KatyJJ's Journal

Learning, Thinking, and Researching

Definition of Moralism

First, we must clearly define and illustrate moralistic preaching. Few things are as frustrating as sitting through a message that is clearly moralistic, only to hear mature believers fawn over what a great message it was. I will grant that moralism can be relatively hard to spot at times, but most of the time it is blatantly obvious. In an article titled, “Preaching Christ Alone,” Michael Horton writes, “Whenever the story of David and Goliath is used to motivate you to think about the ‘Goliaths’ in your life and the ‘Seven Stones of Victory’ used to defeat them, you have been the victim of moralistic preaching.”[8] We hear moralism in sermons about the self-centeredness of Lot, the arrogance of Nebuchadnezzar, the stubbornness of Jonah, or the courage of Abraham. We can even hear moralism in the preaching of New Testament texts, such as Galatians 5, when we are told we need to try harder to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. We sing moralism in songs that magnify characters of the Old Testament such as Daniel or Gideon. In all of these examples is a common thread: no Christ. And according to Jesus, we are fools for leaving Him out of His own story.

Moralism often sounds commendable. Preachers usually couch it in terminology that makes it sound beneficial. We are directed to a biblical character, we are shown that God is pleased with the character, and we are invited to mimic the character in order to bring God maximum pleasure with our lives. You do want to please God, don’t you? Horton writes, “In this approach, David and Jonathan teach us about friendship; Hannah’s prayer for a child teaches us about persistent prayer; Jacob’s struggle with God at Peniel illustrates our spiritual struggle . . . Joshua teaches us how to be leaders, and so on. Similarly, then, the New Testament figures—including Jesus—are there chiefly to illustrate ‘life lessons.’”[9]

We see a crystal-clear example of moralism in what Rick Warren says about Noah in his book The Purpose Driven Life. He begins Day 9 by informing us that our chief end in life is to make God smile. (This idea, in and of itself, was news to me.) He tells us that Noah’s life provides one of the best examples of someone who made God smile. Warren writes,

God said, “This guy brings me pleasure. He makes me smile. I’ll start over with his family.” Because Noah brought pleasure to God, you and I are alive today. From his life we learn the five acts of worship that make God smile.[10]

Did you catch that? Before Jesus, it was actually Noah who saved your life. If it weren’t for Noah and his amazing ability to merit God’s favor, you and I would not be here. From this understanding of the story of Noah, Warren derives the following five keys that, once mastered by the Christian, are guaranteed to merit the smile of God. 1) Love God supremely. 2) Trust God completely. 3) Obey God wholeheartedly. 4) Praise and thank God continually. 5) Use your abilities.[11] Every last one of these “keys” consists of something that every Christian wants to do. Of course, I want to love, trust, obey, praise, and thank God. But apart from Christ, I am helpless to do any of those things. Christ is absent from this chapter of Warren’s book.

What about moralism in the New Testament? Again, I’ll use Rick Warren as an example—not because I personally have anything against the guy, but because I have found in this discussion that if I use public speakers from our own circles as examples, people tend to disregard what I have to say as immature, disrespectful, and even sinful. For some unfortunate reason, it seems that fundamentalists are far more willing to go after the moralists in Evangelicalism by name than to allow me to “pick on the home team.” But for my own conscience’s sake, I must say that for every instance that I point to Warren as being moralistic, there are a hundred better (or worse, depending on one’s perspective) examples of men on the fundamentalist speaking circuit who are also moralistic.

In Day 16 of The Purpose Driven Life, Warren dives into the New Testament, looking for another pearl and comes up, gasping, with moralistic love. In this chapter, instead of being told that life is all about making God smile, we are informed that life is all about love. In fact, “the most important lesson [God] wants you to learn on earth is how to love.”[12] I guess I can discard the pearl he found seven days earlier when he said, “Since pleasing God is the first purpose of your life, your most important task is to discover how to do that.”[13] Maybe it’s my smallish brain, but I can only handle so many “most important” tasks at a time without getting an aneurism.

Warren uses a number of New Testament texts in this chapter, including some that are even red-letter-Jesus words. So he seems to have a good chance of being Christ-centered without really even having to try too hard. But he completely misses the mark. Unfortunately, Jesus serves only as a source for proof-texting (and matching the right translation or paraphrase to the right teaching is apparently critical). His three main thoughts about love are the following: 1) The best use of life is love. 2) The best expression of love is time. 3) The best time to love is now.[14] Other than pointing a few times to something Jesus said, Warren utterly fails to point to Christ as the center and source of our love. Jesus is so non-central to this chapter that a good Buddhist (or Oprah) could point to it and say, “Do this!”, and an unregenerate disciple could obey. Nothing in the chapter makes it an exclusively Christian proclamation. In fact, it would not be a difficult task to find synonymic content in a pagan book, including the benign references to the respectable teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

Dangers of Moralism

Here is precisely what makes moralism so dangerous. It simply is not Christian in its origin. Dr. Minnick says, “If a Christian were to preach a sermon that a Jewish Rabbi could preach, then that sermon is not Christian proclamation. True preaching is Christo-centric.”[15] Michael Horton clearly agrees. He cautions against this danger by saying,

We end up preaching Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and Mary, but not Christ! Or if we do “preach Christ,” he is simply one more of these biblical examples to lead us on our way. It is deeply human-centered rather than God-centered and, therefore, Christ-centered. Again this begs the question: Why can we not use the Qur’an for such biographical preaching? After all, many of the same moral “truths” are there as well.[16]

Further on in the same article, Horton goes on to say, “Most of these sermons could be preached by a Mormon if Christ were not tacked on at the end in an invitation to receive Christ. (Perhaps these days even that would not distinguish the two religions.)”[17] In his book, Christ-Centered Preaching, Bryan Chapell makes it clear that moralistic preaching is not Christian.

