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The hashtag #goodpeople representing the idea of morality

Are Morals and Moralism in Conflict?

I’ve always hated multiple-choice questions. They always feel like a trick (because too many of them are). Three or four choices, all of which seem plausible, except for maybe one super-obvious non-answer thrown in to see if we’re paying attention and the instruction to choose which we think is correct. But sometimes there’s an answer in these that can seem like a trick, but is actually really important:

All of the above.1

When we’re faced with multiple choices, we’re tempted to assume that there’s only one right answer. That the question or situation is an either/or, when in fact, it may be a both/and. Everything is “chicken or fish” when it might be “surf and turf.” We do this everywhere, in all areas of life. We even do it in how we view the Christian life.

Take, for example, the apparent choice between the gospel and virtues. There’s a tendency to present this as a clash between two entirely opposing forces. To treat them as a good vs evil struggle, where only one can prevail. And I get that. But the fact is, we shouldn’t treat these friends as foes, and when we do, it’s often because we misunderstand what each of these is.

Is There a Difference Between Morals and Moralism?

In pitting the gospel against virtues, we are often identifying a real issue, but we’re using the wrong language. Because the truth is, virtues are not a problem. To speak of virtues is to speak of character and morals. Character is incredibly important. In fact, it is so important that the Bible even says that, outside of a genuine love for God, it’s the most important trait to look for in anyone who aspires to be a leader (see 1 Timothy 3)! Our morals, our desire to live a virtuous and ethical life, stem from God’s desires for us as well. We should want to be honest and trustworthy. We are commanded and expected to be so, in fact (see Proverbs 11:1; 12:17).

The same is true for any other virtue that we would point to, such as having a charitable spirit, acting courageously, and growing in humility.

These are good things. They are God-honoring things, and no Christian should speak ill of them when they are in their proper context. But it’s when they’re removed from that context that we have a problem.

Gospel-less virtues

When we separate our virtues, or our pursuit of them, from their proper context, they turn into something else. Morality becomes moralism, which is not a desire to simply live a moral life, but a desire or feeling of obligation to justify oneself through virtuous living. Moralism, this self-justification project, is a self-defeating anti-gospel. It might give lip service to Jesus’ saving work, but it is opposed to it. Moralism and Christianity always conflict. It is easy to fall into this error, to see a good thing (morality) twisted into something wrong (moralism) because we rarely see it happening. But it does happen, as any parent can attest.

A virtue-less “gospel”

But the errors that come from separating these two go both ways. Just as virtues divorced from the gospel lead away from morality and into moralism, a virtue-less gospel leads to a cold-hearted, complacent, and ultimately dead faith. It’s a “gospel” that treats knowledge as the highest good. The Christian life becomes more about the pursuit of knowledge than about how we live in light of it. It’s what Jesus Himself rebuked the Ephesian church for in Revelation 2:4-5—being rightly concerned for the truth, but abandoning it in practice in the process. Their gospel was without virtue, and a virtueless gospel is no gospel at all.

This is a danger that many of us who identify ourselves as “gospel-centered” can fall into. We can become so concerned with our desire to put Christ at the center of all our thinking that we become paralyzed in our actions. And that just won’t do.

Reconciling Friends

So what do we do here? How do we help these two friends reconcile? As we make disciples, as we teach any age group and live in community, there are three ways we heal the rift between the two:

  1. Recognize that knowledge matters. God wants us to know Him and know about Him. Studying the Bible, to know what it says and how it reveals God’s plan to redeem the world through Jesus, is a good thing. Learning and chewing on a tough bit of theology (to butcher C.S. Lewis) is good for your soul. Knowledge matters. It is good for you. But it’s not enough.
  2. Embrace the value of a life well-lived. The Bible is emphatic that how we live reflects what we believe. That’s the point of James’s letter; it is key to John’s first epistle as well. If we say we believe something but our lives don’t reflect it, then we don’t actually believe it. We might have a form of intellectual assent, but not faith. And if we focus solely on our actions, without considering our beliefs and the knowledge that informs them, we have faith only in our own ability to be good people. And while good works are, well, good, they’re also not enough.
  3. Develop our hearts even as we develop our minds. The sweet spot, the place we often neglect, is not the head, and it’s not the hands. It’s the heart. As we make disciples, we need to help them consider how what they know makes them feel. We need to ask how our beliefs change our affections. And the heart matters because our actions actually aren’t determined by what we believe, or by our knowledge. What we do is determined by what we love. What we desire drives us and motivates us beyond all else.

To reconcile these friends, to embrace morality without succumbing to we need to go for the head, the heart, and the hands. That’s what a virtuous gospel-centered life looks like. It’s what we need. And it’s what we can, by God’s grace, pursue as we fulfill our calling to make disciples.

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

  1. This post was originally published on gospelproject.com in August 2021. ↩︎
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