Moralism sounds something like this:
God gives us the tools, but we have to choose to use them. He is willing to give us the power, we just have to take it up and use it. If only we will cooperate with him, he is ready to work. If we wanted to, we could avoid sin and be completely holy – we just have to work hard enough at cleansing our temple. If we learn the biblical principles which God has given us, we can use them to put off sin. If Christians would just take up the whole armor of God… God had done his part, now its time for you to do yours.
But then we run smack dab into the brick wall called life. We do the things we don’t want to do; we don’t do the things we want to do. We learn and apply one biblical principle only to find we have forgotten another; we help our neighbor only to find that in doing so we have unintentionally harmed him. We feed the poor but then later realize we did it so that others would praise us; we finally commit one unselfish act, only to be confronted with another selfish one. We are sinful creatures – fallen, drifting, disordered creatures. We couldn’t even begin to save ourselves, to make ourselves holy, to turn our hearts in a good direction. We’re like sheep – we wander and we get lost, and we do stuff that is not smart. We don’t know any better – it’s who we are, at least for now.
We can try to hide from God, as Adam and Eve did. We church goers are the best at hiding. We hide within the church, behind our moral effort and christianese. I know I do. We hide by ignoring our pride, or anger, or resentments, instead deflecting attention to the sexual sins or theological heresies of others. But we are really not hiding from the true God. We are hiding from the god of moralism. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus is the Father waiting for the prodigal to return.
After we are baptized, converted, and learn the Bible, we start thinking we’re getting the hang of it, and we then, inevitably, achieve massive levels of self-deception. Our life in Christ is supposed to be a humble journey of absolute dependence, but our achievements in morality, however shallow, blinds us. Soon we have strayed like a lost sheep.
Then Jesus our Shepherd gathers us up and puts us back in the fold. He restores our souls. We didn’t even realize we needed restoration – we just forgot where we were and wandered away. But there he was, bringing us back. He’s like that. And he will do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next.
We wake up every day and go about our lives. We seek to learn love and justice by doing them. But each and every day we have to totally cast ourselves on the mercy of God, who loves us and is curing our souls. We don’t need to hide anymore. Being a Christian means being radically honest with God.
The Christian faith is not moralism. Moralism kills, but grace gives life. We must never confuse the two. Our Lord has dinner with us sinners, both Pharisees and prostitutes. That’s who he is now and forever.