Is Christianity just fancy moralism? So many Christians today are known for what they do not do and what they oppose. We don’t drink, we don’t party, we don’t wear skimpy clothes, etc. And the most holy amongst us are known more for what we do do instead of what we do not do: we go to church, we give money (or little bags with snacks and a Bible) to the homeless, we volunteer, etc. Is that the foundation of Christianity? Did Jesus die on the cross so that we can clean up our lives and feel better about ourselves?
Moralism is as old as creation. The very first people, Adam and Eve, had two sons – Cain and Abel. Abel loved God and offered sacrifices from love and Cain was jealous because he wanted God to accept his sacrifices, and instead of getting his heart right he murdered his Abel. As soon as God handed down the Law of His expectations, there were people who set out to keep it in their own strength for their own glory. God has been exceedingly clear about His expectations of humanity: both on the heart level and on the outward – or pragmatic level, and human pride has always lent some to the effort of self-approval through keeping the law. Morality.
It is also true that the Old Testament is centered on the Mosaic Law of God, and the New Testament is full of commandments for Christians saved by grace. There is no doubt throughout the entirety of Scripture that man’s problem is sin – we are all condemned to death and eternity in Hell because of our sin and when we come to God for salvation through Jesus Christ, we are still commanded and expected to stop sinning (Rom 6.23, Gal 5).
The end goal, however, is not moralism. God is not primarily concerned with our actions, He is primarily concerned with our hearts. This has been true since the beginning. When Cain killed Abel and interacted with God, God was not primarily concerned about his actions of offering a poor sacrifice and killing Abel, He was concerned about his heart:
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, [will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
– Gen 4.6-7
When God gave the Law to Moses for the Hebrew people to observe, the first and primary commandment was to Love God with everything and to not worship other gods or idols. The first three of the ten commandments, in fact, deal specifically with this command. He sums up the whole Law thus:
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
– Deut 6.4-5
And the summary of the entire Bible proclaiming the truths about the end times lists those sinners who will be condemned to Hell, even in light of salvation by grace alone through faith alone:
“But for the cowardly and [unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
– Rev 21.8
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list, but we have similar lists throughout all of the New Testament which exhort Christians to stop sinning.
Compounding the issue of moralism is the prevalence self-acceptance and self-realization in western thinking. Philosophy has lent us to believe that there are no true absolutes, that we all have autonomy to determine our own paths, and that there is truly no right and wrong. Lying is acceptable in certain situations, murder in others, deceit against immoral persons or governments and even theft to care for the less fortunate. No longer are there black and whites, but everything is a shade of grey and we are left to determine our own way.
Moralism, fundamentally, is looking to an outward standard and attempting to attain that standard in our own strength and power. It can be based on aversion (avoiding certain activities) or action (preforming certain activities). Either way, it is a person proving his righteousness by his actions. Self-realization, fundamentally, is looking inward to realize who one is at the core and development of a life system based on one’s own valuation of right and wrong.
Salvation, however, is neither of these. The Law was given to us to show that we can never keep God’s law perfectly and therefore never be moral or good enough to earn His favor. Paul teaches us, in fact, that the entire point of the Law is to reveal our sinfulness and therefore the frivolity of trying to keep it in our own strength:
“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.”
– Rom 7.7-8
Scripture also teaches us that the heart is deceitful above all else, that we are Spiritually dead apart from Jesus, that there is none righteous and none who seeks after God in his own strength and that we are all fundamentally wicked (Jer 17.9, Eph 2.1, Rom 3.10-12). Therefore, self-realization and determining our own truth leads us only down the wide path of destruction (Matt 7.13-14).
What does all of this mean? Simply put, it means that we – in and of ourselves – are neither capable of being good enough nor able to prove ourselves by our logic and making peace with our decisions. We need a savior.
Thankfully, salvation is the answer. Salvation is that work of God whereby we are Spiritually awakened, we are changed at the core level and transformed into new beings.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
– 2 Cor 5.17
Once we have been Spiritually awakened and empowered by the Holy Spirit indwelling us, the Spirit begins changing us such that we keep the commandments of God because we love Him and want to please Him, rather than trying to prove ourselves or simply be good people. We are no longer students, sitting in class learning a lesson and proving ourselves on a test, we are now children who love our father and long to please him by obeying what he says to do. We do not fear a bad grade, we fear disappointing our father.
This reality teaches us that morality is not our internal realization – God has established a perfect standard and He expects us to obey, but He enables us and drives us to obey it by transforming our hearts to be willing to submit to His leadership and direction. We are therefore compelled by the Spirit within us to please God, not driven by our need of approval or self-validation.
It is by this reality only that we are given commands. And Paul clarifies for us beautifully that the works of the flesh are sinful, but our obedience is purely the works or “fruit” of the Spirit living in us:
“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are:immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
– Gal 5.19-23
People who practice the sinful deeds will not inherit the kingdom – because they are sinful and sin deserves damnation. But we will only truly discontinue these sins and live in righteousness when we have been transformed at a heart level and given Spiritual life, and thus the Holy Spirit can live through us and exemplify all of those righteous attributes.
So what does this mean practically? How do I get Spiritual life and live by the Spirit? How do I stop trying to prove myself and live in freedom, aiming to please my Father?
Jesus teaches us that our Spiritual and eternal life begins at the moment we are born Spiritually (John 3). When we hear the Gospel and long to be made right with God, we confess our sins, begin the process of repentance and are given the Holy Spirit. If you have had a longing to be made right with God, have confessed your sins and are experiencing the conviction of the Holy Spirit in your life, then you have Spiritual life! The Holy Spirit is alive within you. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict us of sin and righteousness (John 16.8). Therefore, as we are reading the Scripture, understanding God’s hearts and desires, the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin in our lives and push us on to change. We will know at a heart level that God is displeased with our laziness, with our lying, with our selfishness and with our pride. He will then, through promises in Scripture, enable us to change.
This will be a lifelong process. As long as we are in our human bodies, our sinful nature and our flesh will wage war against the Spirit. Sin is pleasurable and desirable, and we will give in to it. But the Spirit will convict us of it and the love that we have for God will drive us long for change and obey.
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”
– Gal 5.17
We will fight sin on the heart level, on the actions level, and we will need tools to help us along the way. Replacement tactics work very well: when we are tempted to sin, we purposefully turn to God instead. When we are tempted to look at pornography, we stop and pray or call a trusted friend to chat. When we are tempted to go out drinking or partying, we call our Christian friends and gather together for wholesome entertainment. When we are tempted to have an affair or fool around with a girlfriend before marriage, we turn to our spouse or go out on group dates to hold us accountable.
We can also utilize fighter verses when the sin is mental or emotional. Are you fighting fear? We can claim the promises of God that we have nothing to fear – even if we should die we would be in the presence of God and the troubles of this world will be over! Are you fighting depression? We can claim the promises of God that we are His beloved children and He has given everything so that we can be saved. Are you fighting doubt? We can claim the promises of faith, provision, or whatever specific doubt we might have. Thus it is important to be in the Scripture daily and to have accountability in wise friends and mentors who can push us on in these truths and disciplines.
God is ultimately concerned about our hearts and the drive to please Him because of our Spiritual transformation. Our morality is worthless because we can never be good enough. Our self-realization is also worthless, because apart from Him we are Spiritually dead. God Himself will give us Spiritual life and when He transforms us from the inside out, we will be driven by a love for Him to please Him by obeying Him. We cannot obey Him, however, if we do not know the Scriptures and understands what He wants from His children! So let’s get busy about loving and knowing God. Let’s be transformed and work on pleasing our father, not trying to earn His approval.
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.'”
– John 14.23