Moralism is a nasty beast. It is the tendency to look at a passage or story in the Bible and reduce it to a basic behavioral principle. At it’s core, moralism says, “If you do this, your good; and if you do that, you’re bad.”
I am not saying that morals or ethics are bad – I’d much rather live in a moral society than an immoral one. What I am saying is that moralism is an insufficient means of preaching the Gospel of Grace. Moralist sermons quickly devolve into behavior management programs and carry the banner ‘Just Try Harder.’
I confess to having preached Moralist messages and throwing out the ‘Just Try Harder’ messages. I’m not particularly proud of that, but I understand now why I did, and why these kinds of sermons are so attractive to pastors – especially young pastors like me. Pastors want to change things. We signed up as servants of the Most High God and our passion is to see His Kingdom come to Earth. Our mistaken belief is that, if people would ‘Just Try Harder’ and ‘be passionate’ or ‘sold out’ then we could make this thing called “the Kingdom” work. This is probably why high-powered CEO types of pastors have become so popular. They are skilled at motivating people and whipping them up into a frenzy of effort to chase after a “vision.” And these pastors succeed, for awhile. But time and time again we see these pastors burn out, blow out or retire… and then what? The vision fails, and the church goes hunting for a new leader. Why? Because the vision wasn’t the people’s vision and rather than looking to Christ for sustenance and transformation, they were looking to their Senior Pastor for a snappy sermon and short lived encouragement.
All of this is a foolish notion. Church history is littered with the remains of churches and pastors who have tried to make it happen in their own strength. It only leads to death. The Church is not the Kingdom, no matter how hard we try to make it be. It is a foreshadow, a dim representation of what will be a glorious Reality. The Church is God’s chosen means of advancing the Kingdom, but we must always remember that the Kingdom is far larger, far more glorious and far more complex than even the best Mission Statement.
The remedy to the mistaken belief above is found in Jesus’s words in John 12:32, “When I am lifted up… I will draw everyone to myself.”
Jesus, of course, was referring to his cruxifixction, but I’m using his words to talk about preaching. When Jesus is lifted up, when he is put on display and we see ourselves in his story, something changes within us. We call this the “behold to become” principle, taken from Jacob’s story in Genesis 30:37-43. In other words, you reproduce what you look at. Only as we look at Jesus will we find life, transformation and victory.
Moralism’s message is insufficient for salvation and sanctification. Trying harder doesn’t make us more acceptable to God, nor does it make us righteous. It just makes us tired. And it is to those worn out by moralism and sin management programs that Jesus says, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
My next post will further develop the idea of “lifting Jesus up” through Christocentric preaching. Until then, thanks for reading!