Christ vs. Moralism

by John 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 résumé. 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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