IIIM Magazine Online,Volume 5, Number 29, August 18 to August 24, 2003


By James O. Cunningham

What do modern corporations and the ancient church have in common? They both have creeds. Creeds are short summary statements of a particular institution's core values and beliefs. With respect to religious institutions, many people are familiar with the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed. The foundational values and beliefs set forth in these creeds have penetrated the hearts and minds of Christians for centuries.

With the advent of the modern corporation and mass marketing, the creeds of giant corporations have also become profoundly influential, even within the church. For example, the corporate creed of the Avis Rent-A-Car Company has long been "We Try Harder." This short summary statement of their core values reflects that company's desire to secure the favor of their customers by trying harder to provide them with good service. However, while the values reflected in this particular creed work well in a corporate setting, they can have very dangerous consequences in the church.

Diagnosing the Problem

There are many issues confronting the modern evangelical church, but few are potentially more destructive than moralism, which can be summarized by the Avis creed "We try harder." It is the attitude that says, "[We] try harder to spend more time in Bible reading, meditation and prayer … try harder not to be angry or not to worry, not to lust … try harder to be a better witness, a more loving spouse, or a better parent."1 If we bathe this doctrine in religious terms, it often resembles the exhortation to "ask the Holy Spirit to help you try harder to keep God's laws."

Sadly, every Sunday in pulpits across this land, preachers reduce the core message of the gospel to what Bryan Chappell calls the "Deadly Be's"2 — just "be like" Abraham, Moses, David or Jesus, or just "be" disciplined.

Concerning this tendency towards moralism, Martin Lloyd-Jones explains,

"If you only preach the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, not only do you not solve the problem of mankind, in a sense you aggravate it. You are preaching nothing but utter condemnation, because nobody can ever carry it out. Paul did not say, ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the Sermon on the Mount; God forbid that I should glory save in the ethical teachings of Christ; nor the example of Christ either.' That is often preached, it is not? What is the message of Christianity? The imitation of Christ? ‘Read the gospels' they say. ‘And see how he lived. That is the way we all ought to live, so let us decide to do so. Let us decide to imitate Christ and to live as he lived.' I say once more that that is not the center and heart of the Christian message. What [the Apostles] preached was his death, and the meaning of that event."3

The seriousness of the problem of moralism was alluded to by the late John Gerstner, who is reported to have said that it is not so much our sins that keep us from God as our "damnable good works." Indeed, the evangelist George Whitefield taught that we must not only repent of our sins, but that we must also learn what it means to repent of our "righteousness" if we would expect to experience the power of God in our lives.4

The fact is that many godly men have spoken strongly against moralism throughout the history of the church, and they have drawn their criticisms from the teachings of biblical authors such as Paul. What then would these authors to say about modern "Avis Theology"? What would the Apostle Paul say about moralism in the church today?

Early Paul

Before his Damascus Road experience, Paul would have considered himself zealous for the things of God (see Acts 7:54-58). After all, he had every reason to have great confidence in his own righteousness:

"If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the People of Israel, of the Tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (Phil. 3:4-6).

The early Paul, the pre-conversion Paul, would have been a champion of the righteousness that comes from scrupulously attempting to keep the law of God. Although the early Paul undoubtedly had a faith in God, he clearly trusted in the spiritual currency generated by his own acts of righteousness — his pedigree and his religious accomplishments and credentials — to purchase, as it were, God's favor.
Later Paul

Christians, however, ought to be far more interested in the views that Paul developed and taught after his Damascus Road experience (Acts 9:1-31), that is, after his coming to faith in Christ and being called as an apostle. Fortunately, Paul's views on moralism in the ancient church are recorded in the New Testament, including in his letter to the church in Galatia. If we understand Paul's response to the Galatians, we can extrapolate what he might say about "Avis theology" in the contemporary church.

The Galatian church was comprised largely of people who had recently converted from paganism. These believers did not have a mature grasp of their new identity "in Christ," and were beset by confused or false teachers who instructed the young church members how to complete "their righteousness." Besides this, the Galatians were struggling with an under-realized eschatology; they were living as though the "already" of Christ's coming were "not yet."

