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How do you know if you have fallen for the moralistic counterfeit gospel? Here are two easy diagnostics:

First, think about how you react to suffering and pain. How do you view God when you pass through a terrible trial?

Moralists immediately think, What have I done to deserve this? Doesn’t God see all the good I’ve done? Because you see God as a sort of cosmic employer, you have certain expectations of him. When God doesn’t meet these expectations, you become angry. Eventually, your disillusionment leads to despair. You think that all your efforts at pleasing God must be useless.

The second diagnostic is to check your heart whenever you see someone else benefiting from God’s grace.

Not too long ago, I found out that an acquaintance had recently been given a new ministry opportunity and a promotion. How did my heart respond to this news? By sinking into jealousy rather than leaping for joy. The thoughts that raced through my mind (Why did God do that for him and not me? Am I not deserving?) stood in opposition to grace. I had to repent again and ask God to so change my heart that I would rejoice in His grace being showered on others.

The moralistic gospel resembles the famous Bob Newhart skit, in which his counsel to broken people seeking change is to continually yell, “Stop it!” To be sure, the New Testament contains many commands. In fact, there are times when you could paraphrase Paul as saying, “Stop it!” But notice that God’s commands are always grounded in God’s past actions. The imperatives (commands) are based in indicatives (statements about what God has done).

Tullian Tchividjian puts it this way: “Imperatives divorced from indicatives become impossibilities.” This is the logic of the gospel. You can see the journey from indicative to imperative running throughout Paul’s letters, most often turning on the word “therefore.”

“You are not under law but under grace” and you “have been brought from death to life (indicatives Romans 6:14, 13), therefore “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body. . . . Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (imperatives Romans 6:12-13).

The first three chapters of Ephesians explain the gospel in terms of God’s redemptive plan, our powerlessness to save ourselves, and God’s bringing together Jew and Gentile alike. Then in chapter 4, Paul begins to list ways to apply the gospel message. “Therefore,” he says and proceeds to give us commands that are grounded in the gospel.

Or take a look at Galatians 5:24 and 16: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (indicative), therefore, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (imperative).

If we focus our attention on what we are to do without grounding our lives in what Christ has done, we will become disillusioned. That’s why so many people who never seem to get any traction in the Christian life walk the aisle again and again. They recommit their lives to Christ, saying, “I’ll try harder this time! I’ll be more serious!” only to become deflated and disappointed that they feel no power in their Christian life.

The result of the moralistic gospel is despair. But that despair is what can and should lead us to the biblical gospel of grace – the true gospel that exposes the counterfeit and brings lasting behavioral change, precisely because it’s not first about outward change but inward transformation by the cross of Jesus Christ.

– excerpt from Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope, pgs 123-5.

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7 thoughts on “Diagnose Your Moralism”

  1. Chris Donato says:

    Great words here, Trevin. I’m wondering if you came across Fitz Allison’s work on The Rise of Moralism? It traces the devolution of the gospel of grace from Hooker to Baxter.

    And that second point hurts. Our response to others’ grace-laden successes ought to be joy, and instead we trade that in for envy and thus despair.

  2. A Catholic Lisa says:

    As a church, I believe we should emphasize more that every one of us will suffer. It is how we react that shows our character. And if we don’t react well, we have plenty of character building opportunities! Ever since I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I have used it as an opportunity to love God and my neighbors more. Without suffering in Christ, suffering is meaningless.

  3. Grant says:

    Great post. Nice reply A Catholic Lisa. Bless you.

  4. Two helpful diagnostic questions, for an all too prevalent problem (even in my heart). Thanks for posting.

  5. Steve Martin says:

    “The result of the moralistic gospel is despair. But that despair is what can and should lead us to the biblical gospel of grace…”

    Very well said!


  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    “Without suffering in Christ, suffering is meaningless.”

    Thank you for that. Goes so well with the article: do we want self pity, or to look to the One who gave all on our behalf. Thank you, Trevin for the reminder. Like Keller says, so often we try not to be the prodigal son & end up being the self-righteous, older brother.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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