The Poison of Moralism

The devil is an equal-opportunity deceiver.  He kneads the Pharisaic yeast of moralism in the bread of all theological traditions.  The very Protestantism that recovered the teaching of justification by faith alone which was designed to release people from bondage to the law produced its own version of Pharisaic moralism.  The incessant drive of the flesh to rely on our own goodness never leaves us this side of heaven.  We forever want to think well of ourselves.

Early in the 20th century, liberal Protestantism, influenced by the Lutheran scholar Adolph von Harnack, reduced Christian dogma and doctrine down to two essentials.  He replaced the creedal affirmations concerning Christ and the Trinity with “the brotherhood of man” and “the fatherhood of God”.  His strong emphasis on morals overshadowed the traditional teachings of grace.  Biblical themes of sacrifice, substitution, expiation, propitiation and the atoning death of Christ were replaced by the exhortation to follow the life and example of Jesus.  Jesus as a wisdom dispenser, teacher and model swallowed up Jesus as Savior, Redeemer and Reconciler.  Jesus as an example for the brotherhood of man and a teacher of the fatherhood of God became a new law to be obeyed or followed.  When Christianity is reduced to being like Jesus (WWJD) it loses its grace and becomes a mere law that can be obeyed only by an inflated confidence in human nature’s ability to fulfill all obligations and/or by lowering the law to levels that one can obey.  As Jesus made clear, this confidence in human willpower to effect brotherhood makes Pharisees blind to the intractable self-centeredness in our nature.  The teaching of von Harnack et al became a wave that washed over western Christianity until it broke on the rocks of WWI and WWII.  The 20th century disclosed a deep and desperate need for something more than von Harnack’s naïve confidence to keep us from destroying each other and from exchanging the fatherhood of God for the brotherhood of Hitler and Stalin.  The liberal naiveté regarding the goodness of human nature could no longer be sustained.  However it has amazing resurrection powers and is back.

Albert Mohler in an excellent article “Why Moralism Is Not the Gospel and Why So Many Christians think it Is” states, “In our own context, one of the most seductive false Gospels is moralism.  This false gospel can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses.  Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this—the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.”  The Bible, then in effect becomes a code book, a list of rules, a manual for learning how to manage our behavior.  Moralistic preaching becomes an exercise in scolding, nagging, cajoling and reproving inappropriate behavior.  Without a focus upon the Person and work of Christ, a moralistic approach to Christianity reinforces and feeds the very flesh that the Gospel is designed to kill.  So let’s look at what moralism is, what causes it and how to get over it because it will destroy your spiritual life.

What is moralism?  One earth-shaking and scandalous thought that troubles many is that Christianity is not equal to morality.  Paul said it best in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision uncircumcision counts for anything but only faith working through love.”  One could legitimately substitute morality for circumcision and immorality for uncircumcision.  Neither one has any value in constituting what a Christian is.  A Christian is one who lives by faith that expresses itself through love.  The Gospel is radically different from moralism.  Moralism operates on the principle “I obey therefore I am accepted”.  The Gospel operates on the principle “I am accepted through Christ therefore I obey”.  Moral improvement is the byproduct of a relationship based on faith alone, not by an attempted relationship through achievement or attainment.  Growth in holiness is the result of faith in Christ not the cause of acceptance with God.  We don’t begin the Christian life by grace and seek to continue it by obeying moral principles.

What are the causes of moralism?  First, a shallow view of the absolute holiness of God.  God is far holier than the moralist can bear.  He is a consuming fire, not a 4th of July sparkler.  Our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and our best deeds are stained with impurity.  If we domesticate the holiness of God we will inevitably lower the standard (the law) that is intended to drive us to Christ despairing of our own righteousness.  A second cause of moralism is a faulty view of human nature.  A Band-Aid, good advice, a great example, sentimental schmaltzy stories and guilt trips and incessant nagging just won’t do  We are far more flawed, sinful, broken, rebellious, stiff-necked, idolatrous, hardhearted and self centered than any of us would like to admit.  Moralism is rooted in a naïve inflated view of our nature’s abilities and a denial of our twistedness.  We need a righteousness that is alien, “outside of us”, passive and not produced by us.  We need the righteous obedience of Christ imputed (credited to our account) to us.  Only the Gospel (what Christ has done) is the power of God unto salvation.  Salvation is not only deliverance from the penalty of sin, but the power of sin as well.  I cannot deliver myself because I am powerless.  I must have supernatural help.  Moralism is natural help i.e. willpower.

