If you have ever been on a hike or a hunt and have experienced an oppressive fog, you know how disorienting it can be. Even if you are sitting still, it’s almost ethereal. You know general direction, but you can’t really judge distance well or identify landmarks.
In my time teaching groups of men through various curriculums, there is one thing that stands out as most disorienting. In fact it’s demoralizing. It has stripped away any motivation to grow as a Christian, joy in the ultimate things like eternity, and even a love for Jesus.
It is the idea that adjusting specific behavior will fix the glaring issues that prevent men from being who God has called them to be. It’s called moralism. It promises the favor of, and the satisfaction of God’s righteousness to sinners if they will only behave themselves and commit to moral improvement. But the reality is that this isn’t what the gospel promises at all! In fact scripture speaks in direct opposition to it.
Allow me to caveat with this; there is some measure of benefit to what they have resigned themselves to. If you have said something rude to your wife, it would be right to apologize to her, ask for forgiveness, and do everything in your power not to do something like that again. It is ingrained in us from a very young age. The Bible also teaches that we are to do good to one another.
But when we examine the general landscape of the families and individual leader’s condition in our nation, it’s a good reminder that, even God’s people, can take something good and Godly and twist it into something far more sinister. This is where the fog sets in.
It looks much like this: If you were to ask the same man, and many like him, who has spoken rudely to his wife what the solution to the problem of sin is, the “version of a gospel” you hear could actually sound very similar to the issue with his wife. He might say, “Well, you just ask God for forgiveness and go to church, give, serve, don’t cuss, and ask God to forgive you.” It’s subtle, but it has seeped through the cracks of modern church life to the point that many unknowingly believe this is the gospel.
This is the point where everything we cover in this article stands or falls. Hear me clearly, when we believe that our moral behavior earns us acceptance with God, we are both believing and propagating a false gospel.
I’d like to submit three pitfalls of moralistic thinking and how they lead us away from a clear gospel. Then, I would like to offer to you not only how the gospel clears the fog of moralism, but offers the solution to it.
Let’s look at Matthew 19:16-30.
- The Rich Young Man Came to Jesus much like many of us come. He asked very plainly, “What good deed” must I do to have eternal life?”
- Jesus answers him on the same plane that he asks the question. (Keep The Law)
- The Rich Young Man says, “I’ve kept these”, and knowing that he had not, Jesus replies, “All you have left to do then is to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and follow me.
- And the rich young man went away sorrowful.
“What Good Deed Must I Do?”
It’s quite clear that this young man, in his own mind, had charted his own course right up to and through the gates of heaven by way of his good deeds. It was the rich young man’s self-justification that caused him to believe that he could be moral enough to earn acceptance into Jesus’ inner circle. Even into God’s presence. But Jesus points out right away that no series of our own good deeds could ever make up for our indebtedness to God.
Moralism is Sin’s Smokescreen
This young man’s understanding of access to God had a fog cast over it. A Smoke-screen. That, in a sense, is what moralism is. It’s a smoke screen that reveals just enough truth to show us the law and how to keep it, but not enough to show us that we could never keep it on our own. It softens the violent work of our sin, and shrouds the intensity of God’s holiness, disorienting us in our understanding of the true gospel.
The reason so many practice right things and completely miss the gospel is because the presence and impact of the sin they are harboring is softened by self- justification with high moral achievement. In short, self-righteousness creates a smoke screen for the self-justifier to the point that they cannot even see their own sin clearly.
- Jesus calls these people who are standing and praying to be seen by others hypocrites. Why? They believe that the act of praying earns them favor before God, but what they really desire is power and prestige among men. Jesus says, “They have received their reward. They have gotten what their truest desire is. Men see them and think they have some sort of special access to God that just isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is true, that’s why Jesus calls them hypocrites! Because the father sees just how “un-spiritual” they really are. He sees their sin so much more clearly than they do, and it is that sin that separates them from him.
Moralism creates a diluted understanding of sin. Scripture teaches us that we have been corrupted to the uttermost of our being. Sin will, at best, lead to a lack of effectiveness for God’s kingdom (Gen. 3), it can disqualify us from ministry, and at its worst, lead to eternal hell (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15) We have all been touched by sin, and the earnings of it, what it deserves, is death.
Moralism Does Not Change God’s Requirement of Holiness.
