Moralism vs. Gospel (A Lenten Perspective)


(Photo credit Jon Tyson)

The 2022 Lenten starts this Tuesday, March 1. Lent is a season in which Christians around the world emphasize self-denial as a means of remembering the cross of Christ which secures our pardon, and the daily “taking up a cross” to which the cross beckons us throughout the entire year — I thought I would share some reminders about the difference between “moralism” and the gospel. For one is of Christ, and the other is most certainly not.

There are two toxic alternatives or counterfeits to the Gospel. The first is moralism or ‘religion.’ The second is personal autonomy or ‘irreligion.’ Here, I would like to focus on the first of these.

Moralism is centered on human effort, a striving to be good apart from the resources that Jesus provides in the Gospel. Moralistic people usually appear to have their act together. Others tend to experience them as proper, dutiful, loyal, and faithful to the rules. Moralists tend to do the right things but for all the wrong reasons. There is a self-denial component to moralism, but it is a counterfeit form of what Scripture calls ‘repentance.’ With moralism, unlike repentance, joy and gratitude about Jesus’ love is less of a motivator than a desire to feel superior to others, to ease guilty consciences with good works, or to somehow impress God.


According to the Gospel, being good will never be good enough. No matter how well we keep the rules, we are going to fall short of the bar that God has set (James 2:10). We are all much worse off than we think. Moralists have difficulty embracing their own inherent sinfulness. Therefore their deepest need is for something bigger and better than their own goodness and rule-keeping, something that will bring true reconciliation and peace between them and God, and between them and others.

In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus paints a picture of moralism in his portrayal of the ‘elder brother.’ Most of us assume that Jesus’ story is primarily about a lost son who leaves home, sows his wild oats, and eventually comes back and is forgiven by his father. But in reality, Jesus’ focus is on two lost sons, not just one. The second son is actually more lost than the first because he has no idea that he is lost. To the listener, however, the elder son is exposed by a bitterness that bleeds out of him when he discovers that his father’s favor, love, and embrace comes to his children on the basis of mercy, not merit.

Jesus’ parable suggests that people approach God in a similar way as we do an art museum. We tend to look at art for one of two reasons. First, we can do look at art for the purpose of using the art to achieve a different end—a good grade in art appreciation, the attention of a person we are trying to get a date with (who happens to like art), or to look like cultured and sophisticated people. Or, we can view art for the sheer beauty and worth of the art itself…for its own sake and for the pure enjoyment of human creativity. Moralists follow the law without really obeying. Like the insincere person visits the art museum—moralists ‘obey’ not to experience or enjoy God but to use him—to get a kickback from him—to put him (and the world in general) in their debt.


Moralists lack joy in their obedience. Consequently, they are generally either self-righteous or morose. When they feel they have succeeded at keeping the rules (especially rules they have decided are the important ones to keep), it tends to result in self-righteous smugness and superiority. The elder brother, for example, becomes quite critical of his younger, less dutiful brother upon his return home. Simultaneously, he feels ripped off by the father who allegedly has not paid him his due (v. 29).

On the other hand, if moralists fail at the laws they impose on others and themselves, they tend to get very depressed. A biblical picture of this is Judas, who hanged himself after realizing he had betrayed the innocent Jesus. Peter, who also betrayed Jesus but did not depend on his own moral behavior to make him right with God or to keep him in God’s favor, followed a different path into the forgiving grace of God.


We are all prone toward moralism and wrongly motivated rule-keeping. If you are a conservative (especially a religious one), you may feel superior to those who aren’t as religious or conservative as you are. On the other hand, if you are a ‘tolerant’ progressive, you may feel superior to (and intolerant of!) those who appear intolerant and conservative by your standards. In your superiority, whether you are conservative or progressive, you are basing your worth as a person on how right you are compared to those who are not right according to your particular laws. Your laws can include anything, such as how to ‘be a good Christian,’ how to parent well, how to dress properly, and so on. You may also find yourself measuring yourself and others on the basis of intellect, income bracket, race, culture, place of residence, driving skills (ever get road rage?), or even how people eat a bowl of soup or squeeze a tube of toothpaste. Moralism is present when you judge yourself and others against the laws, rules, beliefs, and behavioral norms that you think are important for you and others to keep. The more superior or right or ‘enlightened’ you feel in the keeping of your laws, the more you will feel God (and the world in general) owes you and should be impressed by you.


We see this in Jesus’ elder brother. First, he feels sorry for himself and withdraws when he doesn’t get his way, when he feels he isn’t getting a fair shake compared to his brother (v. 29). He gets angry and won’t participate in family life (v. 28). Also, he is critical and judgmental toward the world in general, and toward those who aren’t like him in particular. His basis for accepting himself is also his basis for rejecting others who fail at his laws (v. 30). Finally, the elder brother is blind to the grace and love of the father (vv. 30-31). The father is inviting all of the family, including the elder brother, to feast and to dance with him—but instead the elder brother bickers about lesser, token things like never getting his own goat.


If you base your relationship with God on how well you think you are living your life, when even small disappointments come you will cry out with bitterness and resentment that the universe—and behind the universe, God himself—is not giving you a fair shake. Moralism is a breeding ground for unhappy, dissatisfied, demanding hearts. In Scripture it is the religious scribes and Pharisees who are the most insecure, self-righteous, self-centered, and bitter people. Moralists take themselves very seriously. Because moralists are so focused on themselves, they miss out on the fact that God has offered them everything in Jesus. Moralistic ‘lostness’ is aptly described by Henri Nouwen:

(The elder brother), when he was confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him that boils to the surface…The lostness of this resentful ‘saint’ is hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous…There is a very strong and dark voice in me that says, ‘God isn’t really interested in me, he prefers the repentant sinner who comes home after his wild escapades. He takes me for granted. I am not his favorite son.’


In Jesus’ parable, the father lovingly tells the elder brother that he is missing out on reality, forfeiting a grace and a joy that could be his. “All I have is already yours!” the father says to him. The elder son does not have to strive and work and perform to earn it a place of honor in the father’s home. All of the father’s blessings are already in his possession.

As the father says to the elder son, so the Father in heaven says to the moralist in us, “Receive it! Take it! Drink it in! Come into the feast and dance with me!”

Shall we dance?


Scott’s latest book, Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen,
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3 responses to “Moralism vs. Gospel (A Lenten Perspective)”

  1. Samuel Fuentes-Ramos says:

    Live by Gods standards not by yours.

  2. […] say “I’m giving up being Catholic for Lent.” But a conversation with a friend and this Scott Sauls post helped me think about it differently this year. So, here goes (TL;DR – I’m quitting […]

  3. Mark says:

    Oh, the futility of trying to reconcile what seems to be irreconcilable.But oh, the beauty that He is already reconciled to us in Christ’s morality and finished work. And He calls to us to be reconciled to Him by coming to the party. Thanks for the picture that morality is not repentance. Morality is a good way to avoid Jesus. Repentance is falling into His loving arms.

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