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Moralism vs. Christ

Just moments ago, I had a great conversation with a gentleman from our simple church.  We discussed a topic that I brought up last Sunday during our gathering.  I mentioned the word “moralism” and I talked about it in a negative light (HERE is the link to the short devotion by Oswald Chambers that kicked off the conversation).  In one sense, being moral is certainly a good thing.  However, I seemed to suggest that moralism was not a good thing.  I think that reading the devotion above will help to clarify, but allow me to add a few other thoughts as well.

First off, God continues to teach me the importance of obedience.  You probably know this as we have spent considerable time talking (in person and here on this blog) about how the Great Commission calls us to teach people to “obey all that He commanded.”  So if the Great Commission is about obedience then how can moralism be a bad thing?  This is a great question and something that we all need to consider…

Imagine that you were about to die unless you find a heart donor.  A stranger walks into the room and offers his heart to you (dying so that you could live) and his last wish was that you not waste the heart… that you would do good with the remainder of your life.

From that point on, any good that came from you would not be so that you could earn or even keep your new heart—that was given freely.  Moralism is the idea that we get and keep the heart (i.e. salvation) by our good behavior.  The Good News is that the heart was given freely, and any good we do as a result (obedience) is out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the life we have, but do not deserve.

Below is another article on the topic that I came across online.  Perhaps it will be an encouragement to you on the journey.

I am grateful to Bob and our conversation this morning.  I am eternally grateful that God would save a wretch like me!


Deconstructing Moralism (from the Gospel Coalition Site)

Tullian Tchividjian

A lot of conversation has been happening with regard to the nature of the gospel and it’s role in sanctification. First, Kevin DeYoung and I engaged in a healthy dialogue about this a few months ago (see here, here, here, and here). And then over at the Reformation 21 blog this week, Bill Evans and Sean Lucas have had a healthy dialogue about this (see here, here, here, and here). I have intentionally stayed out of the most recent conversation because I’ve already said in many ways what I would say again if I weighed in.

Without addressing all of the important details, nuances, and perspectives, the simple fact is that if someone is giving short-shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives, it’s because they are not glorying in the indicatives of the gospel. Their problem is not first and foremost that they aren’t giving full-throat to the imperatives. It’s that they’re not giving full-throat to the indicatives. I’ve never met anyone who revels in the gospel of grace who then doesn’t want to obey God. It’s a phantom fear (see this brilliantly creative post).

Matt Richard describes well how naturally we take it upon ourselves to reign the gospel in when we fear too much of it will result in lawlessness:

I have found that as Christians we many times attribute ‘lawlessness’ to the preaching of the Gospel. Somewhere in our thinking we rationalize that if the Gospel is presented as “too free, too unconditional or that Jesus fulfills the law for us” that the result will be lax morality, loose living and lawlessness. It is as if we believe that the freeing message of the Gospel actually produces, encourages and grants people a license to sin. Because of this rationalization we find ourselves strapping, holding and attaching restrictions to the Gospel so that we might prevent or limit lawlessness. In other words, the Gospel is placed into bondage due to our rationalization and reaction to lawlessness.

Actually, both the Bible and daily experience demonstrates that disobedience and moral laxity happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of it (Rom. 6:1-4). Grace is not the enemy of radical obedience–it is its fuel! That’s all I have to say about that.

There is, however, something specific that has come up in the conversation that I do want to address. It’s the idea that since our culture is relativistic, licentious, and morally lax, is preaching grace what this culture really needs? Or, to put it another way, is preaching the gospel of grace really the means by which God will save licentious people? I mean, surely God doesn’t think that the saving solution for the immoral and rebellious is his free grace? That doesn’t make sense. It seems backwards, counter-intuitive. Given our restraint-free cultural context, what does make sense to me is that preachers in our day should be very wary of talking about grace at all. That’s the last thing lawless people need to hear. Surely they’ll take advantage of it and get worse, not better. After all, it would seem logical to me that the only way to “save” licentious people is to show them more rules, intensify my exhortations to behave.

Well, besides the fact that the Bible makes it clear that the power which saves even the worst rule-breaking sinner is the gospel (Romans 1:16), and not the law (Romans 7:13-24), there’s another reason why preaching the gospel of free grace is both necessary and effective (counter-intuitive as it may seem) even at a time when moral laxity reigns supreme: moralism is what most people outside and inside the church think Christianity is all about—rules and standards and behavior and cleaning yourself up.

Millions of people, both inside and outside the church, believe that the essential message of Christianity is, “If you behave, then you belong.” The reason they come to that conclusion is because many of us preachers have led them to believe that. We’ve led them to believe that God is most interested in people becoming good instead of people coming to terms with how bad they really are so that they’ll fix their eyes on Christ “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). From a human standpoint, this is precisely why many people outside the church reject Christianity and why many people inside the church conk out: they’re just not good enough to get it done over the long haul. (Then there are those who ignore the gospel because they’ve deceived themselves into believing that they really are making it, when in reality they’re not.)