What feeds moralism?  Preaching and preachers who do not get the Gospel and whose sermons are filled with exhortations and imperatives disconnected from Gospel realities.   Moralism makes me feel like or gives me the illusion that I am in control and that I can make progress if I try harder (Avis theology) or just do it (Nike theology) or sell out and totally commit (sola bootstrapus theology) or totally surrender and release the Spirit (Keswick theology) ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  Another thing that feeds moralism is the evangelical obsession with progress in sanctification and the grounding of assurance on moral progression rather than the objective work of Christ.  Sanctification by grace through faith is both linear and circular.  It is linear in that we do make progress but we are usually the last to know.  We usually sense or feel that we are getting worse not better.  The Holy Spirit uncovers sin we never knew existed in us.  Sanctification is circular in that it is a constant returning to the cross and a beginning again.  So the Christian rests in Christ and out of that rest expends effort (not self generated but Spirit given) to obey but at the end of the day he or she falls far short of the standard and returns to the cross to rest in the grace, love and mercy displayed there.

What are the results of moralism?  Or what does it look like?  Either a smug, self satisfied, superior self righteousness because I think I am successful and thus better than others, or a despair arising from repeated failure to live up to my own standards much less the Bible’s standards.  Moralism is not an act of faith but a supreme act of unbelief (self reliance).  It is what makes Christianity less than winsome to a lost world and dishonors God by attempting to steal His glory.  A moralist always disses the culture in order to feel better about himself.  Moralists also call everyone who is not as serious about behavior as they are antinomian.  Since antinomianism is a misuse of the law of God is this not the pot calling the kettle black?  Antinomianism is lawlessness and sin is a violation of the law of God; therefore every time I sin I am committing an antinomian act.  A moralist really believes that the way to fix lawlessness is to rigorously apply the law to it and straighten up and fly right.  However the law has no power to fix us.  Here’s the good news for the moralist.  The Gospel can fix us.  I love my moralist brothers and sisters and long for them as well as myself to live in the freedom of the Gospel of grace.  The cure is found in this quote by Leslie Newbigin in his book Christian Freedom in the Modern World—“The Christian is one who has forever given up the hope of being able to think of himself as a good man.  He is forever a sinner for whom the Son of God had to die because by no other means could he be forgiven.  In a sense we can say that he has given up the effort to be good; that is no longer his aim.  He is seeking to do one thing and one thing only—to pay back something of an unpayable debt of gratitude to Christ who loved him as a sinner and gave Himself for him.  And in this new and self-forgetting quest he finds that which—when he sought it directly—was forever bound to elude him, the good life.  No two motives could be more distinct from one another than these two, yet it is the commonest thing to find them confused.  How ready we are to take Christ as our pattern and teacher only, using the words of the Gospel, and yet never allowing ourselves to face the experience of forgiveness at the foot of the cross—the humiliating discovery that, so far from our being like Jesus, there is literally no hope for us at all except that He has forgiven us.  There is a whole universe of moral and psychological difference between saying, ‘Christ is my pattern, and if I try I can be like Him’ and saying, ‘I am so far from goodness that Christ had to die for me that I might be forgiven.’ The one is the one is still in the world of legalism, and its center of attention is still the self.  The other is in the world of grace, and its center of attention is another who whose love it is our whole and only aim to give ourselves.  The one must always lack what the other increasingly has, the spontaneity and whole-heartedness that come when there is the whole force of an emotionally integrated life behind action.  And not only is the motive of goodness quite different in the two cases; so also is the sanction against evil.  In the one case sin is thought of and felt as that which damages our own reputation, stains our record, and lowers our opinion of ourselves.  In the other, sin is, above all, that which crucified Christ.  Sin hurts first of all not because it hurts the self, but because it hurts the other.”

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