For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not from works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
One of the earliest lessons parents try to teach children is that good behavior leads to rewards and bad behavior leads to punishments. “Just follow the rules,” we say, “and everything will go well. But if you break the rules, there will be consequences.” Such thinking can become virtually hardwired into our sense of what is just and equitable. While this paradigm may serve to steer human behavior in the right direction, it is fundamentally anti-gospel. Why? For this reason: before a holy and righteous God, we can never be good enough.
Yet so much supposedly Christian preaching follows a moralistic trajectory. We’re given a moral lesson from the Bible and told to change our behavior accordingly. Of course we’re drawn to such preaching because it fits within our childhood-implanted framework—learn the rules and follow the rules. We’re also prone to confuse gospel preaching and moralistic preaching because moralistic messages can appear to be thoroughly biblical and Christ-centered. We’re told about Jesus’ exemplary life and character, and we’re admonished to live like Jesus. What
could possibly be wrong with that?
Our problem is we can never live the righteous life Jesus lived on the basis of our own willpower, intelligence, and fortitude. We need Jesus’ goodness to be given to us and infused into our lives. The gospel, therefore, is that God has done this very thing by sending Jesus to die as our
substitute on the cross. “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that in him we might become the
righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). By grace and through faith we exchange the filthy rags of our best efforts to live as “good” people and receive the gift of Jesus’ perfect life.
Preaching, and more broadly our reading of the Bible, will either highlight what we need to do (moralism) or what God has done for us in Christ (the gospel). Does this mean we should abandon the moral teaching of the Bible or that it doesn’t matter how we live? Absolutely not! It means we see the Bible’s moral teaching as serving two purposes: (1) showing us how far we and the world fall short of God’s holy standards (Rom. 7:7) and (2) revealing how the Holy Spirit enables us to live as born again, redeemed children of God (Rom. 8:1-8).
It’s absolutely critical to distinguish these two forms of preaching because moralism eventually results in proud, self-satisfied individuals and churches. Gospel preaching, on the other hand, results in humble, Spirit-empowered,
Great Commission-focused, and Great Commandment-following disciples of Jesus Christ. Let’s pray together for the Spirit to renew our passion to proclaim and to embody the gospel.