How to be moral without being a moralist

by | Sep 19, 2016

If you lived as a moralist, surely God will be pleased with you. After all, you are being upright and moral. Peter Bolt disagrees and argues that moralism is the complete opposite of the gospel.

How to be moral without being a moralist: the Gospels and Christian living

Peter Bolt

1. Morality: good! Moralism: bad!

I want to urge you to always be moral, but never ever be a moralist. If you are passionate about being moral, but just as passionate about never being a moralist, you will be following the lead of Jesus Christ himself. But what’s the difference?

a) Morality

To be moral is a good, wholesome thing. It is what we were created to be. It is to live according to the Creator’s good design for us and be who we are supposed to be—truly human at last.

Not to be moral is to live like a beast—an unreasoning animal led only by instincts (Jude 10). It is to follow our bodily desires (Jude 16; Rom 6:12)—as if that is the only guidance we have in life—and to follow them with the urgency that comes from having a deep sense of dread that our time on this planet will soon be over. Like a beast, we live according to survival of the fittest, desperately pursuing the fulfillment of our bodily desires to quench the deep anxieties provoked by our mortality (Heb 2:15). We are like the beasts that perish (Ps 49:20), and so, like the beasts, we struggle with one another: we bite and devour and kill (Gal 5:15; Jas 4:1-2; cf. Dan 7). Because we die like the beasts, we end up living like the beasts.

So not being moral is a bad thing—an unwholesome thing. It is to live contrary to what we were created to be—contrary to our creator’s good design for us. It is to refuse to be who we are supposed to be and live like a beast. It is a failure to be truly human.

b) Moralism

But even though being moral is a good thing, being a moralist is a bad thing—one of the worst things you can ever be. The devil loves moralism: in Genesis 3:1-5, he sets the pattern for all moralists for all time. First, he questions God’s word: “Did God actually say …?” (v. 1). Then he denies God’s word and in doing so, trivializes it—as if it is no longer a matter of life or death to listen to it: “You will not surely die!” (v. 4). In the process, he throws doubt on God’s goodness by proposing an alternative theory about why God would have said what he said: it’s not for the good purposes of the man and the woman, but for God’s own self-protective purposes, and these have nothing to do with human welfare. If that is what God’s ways are like, who would want to follow? Having listened to the devil’s spin on God, the man and the woman reject God’s ways and replace them with what seems to be the only sensible alternative: instead of listening to God, they want to be like God (v. 5), and they begin to determine good and evil for themselves.

And so moralism was born. Viewing God’s ways as arbitrary rules imposed to restrict human life, rather than enhance it, and therefore viewing God as harsh rather than good, moralism becomes like God and decrees its own standards, values, practices and codes of behaviour. Rather than trusting in God—that he knows what is best for human life—moralism determines what is moral on purely human terms and builds a culture of motivation, enforcement and power to support it.

Moralism is a very bad thing. It is based on a completely distorted view of God. It is not God who is behind such things; the devil is behind it all.

On the other hand, Jesus Christ was not a moralist. Although he was all for being moral (because being moral enhances human life), he hated moralism and attacked it for the inhumanity it is. Even more importantly, Jesus Christ came to do away with moralism altogether: he dealt so effectively with the problem of human sin, that it would be completely misguided for anyone anywhere at any time to even think about being a moralist ever again! He came to solve the problem that moralism caused—the problem that moralism could never solve itself.

2. Jesus’ critique of moralistic religion

One of the best places to find Jesus’ critique of moralistic religion is in Mark 7:1-23:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”


14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

What did Jesus find so objectionable in moralistic religion?

a) Behaviour, rules, rituals

Firstly, moralistic religion is focused on behaviour, rules and rituals. This was the context of the discussion (vv. 1-5): the Pharisees were into washing themselves—not just for cleanliness, but as ritual demanded by the rules of their religion. Their religion focused on behaviour, protected that behaviour by rules, and protected rules by developing rituals—repetitive patterns of life designed to ensure the rules are kept.

