Are Morals and Moralism in Conflict?
Just as virtues divorced from the gospel lead away from morality and into moralism, a virtue-less gospel leads to a cold-hearted, complacent, and ultimately dead faith. It’s a “gospel” that treats knowledge as the highest good. The Christian life becomes more about the pursuit of knowledge than about how we live in light of it.
I’ve always hated multiple choice questions. They always feel like a trick (because too many of them are). Three or four choices, all of which seem plausible, except for maybe one super-obvious non-answer thrown in to see if we’re paying attention, and the instruction to choose which we think is correct. But sometimes there’s an answer in these that can seem like a trick, but is actually really important:
All of the above.1
When we’re faced with multiple choices, we’re tempted to assume that there’s only one right answer. That the question or situation is an either/or, when in fact, it may be a both/and. Everything is “chicken or fish” when it might be “surf and turf.” We do this everywhere, in all areas of life. We even do it in how we view the Christian life.
Take, for example, the apparent choice between the gospel and virtues. There’s a tendency to present this as a clash between two entirely opposing forces. To treat them as a good vs evil struggle, where only one can prevail. And I get that. But the fact is, we shouldn’t treat these friends as foes, and when we do, it’s often because we misunderstand what each of these is.
Is There a Difference Between Morals and Moralism?
In pitting the gospel against virtues, we are often identifying a real issue, but we’re using the wrong language. Because the truth is, virtues are not a problem. To speak of virtues is to speak of character and morals. Character is incredibly important. In fact, it is so important that the Bible even says that, outside of a genuine love for God, it’s the most important trait to look for in anyone who aspires to be a leader (see 1 Timothy 3)! Our morals, our desire to live a virtuous and ethical life, stem from God’s desires for us as well. We should want to be honest and trustworthy. We are commanded and expected to be so, in fact (see Proverbs 11:1; 12:17).
The same is true for any other virtue that we would point to, such as having a charitable spirit, acting courageously, and growing in humility.
These are good things. They are God-honoring things, and no Christian should speak ill of them when they are in their proper context. But it’s when they’re removed from that context that we have a problem.