"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « "Where Is He Who Has Been Born King of the Jews?": Christmas Day Worship of Christ! | Main | Martin Luther on the Bondage of the Will »

    Christ vs. Moralism by John W. 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 resumé. 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.

    Related Essays
    Keller On Preaching in a Post-modern City Part I ; Part II by Tim Keller - PREACHING THE GOSPEL AS THE KEY FOR CHRISTIANS
    Gospel-Driven Sanctification By Jerry Bridges
    The Deadly Dangers of Moralism by John MacArthur

    Related Books
    The Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney
    Holiness by Grace: Delighting in the Joy That Is Our Strength by Bryan Chapell

    Posted by John on December 19, 2005 01:43 PM


    Great article John. I really enjoyed reading it, I had the same kind of discussion with a fellow believer the other day.

    I actually had a question to you today. What if, somebody who claims to be a Christian and doesn't show any fruits of the spirit, would you doubt his salvation or you would choose not to judge him?

    Moralism comes from the Spirit, so our actions are not ours but of the Spirit. So, I understand why God wouldn't be pleased/displeased whether we are showing signs or morality or not. But, as believers aren't we supposed to see these things in other believers?

    Wow! I am always amazed at how quickly I forget the true meaning of the gospel and slip back into morality as a means for "measuring my spiritual progress". Its liberating to be reminded that Christ has already accomplished all that needs to be done on my behalf.

    Thanks John for this excellent entry.


    >But, as believers aren't we supposed to see these things in other believers?

    Indeed, but not as something we trust in.

    >>>>What if, somebody who claims to be a Christian and doesn't show any fruits of the spirit, would you doubt his salvation or you would choose not to judge him?

    We are not to judge those outside the church but we are to judge those inside, according to the apostle. But this must be done in the utmost humility recognizing that we are all likewise beggars begging for bread. The goal of church discipline is love and reconcilliation, not to drive offenders away. But if they persist in unbroken sin then the church has the right to deny communion to him, because assurance of salvation cannot be extended to such a one. True believers are sorry and repent of sin daily. Unrepentance in the face of brotherly counsel is a sign of unbelief, at least from a human point of view and we can only do the best we can for we do not know who the elect are.

    True believers will desire to obey, mostly because they can't help it. It springs up from our regenerated spirit.

    Moralism is basically any attempt to please God judicially, or any supposition that our sin as believers has resulted in his judicial displeasure. Obedience that does not spring from a renewed heart Or teaching that we conform ourselves to our judicial standing in Christ (righteous and perfect) by our own effort.

    Any increase in maturity points to Christ. Interestingly there is a passage where persons are boasting in the things they did for Christ and then Christ answers, "I never knew you". Never is an interesting words. It means there will be some persons who trust in themselves, thinking they were please Christ. But we are all called to holiness without which no one will see the Lord. That starts and ends with Christ. When the gospel takes hold of us is the first time we have real sanctification for it trust in what Christ did for us.

    The right order is always to remember that God made a covenant with us in Christ, for no other reason than his sovereign good pleasure. Anything else leads to boasting.

    Thanks for the article, John. As I was reading, the Lord's Supper came to mind. I've been in many churches that hold to a memorialist view of the Supper (some that even observe on a weekly basis). I've seen how moralism can rob an entire congregation of the reassurance that the bread and wine afford us by turning them into symbols of our remembrance or our commitment to Him and calling for that "morbid introspection" to decide whether we are worthy or not to partake. The result seems to be a person who feels guilty about partaking or a person who is over confident in their own worthiness. The whole thing becomes about us ascending to God rather than God condescending to us. It's rather depressing when it should be a time of great comfort for the flock.

    Chapell's book is a real opener along these lines. Using law when preaching grace is so important, especially to those who think they have it all together because they are "religious" or don't kill people for their money. Thanks for the article. LIBERTY TO THE CAPTIVES!!

    Thanks for the article, John, it explains things in a very clear and non-polemical way.

    I was hoping you could clarify a few things for me. My 15 year old son has been "beaten down" (his words) by messages that emphasize our lives being pleasing to God. Regrettably, I am afraid I have unconciously fueled this idea. I have given him material to read and tried to personally reassure him that God's pleasure in him is because of Christ, and not dependent on his ability to "surrender completely" or be "sold out for Jesus". What can you tell me or point me to, that explain the passages in Scripture which talk about rewards or crowns that Christians receive in heaven? (I'm frankly not even sure where in Scripture this is taught explicity).

    Excellent site, added to favorites!!

    Magnificent collection of prayers - and I haven\'t begun to explore the rest of the website!

    Thanks for the great links at Monergism mp3 library! Love em!

    "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Philippians 2:12-13 In this verse you can plainly see that God's sovereignty and our responsibility are both present. The Hyper Calvinist, leaning towards Antinomism, will quote and emphasize Phil.2:13 and the Free Will Arminian will quote and emphasize Phil. 2:12 but Scripture plainly presents them side by side with no contradiction. And as Spurgeon so aptly states...." He never tries to reconcile friends."

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