In the discussion, Jesus refers to another Pharisaic practice: things—objects—could be declared to be ‘Corban’—devoted to God—and so they could not be used for others (vv. 11-12). So even if your dear old mum and dad could have benefitted from them, too bad: that’s Corban! So for the Pharisees, these moralistic religious rules were more important than relationships.

b) External, nonsensical and empty

Secondly, Jesus condemned moralism as external, nonsensical and empty. Moralism can only ever deal with the external behaviour—what is outside a person. It controls the trivia of life: it’s very good at washing hands and other body parts, and it’s great at declaring objects ‘Corban’, despite the problems that might cause your mum. In his usual devastating fashion in verses 14-19, Jesus points this out with a very simple observation about eating from ordinary human life: what defiles a person is not what goes in, but what comes out of him (vv. 20-23). Moralism is all about the externals, so how can washing your hands, declaring objects ‘Corban’ or any one of the hundreds of rules and rituals of Pharisaism ever do anything to change the real problems of human behaviour? How can controlling the outsides get to the insides?

c) Covering all of life and none

Thirdly, with its focus on human behaviour, moralism appears to cover all of life (e.g. v. 4). Specifically, moralism concerns the nitty-gritty details—for example, tithing the herb garden (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42). It appears to treat all of life seriously, being scrupulously righteous and overly concerned to do the right thing. Moralism is not only to be without reproach, but even beyond reproach!

True to form, Jesus also popped that balloon easily, saying that moralism is empty (v. 7). Even though try-hard moralistic religion acts as if it is concerned about all of life, it is really about nothing that matters. Why? It’s because, once again, moralism is utterly powerless to change the problem of human behaviour: it cannot touch the human heart (vv. 20-23).

So much for Jesus’ critique of moralism in its religious form. But make no mistake: when Jesus critiqued moralistic religion, he was critical of something much larger: the moralistic enterprise of the entire human culture.

3. Jesus’ critique of human culture

a) Religion is human culture

Now, religion is not a part of human culture, it is human culture—but in a religious mode. It is human culture writ large and reinforced by the faint smell of God. But that smell is an illusion: remember, it is not God you are smelling; it is the devil.

How did Jesus refer to moralistic religion? His opponents spoke of “the tradition of the elders” (v. 5). Jesus agreed: that’s exactly what that was—human rules and human traditions (vv. 6, 8, 9, 13). It’s everything we get from our world—what we inherit from the past from elders, our families, our cultures and our world. ‘Human traditions’ is all they are. Or, as 1 Peter 1:18, puts it, “the futile ways inherited from your forefathers”.

Jesus put his finger on the real problem of human culture: they are voiding the word of God by their traditions (v. 13). In order to do this, however, tradition has to appear very powerful—so powerful that it actually succeeds in nullifying God’s word for whole generations, societies, nations and cultures.

b) Religion, politics and ever-beastly power

Secondly, because moralism deals only with externals, with no power to change the heart, it collects an external kind of power. So in this world, it often has the appearance of power, because it is often connected to the external structures of human power. Firstly, the Pharisees were something of a political party of the people, as well as a religious party: in Jerusalem, they were connected to the power centre of the city and, more distantly, to the military muscle of Rome. Secondly, the phrase “the tradition of the elders” (vv. 3, 5; cf. vv. 8, 9, 13) shows us that moralism is backed up with the weight of the past, the pressure of society and close relationships, and the force of numbers in the present. Thirdly and finally, the moralists of Jesus’ day claimed to be speaking for God—serving God, worshipping God (v. 7) and dedicating stuff to God (‘Corban’: v. 11). Moralistic religion hijacks God so that he becomes the one who reinforces their system (or at least that is how it appears). So if someone doesn’t want to follow their rituals, rules and behaviours, they can expect the full weight of human power to fall on them, along with (so it is claimed) the full weight of God!

