Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Moralism is a concern in the Christian life. It undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is often a default mode of living the Christian life. Parents are prone to this in their parenting and pastors and prone to this in exhorting people to godliness.
Does this make preaching and teaching morals wrong? Stated positively, is there a place for teaching morals? If that is done, is it absolutely contrary to the gospel?
Michael Kruger picks up this question in response to the confession made by Phil Vischer about Veggie Tales and Moralism.
Kruger emphasizes the importance of the indicative being foundational to the imperative. Apart from this, one will end up with moralism. Christianity consists of both beliefs and behavior, and the former is at the heart of the latter. He notes
there is much to be commended in Vischer’s realization. Certainly Christianity is more than simply behaving in a certain way. Christianity, at its core, is about God’s redemptive work in Christ to save sinners by grace. Moreover, when it comes to proclaiming the Christian message, we always need to present the imperative (here’s what you should do) within the context of the indicative (here’s what Christ has done). The latter is always the foundation for the former.
He raises a concern stated by some about preaching or teaching about morals and the necessity of always including the gospel or the indicative. One always wants to include both together whenever and always when one addresses behavior or morals. However, he asks a question that is important to consider:
At this point I suppose one might object and say that we are free to give moral imperatives as long as they are always given alongside the gospel message. But, again, it depends on what one means by “alongside.” I would certainly agree that any moral imperative must always be rooted in the gospel message of grace and forgiveness in Christ. But, does this mean that it must always be stated immediately in the very next sentence? Does it always mean that it must be stated expressly every time you give a moral imperative? I would argue that the gospel is the foundation for moral imperatives, the context for moral imperatives, and the backdrop for moral imperatives. But, we must be careful about insisting that there is a magical formula for how that must be expressed in any given proclamation of Christian teaching.
As a validation of these thoughts, he references the epistle of James, the Sermon on the Mount and the book of Proverbs. From this he concludes,
sometimes it is Ok to take large blocks of teaching and focus on Christian morals. One should not have to stop every five minutes to give a “gospel presentation” out of fear of being accused of moralism. The key issue is whether there is a larger context around those moral teachings that adequately provide a gospel foundation for obedience.
In other words, in the context of faithful teaching, preaching and modeling a life rooted in the indicative of what God has done in and through Christ on your behalf, one can address morals without immediately having to address justification by faith every time one speaks about morals. For a parent, this would mean that if they are faithful with the former, there is a place for them to say to their child, “be kind,” without being accused of teaching moralism. They may be doing so, but not necessarily so.
Kruger states that if one always refers to justification by faith whenever a biblical text on morals comes up, then we engage in the second use of the law which means that it makes people aware that they cannot keep this moral law so they must turn to Christ to be saved, to be justified and forgiven. But there is a third use of the law that is for the Christian after having been justified. In this use it reveals how we ought to live in obedience to Christ, not on our own, but through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Kruger writes of the importance of both uses of the law and the problems with an imbalance in either direction.
We want to make sure that our preaching balances second and third use, and does not just automatically default to one. If we default to third use, our temptation will be legalism. If we default to the second use, our temptation will be antinomianism.
As he concludes, he does not deny the real concern and problem with moralism in the church or home. But as one addresses a concern, which is real, one must be aware that it does not lead to an overcorrection, which results in another sort of problem.
All of this, of course, is not designed to downplay or deny the real threat of moralism in many churches today. To be sure, many pulpits lack the gospel message entirely and simply preach a “do this” version of Christianity. But, the solution is not to impose a “one size fits all” version of preaching where any extended moral exhortation is immediately labeled moralism. Indeed, the Bible is filled with extended moral exhortations. Perhaps we should take a cue from the Scripture on this issue. The indicative is the ground for the imperative, not its obstacle.
What do you emphasize? Are you in balance or out of balance?
Remember, "the indicative is the ground for the imperative, not its obstacle." Preach, teach and live the whole counsel of God!