We like to think that the most glaring problem with sin is that it has brought death to the human race, or that it has brought God’s curse (Gen. 3). But the most horrifying consequence of sin is that God’s holiness doesn’t accommodate it. His requirement of his people is that THEY be holy as well. Nothing about self-justification dilutes the holiness, or the good, just wrath of God. Rather, it leaves us standing helpless before the judgement that is to come, and dependent upon his supernatural interaction to help us meet that requirement. God’s law will be upheld, his righteousness will be preserved, and his holiness will never be diminished, to even the slightest degree. We cannot escape it on our own.
Look at Galatians 2:15-16
By works of the law no one will be justified. Why? It is not because God’s law was somehow flawed. No, Jesus even rebukes that idea in Matthew 5 when he says he can to fulfill both the law and the prophets. The reason no one will be justified by works of the law is the precise reason Jesus came and fulfilled it. God is holy, he does not change, and his requirement is that we must be made holy.
That is why Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3, “You must be born again.” It is why Jesus was born of a virgin. God’s requirement of justification by His grace through faith in Jesus alone removes the idea that God will somehow look at all of our deeds in a big pile on judgement day, and that he will make exceptions to those that are “good enough” and allow us into heaven because of how well we “almost” fulfilled the law.
Jesus said that no one comes to the father except by him, and the only reason that is possible is because of God’s mercy. To believe that God’s plan of salvation somehow requires his nature to adjust to our sinfulness is not only preposterous, it is heresy.
Moralism Is Not The Gospel.
The last thing I’d like to submit concerning moralism, is that it is not the gospel.
“This generation has forgotten that the gospel message does not clean up and shine the outside of a person, rather it bores into the very heart and soul of a person and radically changes that person from the inside forever.” A. W. Tozer
To teach that God’s acceptance will be attained by simply “trying” not to sin, or by doing good things, we:
- Preach a diluted understanding of sin’s effect on us and our standing before God. The Gospel Teaches: Sin is not a far off threat. It is not a “potential” problem. Sin is not a symptom to a bigger problem. It is THE problem. It is the reason Adam Died. Sin is THE reason we experience physical pain. It is THE reason all creation around us rages. It is THE reason our relationships suffer. It is THE reason we DIE, and it is THE reason Christ’s death was necessary for our justification. Sin is the life-taking issue that is at the heart of every struggle you and I deal with. Whether it be a moral failure, some sort of spiritual infirmity, disagreement, or struggle, at the center of it all sits the spectre of sin. And if it not only renders us doomed for physical death (future), but spiritually dead(present), then we must confess that on our own, we are helpless to carry out any sort of redeeming act on our own to resolve the problem.
- Preach a misrepresentation of the Nature of God: By believing that God will somehow bend to our sinfulness in order to justify us, we do not preach the God of scripture. We preach that WE are God. If WE will uphold OUR moral standards, the god (US) will be satisfied to allow (US) into heaven. The problem here is that if this is our message, we forget Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” The gospel teaches that our God is immutable. He has not, does not, and will not change. To fail to live and preach this is to leave the lost condemned. God will never just “be ok” with our sinfulness! Jesus came down to us, but that was to make US right before a Holy God not to make a holy God right before sinful men.
- Preach an insufficient atonement: While Christ’s sacrifice was completely sufficient to justify men’s souls before God, the message itself becomes confused. We cannot tell someone to place their hope in Jesus for eternity, but in a “behind the scenes” sort of way to keep their bank of good deeds up so that God will be convinced to let them into heaven. The gospel message is that the blood of Jesus satisfied the wrath of God, and that HE WILL preserve his people for all of eternity.
“No guilt in life, no fear in death, This is the power of Christ in me, From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny, No power of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand, Till He returns or calls me home; Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.” Before the Throne of God Above – Bancroft
4. Trade the life and freedom we are given through Christ, for a shadow of what being alive in him truly is. Moralism will prove itself disorienting and demoralizing. It will strip away any motivation to grow as a Christian, it will strip away joy in the ultimate things in your life. It will turn the spiritual disciplines from joy to drudgery. It will make church membership obligation without heartfelt worship and service. Why? Because we will never be able to work hard enough, to do good enough things, to navigate the seemingly never ending darkness of the world around us. This is the message we preach if we choose to resign ourselves to believing that we can somehow earn God’s acceptance. But the gospel teaches that because of the grace and mercy of God, we have been set free from the sin in which we once walked. We have been made alive with Christ and we have been set free from sin and to the pursuit of holiness in Christ Jesus.
In contrast to the fog of moralism we find the clarity of the message of Christ. May we no longer find ourselves in the place of the rich young man. Rather, may we find ourselves as the Apostle Peter when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”