But remember this is not God at all; it’s the devil. He is the one behind the power structures of this world—both moralistic religion and moralistic human culture (Luke 4:5; John 12:31). Furthermore, if we go behind Mark 7 to the prophet Daniel or forward to the book of Revelation, we find human power portrayed as a succession of bloodthirsty, destructive beasts, biting and devouring one another across the globe and throughout history. They have a political form and a religious form, and each form reinforces the other (Dan 7; Rev 13). The beastly power of human religion, culture and politics is human moralism.

But despite its external might and oppressive force, moralism has no power to bring about true humanity. With no power to change hearts, moralism is destructive of human life.

c) The end result of moralistic humanity

We begin to understand this when we see the end result of moralistic humanity in Mark’s Gospel:

Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-6)

It was the Sabbath day—the day of rest. The Pharisees had rules about that. Jesus asks them a simple question: is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath—to save life or to kill? They do not answer. Jesus’ answer to his own question comes with the healing in verse 5. It shows why he came into this world, why he did miracles and why he taught about the kingdom of God. He came into this broken world with its broken people as the great physician (Mark 2:17; cf. Matt 9:12; Luke 5:31), bringing healing, forgiveness, restoration and resurrection from the dead.

The moralists didn’t like that, hence their actions in Mark 3:6. Apparently it was not okay to save or to bring life on the Sabbath, but it was okay to do evil—to plan to kill. So religion (the Pharisees) joined forces with politics (the Herodians)—beastly powers working in harmony towards the evil destruction of the Messiah, our Saviour.

If you are a moralist, you don’t need salvation; you can do it on your own. You have your rules, rituals and behaviours; there’s no need to be saved by someone else—not even by God. You don’t need God’s grace or mercy; you are not doing too badly on your own. Human effort and achievement is what you are good at and what you ultimately trust in.

Here is the end result of moralistic humanity: religion and politics combine to murder the Messiah. They do it by envy, deception, bribery, treachery, jury tampering and all kinds of travesties of justice. By the end of Mark’s Gospel, they have put Jesus on the cross. Moralistic humanity crucified the Messiah.

Moralism began in the Garden of Eden with the rejection of God and his goodness. When the Saviour came into the world, doing good where there was evil, saving where there was brokenness, and bringing life where there was death, moralism reached its absolute depths in rejecting God’s climactic display of his goodness.

But that rejection of God began a lot earlier and perhaps in what seems to be a much more insignificant way.

4. Jesus and the liberating word of God

Let’s return to Mark 7. Remember Jesus’ critique of religious moralists? “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (v. 8), “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (v. 13). They are just like the devil in the garden of Eden: “Did God actually say …?” “You will not surely die!” (Gen 3:1, 4). “God is not good, so let’s go our own way!” By questioning God’s word, denying the seriousness of God’s word and doubting that God’s word is good for us, moralism voids the word of God. Human traditions are more sensible, more serious and better for us. So the good word of God is nullified in favour of our own traditions!

a) Don’t void; liberate

But Jesus’ plea is don’t void; liberate. The Pharisees’ moralism had absolutely no hope of helping this broken world, for it had no power to change the human heart. So instead of voiding God’s word, they should have liberated it.

This is what Jesus did. Like in the parable of the sower, where the word is scattered on the ground all around (Mark 4:1-9), Jesus came to proclaim the gospel of God, calling people to “repent and believe” and ready themselves for the coming of God’s kingdom (Mark 1:14-15). He came to teach (Mark 1:21-22), and his word brought salvation, restoration, healing and the hope of resurrection. And unlike the traditions of moralistic humanity, his words had proven power and authority (1:22, 27).

The word works its power to change, heal and save. As it is liberated (not voided), it liberates human beings to be the people God made us to be—citizens of the coming kingdom, in which death will finally be defeated. But even now in the present time, as we wait for that day, it begins to heal our brokenness.

b) Liberate by listening

How do you gain access to this powerful liberation? It’s not by rules, regulations or rituals, or by following human traditions inherited from the past, our culture, society or religion. No! We gain access to this liberation by listening to the gospel word and accepting it (Mark 4:3, 9, 20; cf. vv. 23, 24). The renewal of human life comes as we listen to the gospel of the kingdom (Mark 1:15). The gospel is all about the forgiveness of our sins, won by Jesus Christ. It is all about the kingdom of God—the hope of eternal life. It is not about what we have to do; it is about all that Jesus has already done for us!

c) Jesus, gospel, Gospel

What we see Jesus doing in the parable of the sower is exactly what Mark’s Gospel does to us as we read it. Jesus called upon people of his day to listen, so that they might find liberation. The gospel message goes out to the world across the centuries to today, calling upon people to listen so that they might find liberation. Mark’s Gospel records that gospel message so that whenever it is read, it calls upon people to listen well so that they might find liberation.

