My thought on grace vs. moralism started a couple weeks ago, when I asked 5-year-old Chase what he learned at church. He told me that they went over the story of Abel and Cain, that Cain murdered Abel and lied to God about it, and so the lesson was: “Love your brothers and sisters.” I asked Chase, “Is that it? There’s nothing else after that?” Chase replied, “That’s it. That’s the end of the story.” So I told Chase that it’s actually not the end of the story. We read Genesis 4 together and told him the story actually ended with God giving grace to Cain, that even though his punishment deserved death, not only did God spare him from death, but He extended his protection on Cain’s life.
There is a place in teaching morals to our children. But it’s sad if we read God’s words and yet miss hearing God speak to us; and if all we see are morality lessons, then we’re in trouble.
A youth pastor that I knew told a story about taking a group of youngsters to a multi-day retreat camp. After the camp was over, as the church bus was approaching the church parking lot, he could see the parents waiting to pick up the kids. As they got off the bus, he could hear that the most common question the parents ask their kids was: “Did you behave?” He kept thinking: “We took these kids to camp to grow spiritually and to connect with God, and all you care about is whether they behaved or not?!”
In my opinion, moralism is a more dangerous threat than atheism. Or, maybe it is a form of atheism. Moralism assumes we’re capable of being good by ourselves. It’s easy to spin Bible teachings by deriving “applications” like “love your brothers and sisters” or “love your parents” or “love your neighbors.” But without also an understanding that our love is flawed, without honestly seeing how incapable we are without God’s grace, it could be a danger leading us into self-righteousnessness, and just focusing on how well we perform and “behave.”
1 John 4:21 says that “whoever loves God must also love his brother.” It must be noted that this is preceded by verse 19: “We love because He first loved us.” It takes Christ’s sacrifical love for us to help us see that we are utterly helpless unless we receive His grace, and out of the gratefulness of his past grace and the faith in God’s future grace that we can love others. The core of our ability to love and our reason to love is not because of some morals, but because of grace.