In his article “Preaching in a Post-modern Climate”, Tim Keller makes this point brilliantly:

Some claim that to constantly be striking a ‘note of grace, grace, grace’ in our sermons is not helpful in our culture today. The objection goes like this: “Surely Phariseeism and moralism is not a problem in our culture today. Rather, our problem is license and antinomianism. People lack a sense of right or wrong. It is ‘carrying coal to Newcastle’ to talk about grace all the time to postmodern people.” But I don’t believe that’s the case. Unless you point to the ‘good news’ of grace, people won’t even be able to bear the ‘bad news’ of God’s judgment. Also, unless you critique moralism, many irreligious people won’t know the difference between moralism and what you’re offering. The way to get antinomians to move away from lawlessness is to distinguish the gospel from legalism. Why? Because modern and post-modern people have been rejecting Christianity for years thinking that it was indistinguishable from moralism. Non-Christians will always automatically hear gospel presentations as appeals to become moral and religious, unless in your preaching you use the good news of grace to deconstruct legalism. Only if you show them there’s a difference–that what they really rejected wasn’t real Christianity at all–will they even begin to consider Christianity.

As I’ve pointed out before, in Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul answers antinomianism (lawlessness) not with law but with more gospel! I imagine it would have been tempting for Paul (as it often is with us when dealing with licentious people) to put the brakes on grace and give the law in this passage, but instead he gives more grace—grace upon grace. Paul knows that licentious people aren’t those who believe the gospel of God’s free grace too much, but too little. “The ultimate antidote to antinomianism”, writes Mike Horton, “is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.”

The fact is, that the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners. It was the kindness of the Lord that led you to repentance (Romans 2:4). What makes you think that same kindness which flows supremely from the gospel of free grace won’t lead others to repentance?

Here’s a great scene from Les Miserables illustrating how powerful the radicality of grace is in melting hard, undeserving, law-breaking hearts.

And yet another good article…

Christ vs. Moralism by John W. Hendryx

Death is the wages of sin (Rom 6:23) and Jesus Christ had none (Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5; 2 Cor 5:21). Death, therefore, had no rightful claim on Him thus Jesus died an unnatural death. This means that Jesus, the true remnant of Israel, alone fulfilled the covenant from our side, pleasing God. And all who are united to Him share in His distinction that death has no rightful claim on them (6:23b). So Jesus alone is our focus, our religion, our righteousness. Yet we still, as Christians often get caught up in our own spirituality. That is, we focus incessantly on how we are doing, whether reading the Word, praying, involving myself in a body of like-minded believers, being a witness,. etc. We often do this in a way where we expect to win God’s approval and somehow become more spiritual. While all these things are all good and helpful when done in the right spirit, it is not exactly what is meant by giving oneself fully to the Lord, or being spiritual.


To give oneself to the Lord means that you begin align yourself with God and his redemptive plan for the world. It means to lose all confidence in oneself and recognize Jesus as the all in all. The gospel remains our only hope as a Christian. All of these other activities don’t make you in any way more pleasing to God. He is already pleased with you in Christ and the covenant he has made with you in Him. When we realize this, these other activities are overflow, not duty driven acts to put on our spiritual resumé. Our delight is in the Lord and the story of His redemptive activity through history culminating in his finished work in Christ on the cross. It is not about our piety … instead we work out of salvation in fear and trembling before the Lord. The more we look at Him the more we are transformed into His likeness (2 Cor 2:18). As long as we view the core of spirituality as some morbid self-introspection and practice of disciplines then we fall into the danger of taking our eyes off of Jesus.


Sinclair Ferguson aptly said, “from the New Testament’s point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about itself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.”


So the question often arises to me about how much spiritual activity is enough? The answer is the same every time: what Jesus has accomplished for you is already sufficient. God is as pleased as He can be with you and could not be more pleased with you because of Jesus. Preach this gospel to yourself every day and you will begin to see a new world open before you. You will rest in Christ’s completed work and out of the overflow of the new life you have in Him, you will do all things filled with the Holy Spirit. He becomes greater while you become less. The most mundane, banal activity then becomes spiritual … not simply when you are reading your Bible. You don’t curry God’s favor or earn more points in heaven by your activities. God has set his affection on you. You are his son – this is a reality to those who are in Christ. Recall in the parable of the prodigal son where the older brother is angry with God because he said, “I have worked all my life for you and never given me a slaughtered calf.” He saw his relationship with his father as a servant rather than a son. First, you must know that you are worse than could ever be imagined and are impotent to do anything on your own. Such despairing in oneself is necessary to true spirituality. Yet God is more gracious than you imagined and adopts you as his very own son. When you know you are thus loved then all of what you do will reflect that. You will forgive others, and delight in good works not because God needs to be appeased, but because you are loved by him and that overflows in your life to others. Oh, but how easy it is to forget this and slip back into perfectionism. The Apostle Paul waned against this tendency in Galatians 3:3 when he said, “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Here we clearly see Paul’s frustration in persons who think that we start with grace in the gospel but then move on to perfection through other means.


