The late pastor Eugene Peterson, in a letter to his son, also a pastor, wrote that the primary problem for the Christian leader is to take responsibility not just for the ends but also for the “ways and means” by which we guide people to pursue those ends. “The devil’s three temptations of Jesus all had to do with ways and means,” he wrote. “Every one of the devil’s goals was excellent. The devil had an unsurpassed vision statement. But the ways and means were incompatible with the ends.”

As Peterson put it, the discipleship that Jesus calls us to is one “both personally and corporately conducted in which the insides and outsides are continuous. A life in which we are as careful and attentive to the how as to the what.”

This is because, Peterson counseled, “if we are going to live the Jesus life, we simply have to do it the Jesus way—he is, after all, the Way as well as the Truth and Life.” There are no emergency escape clauses from the way of the Cross.

What seems to be popular in this moment is not so much a prosperity gospel as a depravity gospel. In this depravity gospel, appeals to character or moral norms are met not with appeals of “Not guilty!” but with dismissals of “Get real!”

Yet this depravity gospel tries to lure us in. It doesn’t matter if you get to it by adopting it outright, with glee at cruelty and vulgarity, or if it drives you to the kind of cynicism that doesn’t ever expect anything better.

That way lies nihilism. You will find yourself in situations, and you may be in one of those situations already, where you have a responsibility for holding an institution accountable. Maybe it’s simply as a voter. You can just shrug and give your assent to anyone your party tells you to support. That will change you, over time. Maybe it’s as a church member or a part of some denomination or Christian ministry.

Do not confuse giftedness with character, in yourself or in anyone else. You shouldn’t expect your leaders to be sinless. They will sin, but there’s a difference between a sinning, repenting human being and a pattern of corruption. If the latter, you will have to ask yourself how to address it. Is it through staying where you are and seeking to effect change? Or is it by leaving and finding a new place to live and to serve? I don’t know. Much of that is contingent on factors you often just can’t know. I would suggest that you ask yourself where your vulnerabilities are.

Article continues below

Are you the kind of person who normally defaults to leaving a situation? If so, then find all the reasons you should stay and make change, before you leave. Are you the kind of person who tends to just adapt yourself to a situation, out of obligation or loyalty or nostalgia? If so, strongly consider leaving.

The accountability of our institutions matters. They are what form us into what we consider to be “normal.” When awful behavior starts to feel normal to you, it’s not just you who is in danger.

A conscience is more than just an internal prompter saying, “Do the right thing.” Conscience is a way of knowing—like reason and imagination and intuition—that is embedded deep in the human psyche.

Conscience alerts us to the fact that we live in a morally structured cosmos, and that our lives exist in a timeline that is moving us toward a day of accountability (Rom. 2:15–16), a judgment seat before the one who endured, for us, his own judgment seat (John 19:13).

What that does is equip a person to have a long-term view of the universe, and of one’s own life. With a short-term view (of, say, a hundred years or so), one could easily conclude that ambition is the driver of life. One could conclude, as do the psalmist and Job, that the ruthless prosper and that therefore the way to prosperity is through ruthlessness. Conscience, when functioning well, points a person to a broader scope—toward the day when everything is brought to accountability and one’s life really begins.

That starts with being rather than doing. That’s precisely what evangelical movements of all sorts emphasize. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9, ESV throughout). This is immediately followed with this: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10).

The morality is important, but morality is rooted in life, not the other way around. If you are in Christ, your sins are forgiven. You are crucified with Christ, and raised with him. There is nothing to earn. That’s why, at its best, evangelical Christianity has pointed to morality—or, in better biblical language, sanctification—as an outworking of who we already are in Christ, not as a way to earn favor with God.

Article continues below

Morality, then, is opposed to moralism or legalism. As Martin Luther put it, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”

Morality must be something defined outside of the person and outside of the situation. The Cross is a definitive judgment against objectively defined sin. So is hell. Sin has to do not just with what you are doing (although it certainly includes that) but also with what kind of person you are becoming. We have different points of vulnerability, which is why we have to bear one another’s burdens. Watch in your own life where those weak points are. What is the ambition that drives you? Who are the people you want to like you?

A nonfunctioning conscience is informed by the priorities of ambition and safety and belonging. That’s how Pontius Pilate ended up a crucifier of Jesus. It’s not because he was plotting to see this Messiah killed, but because he was “wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). Pilate, Matthew writes, “saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning,” so he washed his hands of the matter (Matt. 27:24). That’s how it happens. Pilate saw the stakes as being about what he was gaining or losing—in that moment, or in the sweep of his life. He defined his mission in terms of ambition and security rather than in terms of conscience. And so his conscience adjusted to his ambition, not the other way around.

The same can happen to you—no matter if you work in a grocery store produce department or in an accounting firm or in a screenwriting guild or as a missionary. The pull will always be to quiet the conscience because you can’t afford what you fear it may ask of you. In that direction lies disaster.

The problem is not that you will find yourself moving in ways you never wanted to move—but, rather, that you will not notice at all how you are moving. You will not even see that you are chasing the imprimatur of whatever crowd to which you want to belong, to whatever goal you want to achieve. Only after it is too late do you see that you no longer recognize yourself.

That clamor for ambition and belonging will lead not to an absence of conscience but to a misdirected conscience, one that feels shame about what is not shameful and feels nothing about what is. Character formation works from the inside out too. Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Article continues below

A clear conscience does not lead, as we imagine, to inner tranquility, at least not right away. A clear conscience is a conscience that is alive—and thus is vibrating with prompts to repentance and redirection and pleas for mercy. But, in the long run, a clear conscience leads to peace—because it casts out fear.

If your ambition is your standard, you are enslaved to whatever can take away your ambition. If your belonging in your tribe is your standard, then you will be terrified by any threat of exile. But if your mission lines up with your conscience and your conscience lines up with the gospel, then you have no need to live in paralyzing fear, and you also have no need to live in defense of yourself.

That’s why Jesus told his disciples, “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matt. 10:26–27).

If you are aware that there is a Judgment Day to come, you do not need to call your own judgment day now. And if anyone asks anything of you at the cost of your integrity, know that the price is too high.

Russell Moore is CT’s editor in chief. Adapted from Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore. Copyright © 2023, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

[ This article is also available in español Português Français 简体中文 Indonesian, and 繁體中文. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America
Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America
272 pp., 18.69
Buy Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America from Amazon
Russell Moore
Russell Moore is Christianity Today's editor in chief and the host of The Russell Moore Show.
Previous Onward Columns: