Moralism is commonly defined as “the practice of morality, as distinct from religion.” A non-religious person, who nonetheless lives by a personal moral code, can be said to hold to moralism. Another, more negative definition of moralism is “an undue emphasis on morality.” In this case, the moralist would be seen as a prude, a self-righteous prig, or an overly austere moral snob.
Religious moralism is an emphasis on proper moral behavior to the exclusion of genuine faith. Religious moralism and legalism are similar, but differ slightly in that legalism usually refers to a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations—often the Old Testament laws—for achieving salvation and spiritual growth. Paul warned against legalism in Galatians 3. Moralism doesn’t necessarily point to any established system. The moralist is free to concoct his own set of rules and regulations, usually ones he has no trouble keeping, enabling him to feel good about adhering to them. Christian moralism focuses on moral behavior to such an extent that obedience comes before faith, and grace is often obscured. In practice, moralism begins to look a lot like legalism.
Christian moralists tend to reduce the Bible to a manual for moral behavior, often centering on such passages as the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments. The moralist relies on his moral actions: if he prays, goes to church, and helps his community, then he is good with God. Moralism says that, if you don’t lie, cheat, steal, or cuss too much, then you are a good person and deserving of heaven. But the moralist is self-deceived in thinking that his good behavior somehow merits eternal life.
Moralism cannot replace the gospel. We are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. Moralism has no power to justify or sanctify a sinner. We are saved by grace, through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8), not by keeping a moral code, however biblical that code may be. “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20) pretty well sums up the ineffectiveness of moralism in taking care of the problem of sin. The moralist may receive the accolades of men who appreciate his good behavior—his mantle may be crowded with civic awards—but receiving honor in this world does not guarantee honor in the next. The moralist still needs Jesus. The command to unregenerate sinners is not “be good” but “believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31).
Romans 1:17 destroys the idea that moralism can save us: “In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” External morality can exist apart from the gospel, but that is not true righteousness, which is a product of the gospel. “From first to last,” God produces righteousness in those who have faith.
The Pharisees were moralists. In John 8, they bring a woman to Jesus for having violated the moral code. They were correct in that the woman had sinned. But, in their moralism, they could not see grace. Jesus showed them grace in forgiving the woman (John 8:11), and He advised the Pharisees to focus on their own sin and seek forgiveness for themselves (verse 7). Jesus cut through their moralism by pointing them to the universal human need for forgiveness.
Once we are saved by Jesus Christ, we are sanctified (made holy) in a continuous, lifelong process by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We do not make ourselves holy, no matter how stringent our adherence to a set of moral laws. The Spirit uses the Word of God to sanctify (John 17:17), and continual exposure to the Word produces in the believer obedience and spiritual maturity. By the Word, we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). There is no power in moralism to sanctify the heart. The power to cleanse the heart and grow in Christ lies only in the Spirit of God and the Word of God.
Are Christians to live morally? Yes, absolutely. Is God concerned with behavior? Yes, certainly. Can a moral life replace a person’s need for repentance and faith in Christ? No, it cannot. Moralism is no substitute for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.