5. The Gospels and Christian living

This helps us understand how the Gospels (not just Mark’s) promote Christian living. The Gospels do not promote the usual moralistic strategies of behaviours, rules and regulations—external and powerless to really help human life. No, the gospel word addresses the heart and brings real, eternal change. The Gospels bring us into relationship with God through the Saviour. That is the key to being moral without being a moralist: we come to know God and God transforms us into our true humanity.

How this happens can be found in Mark 4:12, but in reverse!

a) Hear!

The Gospels are not primarily about us at all; we need to read them as the account of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, as we read about Jesus, we don’t read them so that we can be like Jesus, but so that we like Jesus: we read them to hear what Jesus has done for us. They are all about him! But he is all about us: everything he did was for us.

So Step 1 of the Gospels and Christian living is “Hear!” Hear the good news about the Son of God, the great physician, who came to us sinners to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

b) See!

Our hearts are not changed by a simple decision we make or any act of our will; our hearts are changed as we hear the gospel word and as that gospel word helps us to see. The gospel word speaks of the kingdom of God being near, causing us to see and understand life from that point of view.

The gospel tells us that the future is not uncertain or doubtful. It does not consist of a grave for eternity. The future is the kingdom of God and the renovation of all things, and it is guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Furthermore, through Jesus, we are guaranteed a place in that kingdom. This hope, strong, real and true, transforms our hearts and floods life anew with good things from God.

c) Turn!

Once we hear the gospel of the Son and see the coming kingdom of God as the ultimate reality, then our hearts turn. That is, we are changed from the inside out.

I am talking about repentance. ‘Repentance’ is a word often used by the religious moralists to speak of repentance from our sins. But notice how Jesus uses it in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”. Repentance is turning towards the coming kingdom of God and living in the light of that coming kingdom. (That, of course, also means turning away from your sins.) Christian repentance is oriented towards that future reality: we hear of Jesus Christ, we see the kingdom he has brought near for us, and we turn towards that kingdom, for it is our future eternal home.

d) Be forgiven!

And so God forgives us. This is the key event: as sinners, we were under the sentence of death—the wrath of God. We deserved God’s judgement. Our lives were filled with fear, and that fear led us into sin, moralism and seeking to live life our own way without God.

But Jesus changed all that. He died as the ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He saved us from God’s judgement and gave our hearts assurance of salvation—assurance that we have a place in God’s kingdom. God is not harsh towards us; he is good to us. But even more than that, because we are undeserving sinners, God is overwhelmingly gracious towards us. This assurance fills our lives with a transformed morality.

The moralist throws us back on our own resources and urges us to change ourselves: perform or perish. But Jesus removes us from that perform or perish treadmill by announcing to us in the gospel word that he has already died as our ransom, so now we can be completely forgiven. Life is no longer about what we do or don’t do. Life is now about being forgiven and knowing the living God as our loving heavenly Father.

e) Liberated to be truly human

By that message of forgiveness, we are liberated to be truly human. Moralism will never change the human heart, no matter what human structures of power it enlists along the way. In the end, it is destructive of human life, just as it destroyed the Messiah. But the gospel of Jesus Christ announces that we can be forgiven, that we can have a place in the coming kingdom of God, and that death is not the end! That message—when we hear it—when we see it—when we turn because of it—liberates us to be truly human.

Hear, see, turn, be forgiven: that’s how we can be moral without being a moralist.

Read. Watch. Listen.

Share This