From Paul's response to the Galatian Christians, it is evident that the primary concern he addressed was circumcision (Gal. 6:12a). However, the dispute over circumcision went far beyond proper ritual procedures. At stake was the sufficiency of their experience of God in Christ, and whether Torah or "the law of Christ" is the ultimate norm of Christian existence.

Today, we can imagine the Galatians naively thinking like this: "Since the Messiah is a Jewish savior, we can advance to a more mature position within the people of God by complying with the Torah regulations to be circumcised." In this seemingly innocuous desire for "something more," however, they failed to realize that they were in jeopardy of losing what they already had.

It is apparent that the Apostle could scarcely believe that these young believers were so soon on the verge of "turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all" (Gal. 1:6). Paul charged the false teachers in this young church of "perverting the gospel of Christ" and issued this stinging rebuke: "If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:7).

In Galatians 3:3, Paul addressed the first-century moralists with strong words: "Are you so foolish? After beginning with the spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" He went on to state,

"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:2-4).

The grievous error of the Galatian Christians was thinking not only that they could add something to their righteousness before God by observing Torah requirements, but also that they needed to add something to the finished work of Christ. In their minds, Christ's merit was insufficient to complete their righteousness — they believed that they needed to add something more to it by being circumcised and keeping the requirements of the law (contra Rom. 3:20).

It has been said that those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them. To all appearances, the theological mistakes of modern moralism constitute a failure to learn the lessons that Paul taught to the ancient church at Galatia.

In the church, Avis theology is the "leaven of the Pharisees" that adversely influences the doctrines of justification and sanctification. If the most common manifestation of moralism is found in the area of sanctification — "just try harder" — the most dangerous manifestation is found in the area of justification.

When moralism surfaces in the realm of justification, it is a form of "works righteousness" or "justification by works." The adherents of this heresy implicitly deny the adequacy of Christ's finished work by asserting that they must add their own good deeds to those of Jesus in order to merit the favor of God. This is a legalistic, self-salvation system in which the individual's contribution of his merit becomes a key ingredient in the recipe for his final righteousness before God. This kind of moralism is, in fact, a repudiation of the gospel that "the benefits of the atonement … may be appropriated by faith — and only by faith."5

What then is Paul's solution to the problem of Avis theology in the church? As he instructed the church in Galatia, the answer is neither moralism nor non-moralism. While this may sound like theological double-talk, it comes straight from Paul's Epistles to the Galatians (Gal. 5:6; cf. Rom. 2:25-29). Paul's point is that there is no way to merit justification, whether by moralistic means or any other means. In the religious economy of the moralist, his motivation for holy living is to earn his "merit badge of righteousness." The moralist is motivated to "give" of himself in order to "get" from God.6 In stark contrast to the theology of moralism, Paul offers the ancient church and the modern church a divinely inspired theology for the fullness of time: justification is by faith, not by the works of the law (Gal. 2:15-21; cf. Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:21-31).

For Paul, "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, what counts is a new creation" (Gal. 6:15; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Indeed, "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Gal. 5:6). It is the Holy Spirit that produces this love (Gal. 5:22) that fulfills the "law of Christ" (Gal. 5:13-14; 5:22-23; 6:2).7 The new life that is produced by the Holy Spirit is not lit from the outside but from the inside.

Finally, Paul offers ancient and modern moralists a concluding exhortation regarding the tendency to merit salvation by works of righteousness: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

1. Steven L. Childers, True Spirituality: The Transforming Power of the Gospel.

2. Bryan Chappell, Christ Centered Preaching (Baker, 1997)

3. Martin Lloyd-Jones (The Cross), pp. 20, 21.

4. George Whitefield, The Method of Grace: in George Whitefield's Sermons, Vol. 2, pp. 108-122 (New Ipswitch, NH, Pietan Publications, 1976).

5. F.F. Bruce, Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 2000), p. 328.

6. Cf. Aristotle's eudaemonism.

7. R.M. Kidd, Acts and Pauline Epistles (Reformed Theological Seminary 2003), p. 67