“Be” messages that contain only moral instruction imply that we are able to change our fallen condition in our own strength. Such sermons communicate (although usually unintentionally) that we make the path to grace and our works earn and/or secure our acceptance with God. However well intended, these sermons present a faith indistinguishable from that of morally conscientious Muslims, Unitarians, Buddhists, or Hindus.[18]

This suggestion is not new. Hundreds of years ago, John Owen was similarly concerned. He wrote specifically about the problem of moralism in his book The Mortification of Sin. In giving the reason for the book, Owen wrote,

Many who have more light and knowledge of the gospel also insist on and prescribe the same false teachings about mortification. They have their outside endeavours, bodily exercises, self-performances, and mere legal duties without the least mention of Christ or His Spirit. In their swelling words of vanity they pass over the only means for the true mortification of sin. They show their deep-rooted blindness to the power of God and the mystery of the Gospel. This is one of the important reasons for this discourse.[19]

In the same book, he argued that moralistic preaching does not produce true Christians. “Can sin be truly killed without an interest in the death of Christ, and the work of the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, they never will reach to the change of their hearts! They just make men self-justified or hypocrites, and not Christians.”[20]

That statement underscores the precise reason moralism becomes so dangerous for us and for our hearers. It strengthens in us the notion that we really can sanctify ourselves. Of course, we would never say such a thing, but we begin to think it. We start looking at sanctification as something that we must master, instead of looking to the Master for the completion of the work. We implore our audiences to “come forward” and “make a decision,” implying that by doing so they will be another step nearer perfection. In fact, moralistic preaching will always lead to a decision-based mentality. “Okay God, this time I really, really mean it. See? I’m making a Decision tonight not to think anymore lustful thoughts.” Of this kind of thinking, Owen writes,

When men are troubled with the guilt of a sin that has prevailed over them, they promise themselves and God that they will sin thus no more, but they seek to accomplish their own victory. They watch over themselves and pray for a short season until the pain of conviction waxes cold and the sense of sin wears off. Mortification then also goes out the door, and sin returns to its former dominion.[21]

What a statement! It almost sounds like it came from the mind of someone who has experienced a week of teen camp! In reality, it is simply true to the human experience. No matter the place in history, we have always managed to conclude that meriting God’s favor rests squarely on our shoulders. In fact, that is what every religion—except Christianity—has in common.

We desperately need to let this truth sink in. Moralistic preaching is futile. It can accomplish nothing but guilt and frustration in the hearts of its hearers. Even if it sounds plausible, as it often does, it results only in a faith that clings to the earnestness of one’s efforts—and such faith will send millions of people to hell. At least, that is what the entire New Testament seems to say. I love how succinctly John puts this truth in the first chapter of his Gospel: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”[22] The only way to expose your hearers to saving grace and sanctifying truth is to preach Christ! Anything else is simply law, and according to Paul, the law will only serve to kill them.

Concerning the ineffectiveness of the law, Horton writes, “It must be said that not even the commands of God himself can give us life or the power to grow as Christians . . . If the law itself is rendered powerless by human sinfulness, how on earth could we possibly believe that humanly devised schemes and principles for victory and spiritual power could achieve success?”[23] You are not helping your listeners to grow in their faith by pointing to someone in the Bible who managed to do something right, and simply saying, “Be like that person.” In fact, you may be doing something much more aggressively harmful than just not helping them. You might actually be giving them a false confidence in their salvation, which could ultimately lead them to hell.

Add A Comment


Feb. 1, 2008 at 3:06 PM

Moralistic preaching is practiced when a preacher holds up an expectation of righteous behavior without explicitly displaying Christ as the necessary and empowering means of meeting that expectation.

CHRIST CHRIST CHRIST AND CHRIST!  IT IS he WHO we lift up, we can do NOTHING without Him.  He must increase and we must decrease.  We die to ourselves, and Christ must be magnified in us.  We are dependant on HIM.

Message Friend Invite (Original Poster)

Feb. 6, 2008 at 8:01 PM So people cannot live moral lives without christ?  Preachers preaching a moral message is damning?  I'm confused?

Message Friend Invite

Feb. 7, 2008 at 12:18 AM I'm confused too. It's a darn good thing I don't believe in any of it because if I did I would be really lost. 

Message Friend Invite

Feb. 20, 2008 at 10:01 PM Can sin be truly killed without an interest in the death of Christ, and the work of the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, they never will reach to the change of their hearts! They just make men self-justified or hypocrites, and not Christians.”

Message Friend Invite (Original Poster)

Want to leave a comment and join the discussion?

Sign up for CafeMom!

Already a member? Click here to log in