as the Church, we make the case that the Holy Spirit within us is of another world. But how does this happen when the world of the baptized revolves around all-encompassing identity pursuits, indistinguishable from self-justifying humanitarianism?
In stressing this, Paul quotes in Galatians 5 one of the central early New Testament commandments, which is itself, of course, taken from the Old Testament: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you want to keep the law, he says, this sums it all up. Jesus had said much the same thing in Mark 12. But now comes the point. The way to keep this all-embracing commandment is not by emphasizing who you are, “…according to the flesh.” If you emphasize the flesh, the flesh is what you will get. We have all seen it in church splits, in-fighting, and divisions. Run the Church like the world, pander to demographics, peddle an agenda other than gospel freedom, and you had better get ready for a fistfight and some throat-cutting because when the tough get going the weak get trampled.
Run the Church like the world, pander to demographics, peddle an agenda other than gospel freedom, and you had better get ready for a fistfight and some throat-cutting because when the tough get going the weak get trampled.
The point Paul makes in Galatians is if the Gentile Christians emphasize “the flesh,” they are putting themselves on a level with the pagan world all around them. They go right back to the standards of the world of demographics which divides them; a suck-up society with a pecking order based on bank accounts, bigotry, and boasting. They just are not seeing what the full implication of loving others as yourself might mean now their identity is, “Hid in God in Christ.” If they are united to Christ and have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then their love for others should match their love for Christ who is your new identity in God and all other baptized persons also. Worldly standards, no matter what they be, only yield worldliness. The world, Paul is saying, needs saving, not imitation.
Now part of the problem for many of us who were baptized in our infancy is this: Our freedom was granted to us from the first, but poor catechesis, the overwhelming titillation of sensual and sexual living, the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches, leave us with nothing to set our freedom in Christ over-against. So, our freedom is lived as perpetual bondage masquerading in secular freedom, American pursuits, urban living, and Zeitgeist. Though free, we live like dungeon-dwellers in this dark, evil age. We can be so immersed in this world’s way of thinking and treating people according to the bondage of so many competing ideologies that—even as the baptized—we then forfeit our freedom for racist or elitist perspectives. We forfeit our freedom due to peer pressure to do or be or have something the world tells us we should if we are going to belong according to its standards. We so easily forfeit our freedom to be established in Christ to, instead, be obligated to the crowd; the herd of contemporary secular progressivism and libertarianism. But we were freed from something for something and that for something was never intended to be lived out in isolation. We were freed from the world, sin, and death, for life in Christ, the Church, and the Spirit. To live otherwise is to choose the isolation of dungeon-dwelling with all its sanitation problems when the Feast awaits us in the household of faith.
And when the Christian fails to love God as he ought and neighbor as himself, then there is still good news: If any of the baptized sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Even the Christian fails to love their neighbor as himself and God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. But there has been one who has done so for us – Jesus the Christ. He has loved perfectly on our behalf and so the law was fulfilled for us and the penalty for our failure was laid on Him. He made atonement. Now, because He has fulfilled the law on our behalf, we are free to love by the power of the Spirit of Christ.