Scripture teaches us that unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But this language suggests that the operation is not effortless. In order to sin, and in order to persist in it, we have to fight against something that is true about ourselves. We are created in the image of God, and despite the fall into sin, we still retain that image. When God told Noah that the death penalty was to be applied in cases of murder, He did so because men still bear that image, however defaced by sin it may have been.
Therefore unbelievers who suppress the truth of God are expending a good deal of effort to hold a beach ball under water. Periodically it gets away from them, even though repentance has not occurred. When this happens, the results can be a bizarre flailing to get the ball back under. All such attempts to regain the calm but quivering respectability that existed before the ball got loose can be seen in various frantic civil legalisms.
Let us pretend that the illustration got away from us, just like the beach ball. What is all this supposed to mean? When the law of God is resisted and suppressed, the men who do this are objectively guilty, despite what they want to feel. This objective guilt results in subjective feelings of guilt – quivering arms holding that beach ball down. When the charade is revealed in some civil atrocity – genocide, rampant abortion, widespread sodomy – it is no longer possible to pretend that we are all decent folks just enjoying ourselves at the pool. Instead of admitting what we were doing, the response is to start splashing and yelling, pretending that we are saving someone from drowning.
In other words, when it becomes apparent that we as a people are disregarding God’s law in some flagrant way, the next thing to watch for is some kind of moral crusade that will help compensate for it. This is the meaning behind our yelling and splashing and imaginary heroics. In our nation today, a woman who is six months pregnant can go to a clinic and have the child terminated. Not only can she do this, she can receive considerable social support in doing so. The law of God is flagrantly insulted. But if that same woman stood on a busy street corner, visibly pregnant, and smoked herself a pack of cigarettes, she would be the brunt of a lot of cold, icy stares. How dare she risk a low birth weight? More than one social observer has noted the ethical incoherence of this.
But this is why unborn children can be killed for having birth defects, but if they navigate their way past our abortion laws and are successfully born, we will arrange special Olympics for them, handicapped parking spacing in every parking lot in town, and disability access into every building in the nation. We, in a fever pitch of moral do-goodism, are insisting that such handicapped individuals have a fundamental right to be able to access anything – except for their lives.
Law is inescapable. Every man, every day, makes ethical decisions and he does so in accordance with a particular standard. This is the case whether or not the man has been saved by the gospel of grace. Grace does not remove the daily obligation a man has to make decisions, and it does not remove the logical necessity of doing so in line with a particular standard. He will return his neighbor’s lawnmower. Why, and by what standard? He will report his taxable income honestly. Why, and by what standard? He will leave one church to attend another. Why, and by what standard? He will floss his teeth daily. Why, and by what standard? Our decisions will either line up with God’s standard or with man’s. If they do not line up with God’s standard, then the result can be called legalism – whether those legalisms are individual, ecclesiastical or national.
Jesus taught that if the law of God is set aside, then it will not leave a vacuum behind. Whenever men do this kind of thing, they set aside the word of God for the sake of their own laws, their own traditions, and their own wisdom. In any given situation, men will either do what God requires of them in that situation, or they will not. If they do not, they are still created in the image of God and consequently want to believe themselves to be righteous. But since they have abused God’s law, they must devise a law they can successfully keep. And the more flagrant their abuse of God’s law has been, the more zealous they must be in keeping the law they have devised for themselves.
And this is why we, an immoral and relativistic people, are peculiarly afflicted with the need to go on one moral crusade after another. P.J. O’ Rourke once commented that everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom with the dishes. Reversing this, we can say that because we do not obey God in our daily lives, we have a desperate need to save the world. And the worse we get in our personal lives, the more virulent the moral posturing gets. We don’t want the lifeguard thinking that we are defeated by a stupid beach ball; all the ruckus is because we are out here saving lives.
Save the rain forest. Fight global warming. Save the whales. Just say no to drugs. Make the world safe for democracy. Leave no child behind. Stop big tobacco. Sue the handgun manufacturers. Insist on reparations for slavery. Fight terrorism. Recycle paper and aluminum. Just say no to hate. Fight homophobia. Visualize world peace. Think globally, act locally. Build a wheelchair ramp.
And splash some more.