The Gospel vs. Moralism

08/02/2012 23:00


Underneath all of our behavioral sins lies a fundamental refusal to rest in Christ’s salvation. According to Martin Luther:

All those who do not at all times trust God and . . . trust in his favor, grace and good-will, but seek his favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep the [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments . . . combined. 

And as this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are measured and directed, so also its work, that is, the faith or confidence in God’s favor at all times, is the very first, highest and best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and measured.

Luther says that if we obey God’s law without a belief that we are already accepted and loved in Christ, then in all our good deeds we are really looking to something more than Jesus to be the real source of our meaning and happiness. We may be trusting in our good parenting or moral uprightness or spiritual performance or acts of service to be our real and functional “saviors.” If we aren’t already sure God loves us in Christ, we will be looking to something else for our foundational significance and self-worth. This is why Luther says we are committing idolatry if we don’t trust in Christ alone for our approval.

The first commandment is foundational to all the other commandments. We will not break commandments two through ten unless we are in some way breaking the first one by serving something or someone other than God. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. We sin because we are looking to some- thing else to give us what only Jesus can give us. Beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ’s salvation and attempting our own self-salvation.

Thomas Chalmers wrote this:

The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one . . . It is only when, as in the gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance. Only then can he repose in him as one friend reposes in another . . . The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.

Before I understood the premise of heart affections and the power of preaching to uproot and reorient our affections, my sermons followed this approach:

  • Here is what the text says.
  • Here is how we must live in light of that text.
  • Now go and live that way, and God will help you.

I came to realize over time that I was doing exactly what Jonathan Edwards said would not work. I was relying on fear and pride to prompt obedience to God. Although I was doing it indirectly and unconsciously, I was employing preaching to trick the heart instead of reorienting the heart. 
I have come to realize that my sermons need to follow a different outline: 

  • Here is what the text says.
  • Here is how we must live in light of it.
  • But we simply cannot do it.
  • Ah—but there is One who did!
  • Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way.

In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live, as we know we ought. 


This post is excerpted from Dr. Keller’s article “Preaching in a Secular Culture”