The Stench of Moralism

Excerpt from:  The Advent of Humility
By: Tim Keller

Another mark of the moral-performance narrative is a constant need to find fault, win arguments, and prove that all opponents are not just mistaken but dishonest sellouts.  However, when the gospel is deeply grasped, our need to win arguments is removed and our language becomes gracious.  We don’t have to ridicule our opponents, but instead we can engage them respectfully.

People who live in the moral-performance narrative use sarcastic, self-righteous put-down humor, or have no sense of humor at all.  Lewis speaks of the “the unsmiling concentration upon Self, which is the mark of hell.”  The gospel, however, creates a gentle sense of irony.  We find a lot to laugh at, starting with our own weaknesses.  They don’t threaten us any more because our ultimate worth is not based on our record or performance.

A basic insight of Martin Luther was that moralism is the default mode of the human heart.  Even Christians who believe the gospel of grace on one level can continue to operate as if they have been saved by their works.  In “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity, Lewis writes, “If we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God but by the Devil.”

Gracious, self-forgetful humility should be one of the primary things that distinguishes Christian believers from the many other types of moral, decent people in the world.  But I think it is fair to say that humility, which is the main differentiating mark of the Christian, is largely missing in the church.  Nonbelievers, detecting the stench of sanctimony, turn away.

Some will say, “Phariseeism and moralism are not our culture’s big problems right now.  Our problems are license and antinomianism.  There is no need to talk about grace all the time to postmodern people.”  But postmodern people have been rejecting Christianity for years, thinking that it was indistinguishable from moralism.  Only if you show them there’s a difference—that what they rejected wasn’t real Christianity—will they even begin to listen again and give it all another hearing.