A common religion of our time is one of moralism, and many evangelicals tend to moralism without even realizing they are. Moralism seeks to achieve perfection through behavior modification. It often accompanies the religion of “family values” that we hear about each day on the radio. This kind of religion risks self-righteously looking down on unbelievers by putting our supposed morality in a comparison with theirs. It is as if we believe our entrance into Christianity is by grace but that our lives in Christ are due to our maintained by some kind of moralism. Those who believe this fall into the trap of (at least subconsciously) believing that is not grace alone that make us to differ with others. But we must always remember that God’s commands to us to be holy and love our neighbor etc. are not there to show our ability, but to reveal our inability (Rom 3:19, 20). So instead of spending our time gazing at our navels in the hope that we become more spiritual and can attain some kind of perfection, true Christianity recognizes and faces up to our sinful imperfection. We can never obey God’s commands no matter how hard we try. Anyone who thinks that they could possibly live sinlessly for an hour or a day has not yet come face to face with God and his utter holiness. We flatter ourselves to think this way but the apostolic assertion is that if a man shall keep the whole law and yet offend at one point he is guilty of all.


The good news is that we do not need to ascend to God via human effort (an impossible supposition) because He has descended to us. The philosophy of the age, even among Christians who should know better, is to focus on what we human beings can do to be saved. True Christianity, I believe, teaches that there is nothing we can do… we must despair of ourselves, because what we could not do for ourselves, Christ has done for us. Unfortunately a large percentage of Christians think moralism, avoiding wrongdoing of every kind, is what Christianity is all about, (otherwise why so much effort to get our morals put into law) not realizing that we need to repent of trusting in our good deeds and bad ones. Paul, says to the Philippians that all his good works are but rubbish compared to Christ. But even though we know this, our remaining corruption still deceives us sometimes into thinking that God wants something from us other than Christ. It is easy to see that much of Christianity has slipped into this error because the barriers and differences with Roman Catholicism seem to be coming down everywhere I look. Even in Peter Jennings interview with member’s of Ted Haggard’s church people were saying that they don’t see that much difference anymore. I am not saying that unity would not be a good thing, but this unity is not based on truth but on family values, political alliances and morality, all of which are not the gospel.


But none of us can live up to the high standards we impose upon ourselves and often hide it when we fail, thinking that we must put on a good face to other Christians. That is called hypocrisy. Our many attempts at perfection often lead to immoral behavior, especially when it makes us feel superior to others. Rather, we should lead with our weaknesses and admit our sinfulness which points each other and the world to Christ. The world would believe us much more if we simply stopped pretending and boasting about being so much more moral than we really are. Real humility would go a long way in opening eyes for the problem with humanity is not simply our committing various sins, but with our very natures which we desperately need to be delivered from, something only Christ can do, not only at the beginning of our salvation, but each day. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be good, it is God’s command, but when we are honest, not one is able to even come close to achieving this goal.


All ways which consist of human effort to reach God, whether it be through the will, intellect or emotions, are futile. We have no hope to reach God this way, for not only do we utterly fail to live up to God’s holy law, but we have no desire to do so, except by God’s grace. True Christian piety begins with God’s decent to us in Christ and our ascent to Him through Christ. This leaves zero room for human pride. It is all about what God does for us. Only Christ fulfilled the covenant and achieved the moral perfection that a holy God justly requires. And his death bore the punishment for our willful rebellion and sinful passions. The Scripture requires perfection of you, but you don’t have the moral ability to do it. God commands us to be righteousness then turns around and says that we have none (Isaiah 64:6). All self-righteousness is, therefore, out the door. We are guilty of sin against a holy God and therefore, justly deserve God’s wrath. Agreeing with this reveals that the Holy Spirit has begun doing a work of grace in you and is the first step in conversion. God law, therefore, must be preached to the proud but the gospel to the broken-hearted, as Martin Luther says. When the Law breaks our pride, autonomy, self-sufficiency and the belief in the utter impotence to save ourselves, then and only then does the gospel become good news (and understandable). Any pulpit or gospel presentation that leaves out God’s wrath presents an incomplete and incomprehensible “gospel”, but many are doing it. Only in Christ are God’s holy demands toward us fully satisfied. The Scripture testifies that believing that this is accomplished, not by our will, but by the grace of God (Rom 9:16; John 6:65). The preachers job, therefore, is to continually place the law and the gospel before Christians.


May the Lord Jesus richly bless you.

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1 thought on “Moralism vs. Christ”

  1. Nobody in the Protestant world believes that moralism will earn us our salvation

    But, without saying as much, many (fearing antinomianism) teach that morality will keep us saved

    The second not the first is the true leaven of the Pharisees (they were perfectly convinced they were saved – ‘I thank you, Lord, that I am not like..’)

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