3 Reasons Why Moralism Can't Save You
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 can strip away any motivation to grow as a Christian, ruin our joy in the ultimate things—like eternity, and rob us of our love for Jesus.
Moralism makes false promises.
Moralism 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 promises the favor and 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! Scripture actually speaks in direct opposition to it.
Allow me to give this caveat: there is some measure of benefit to moralism. 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.
Yet, if you were to ask the same man who spoke rudely to his wife what the solution to the problem of sin is, his version of the gospel might sound very similar to the issue with his wife. He might say, “Well, you just ask God to forgive you and go to church, give, serve, and don’t cuss.” 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. When we believe that our moral behavior earns us acceptance with God, we are both believing and propagating a false gospel.
Here are three pitfalls of moralistic thinking and how they lead us away from a clear gospel.
1. Moralism is sin’s smoke screen.
In Matthew 19:16-30, the rich young man comes to Jesus much like many of us come. He asks very plainly, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16).
Jesus answers him on the same plane (keep the Law) that he asks the question: “‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments’” (Matt. 19:17).
The rich young man says, “All these I have kept” (Matt. 19:20).
Knowing that he had not, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (Matt. 19:21).
And the rich young man goes away sorrowful (Matt. 19:22).
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 and even into God’s presence. But Jesus points out right away that no amount of our own good deeds could ever make up for our indebtedness to God and submission and trust in Jesus.
This young man’s understanding of access to God had a fog cast over it—the smoke screen of moralism. The fog of moralism 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 both 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.
In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus calls the people who are standing and praying to be seen by others as hypocrites:
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matt. 6:5-6)
They believe that the act of praying earns them favor before God, but what they really desire is power and prestige among men. According to Jesus, 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 unspiritual 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 parts of our being. Sin will, at best, lead to a lack of effectiveness for God’s kingdom. It can also disqualify us from ministry, and at its worst, lead to eternal hell (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). We have all been touched by sin as well as its consequences, and what it deserves is death.
2. Moralism does not change God’s requirement for 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). Yet, 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 and just wrath of God; rather, it leaves us standing helpless before the judgment that is to come and dependent upon his supernatural intervention to help us meet that requirement. God’s law will be upheld, his righteousness will be preserved, and his holiness will never be diminished even the slightest degree.
In Galatians 2:15-16 Paul writes,
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Will no one be justified by works of the law because God’s law was somehow flawed? No, Jesus even rebukes that idea in Matthew 5 when he says he came to fulfill both the law and the prophets, and the reason is precisely why Jesus came and fulfilled the law. 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 3:7, “You must be born again.” It is why Jesus was born in the flesh—to be the God-man who fulfilled the law perfectly and was the perfect once-for-all sacrifice for sin. God’s requirement of justification by his grace through faith in Jesus alone removes the idea that God will simply pick through a pile of our deeds on Judgment Day and pull out those that are “good enough,” allowing 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 also heresy.
3. Moralism is not the gospel.
A. W. Tozer once declared,
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.
The gospel teaches that sin is not a far-off threat. It is not a “potential” problem. Sin is not a symptom of 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.
Whether it be a moral failure, spiritual infirmity, disagreement, or struggle, at the center of it all sits the specter of sin. And if it not only renders us doomed for physical death in the future but also spiritually dead right now, then we must recognize that we are helpless to carry out any sort of redeeming act on our own to resolve the problem.
Only the gospel can set you free.
We will never be able to work hard enough, go to church enough, or do "good enough” things to navigate and overcome the seemingly never-ending darkness of the world around us. Yet, this is the message we preach if we choose to resign ourselves to believing that we can somehow earn God’s acceptance.
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 set free from sin to pursue holiness in Christ Jesus:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)
In contrast to the fog of moralism, we find clarity in the message of Christ. May we no longer find ourselves in the place of the rich young man clinging to the filthy rags of our own insufficient works. Instead, may we find ourselves proclaiming the same words as the apostle Peter did when Jesus asked,
“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:15-16)
Jim Richman is a author, speaker, and outdoorsman. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of a Christian Sportsman, a blog for Christian outdoorsmen from around the world. To find out more about Jim, you can see his full bio here.
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