The gospel transforms individuals and behavior. Moralism reforms behavior and conforms to standards. Moralism is given to reform on one’s own and is often substituted for the gospel. It is the belief the “the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior,” that “we can achieve righteousness by means of proper behavior.”
Al Mohler notes,
this false gospel is particularly attractive to those who believe themselves to be evangelicals motivated by a biblical impulse. Far too many believers and their churches succumb to the logic of moralism and reduce the Gospel to a message of moral improvement. In other words, we communicate to lost persons the message that what God desires for them and demands of them is to get their lives straight. . . . the seduction of moralism is the essence of its power. We are so easily seduced into believing that we actually can gain all the approval we need by our behavior. . . . The theological temptation of moralism is one of many Christians and churches find it difficult to resist. The danger is that the church will communicate by both direct and indirect means that what God expects of fallen humanity is moral improvement. In so doing, the church subverts the Gospel and communicates a false gospel to a fallen world.
Moralism is the impulse of being born in Adam. From the beginning of our lives we seek approval and commendation from others by what we do. We learn early to desire and long after the applause and “well-done” generated through our good behavior. Many parents in their child-rearing foster this sort of thinking and living, even Christian parents. This thinking and teaching also carries over into the church. As a recent example, consider the confession of Bill Gothard, founder and president of Institute in Basic Life Principles.
Mohler addresses the importance of teaching morality, but that it must be rooted in the gospel, not moralism. I include important excerpts.
But these [moral] impulses, right and necessary as they are, are not the Gospel. Indeed, one of the most insidious false gospels is a moralism that promises the favor of God and the satisfaction of God’s righteousness to sinners if they will only behave and commit themselves to moral improvement.
The moralist impulse in the church reduces the Bible to a codebook for human behavior and substitutes moral instruction for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Far too many evangelical pulpits are given over to moralistic messages rather than the preaching of the Gospel.
The corrective to moralism comes directly from the Apostle Paul when he insists that “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus.” Salvation comes to those who are “justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” [Gal. 2:16]
We are justified by faith alone, saved by grace alone, and redeemed from our sin by Christ alone. Moralism produces sinners who are (potentially) better behaved. The Gospel of Christ transforms sinners into the adopted sons and daughters of God.
The deadly danger of moralism has been a constant temptation to the church and an ever-convenient substitute for the Gospel. Clearly, millions of our neighbors believe that moralism is our message. Nothing less than the boldest preaching of the Gospel will suffice to correct this impression and to lead sinners to salvation in Christ.
Hell will be highly populated with those who were “raised right.” The citizens of heaven will be those who, by the sheer grace and mercy of God, are there solely because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Moralism is not the gospel.
Moralism is the heart of the Galatian heresy. It is at the heart of much of Christian ethics and morality. It is another gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).
What are you doing to ensure you live and teach gospel-transformation rather than moral-reform? What is it that people hear from your preaching and teaching as this relates to their Christian lives, to their parenting, to their discipleship, to their sanctification? What do they observe in your life?