Moralizing the Gospel: Is the Church an “I’m-Better-Than-You” Club?

If you are a Christian, isn’t it great?!  Isn’t it great to live as Christ with no regrets (Phil. 1:21)?  What a thrill it is to be the light of the world and a radiant city set on a hill (Matt. 5:14).   We certainly can take great pride in being saved by Christ and proud even to the point of boasting in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31).   Yet, consider this question - can our own quest for righteousness and our own glory in moral living become a stumbling block or a rock of offense?  Does being a member of the church mean that your ticket is punched for exclusive entry into an “I’m-Better-Than-You” club?  While Christians are to live differently than the world (John 17, Gal. 5), Christians can in time trust in their own holiness and righteousness in a way that compromises the gospel.  Let me explain. 

Christian living can be practiced in such a way where the gospel is reduced to a hollow system of rules, obligations, or laws.  This is called moralizing.  Moralizing or moralism denotes a couple of ideas.  One idea is that moral living can be accomplished without God who is ultimate, the Bible as the ultimate moral guide or Christ as the ultimate moral example.  A second idea refers to those who believe in the gospel, yet reduce the gospel to set of Biblical principles, a list of compulsory rules or shallow commands stripped of the framework of the gospel.  If one obeys, he or she is in.  If not, he or she is out.  Such a view of the gospel is reductionist and leans toward legalism.

There is a fine line that Christians must walk between right living and self-righteousness.  The former God desires (Micah 6:8).  The latter God condemns (Prov. 20:9).  Self-righteous people see others as less than themselves (Luke 18:9-10).  In their own eyes their works of righteousness give them a leg up, a moral advantage.  One may compromise the gospel in believing others are inferior because they themselves live with fewer sins.  These individuals justify themselves in the sight of men (Luke 16:15).  They are clean in their own eyes (Prov. 16:2).  Some even go so far as set themselves up as moral idols, even setting themselves up as gods (Ezek. 28:2).  Individuals are not only susceptible, but entire congregations can buy into this notion.  Perhaps you have seen congregation where the “halo-effect” is alive and well.  These groups can be cold and slim on notions of humility.

In right living Christians must be aware that moral living does not save them or give them a leg up on others.  If right living could save mankind, man would save himself and there would be no need for Christ to have died on the cross.  Gal. 2:16 states that no one will be justified by works of the law (Gal. 2:16).  Indeed “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).   This applies to the Law of Moses, but the application extends to any law.  It’s not that one cannot keep the law and be justified.  It’s that people do not keep the law. 

However, don’t let the pendulum swing too far! Right believing (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxis) are essential.  But all your right believing and right living does nothing to negate your past sins.  Titus says “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy . . . .” (3:4-5). No one can secure God’s favor solely by right believing or right behaving.  Grace is a gift of incalculable worth.  You see favor (grace) is not just a product of God, grace is God in the flesh in Christ Jesus who himself is the fragrant offering of grace for mankind (John 1:14-17).  He gave himself precisely for you.  

So, is Christianity an “I’m-Better-Than-You” club?  Not in self-righteousness sense.  The Lord knows we are not perfect, but we are forgiven.  Anything better in us is him living and abiding in us.  This glory is his and not ours.  May we look on outsiders with compassion.  No matter how faithful you’ve been and for no matter how long you’ve been faithful, may you never look down your nose at others because of your righteousness.  Rather, let them see in you a heart that begs God --  “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).