The Problem With Moralism – Sermon Video and Manuscript

This post includes the sermon  text for the message I preached on March 8, 2015 at a meeting of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA.  The sermon is based on the story of Jonah and is titled:  “The Problem of Moralism.”

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Lenten Sermon Series: “White Washing the Gospel”

Sermon Title: The Problem With Moralism

Scripture Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10-4:1, Luke 18:9-14

Sermon Text: The Book of Jonah

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.


But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.


To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

You can watch the video of the sermon here.  Below this screen, you can read the manuscript.



“We’ve been spending too much time trying to cure heart disease with cancer!”

These are the words of a pastor lamenting the spiritual climate in his congregation.  He could have been speaking about most any congregation – large, small, rich, poor, liberal, conservative, liturgical, charismatic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic – pretty much the whole of western evangelical Christianity.


He could have been talking about me.

“We’ve been spending too much time trying to cure heart disease with cancer!”


In this Lenten season of personal reflection, I am discovering that too much of my life and ministry has been focused on moralism.


Moralism is that tendency to believe that the solution to what ails humanity can be found in clean, morally pure, and ethically upright living.


Now, I am certainly not going argue in favor of immorality – and I do believe that human society would be better served by honesty, integrity, and virtue.  My concern is that we too often seem to believe that the purpose and mission of the church is the advancement of morality.  If that is what we believe is gospel, we have sorely misunderstood the Bible.  Moralism is not the gospel.  It’s not even close.


The mission of the church is to declare to all the corners of the earth that in Jesus Christ, humanity is like, loved, accepted, included, adopted, shown mercy, offered forgiveness, and given grace.  But what is preached from many platforms and pulpits sounds more like self-help philosophy and behavior modification.  The majority of our focus seems to be providing people with plans and programs that offer instructions for how to try harder to live better.

Don’t believe me?  Here is a list of the current top five best selling books according to  Christian Book Distributors:


1)  Making Good Habits, Breaking Bad Habits: 14 New Behaviors That Will Energize Your Life – by Joyce Myer


2) The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here for? – by Rick Warren


3) The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate – by Gary Chapman


4) Battlefield Of The Mind: Winning The Battle In Your Mind – by Joyce Myer


and 5) So Long, Insecurity: You’ve Been A Bad Friend To Us – by Beth Moore


Notice a common theme?  Each book is about behavior modification and personal development.  Each book indicates formulas, beliefs, or practices which are suggested central to a more godly, better life.  Each book is about moralism – the religious notion that if everyone just lived right, all would be well.


Now if you were to visit the self-help section of the nearby Barnes & Noble, you would find best-selling publications addressing the same topics without the Christian religious jargon.  What many Christian publishing houses have done is recruit authors to address these same topics as the self-help gurus using religious sounding words.  This fools people into believing that what they are hearing is the gospel.


That’s what prompted my pastor friend to say:  “We’ve been spending too much time trying to cure heart disease with cancer!” The cancer of moralism will never heal or redeem a heart that is battered, broken, and ravaged by human sin. So, how can we tell the difference between the gospel and its moralistic distortion?


The answer lies with how each responds to sin when it is confronted with it.[i]  (I borrow these thoughts from a blog I visited but lost the link and the name of the author.  There is not intent to plagiarized anyone’s ideas.)


“…when moralism is confronted with sin the only thing it does is engender more (and more sophisticated) sin – often in the form of outrage and indignation, while the gospel, when confronted with sin, engenders the sweet, healing fruit of the gospel that both mourns the sin, but is not surprised by it.


While both moralism and the gospel react in the same manner initially to sin, it is what is sucked into the vacuum left behind by sin, that is the true reveal.”


Here’s what happens.  Some terrible sin comes to light in a congregation.  The first thing that happens in both a moralistically focused and grace focused church is shock, dismay, and distress.  This is understandable.  Sin should upset us.  Sin is a rejection of God’s will and way.  Further, as the scripture says, “The wages of sin is death.” What happens next reveals the difference between a moralistically focused and grace focused congregation.  There is a divergence between the two.


When a church is focused on moralism, the shock gives way to a wide range of non-Christ-like emotions and responses.  Things like outrage, anger, indignation, finger-wagging, and (if we are the one who has fallen) self-loathing…


Now let’s consider how a grace focused gospel congregation might respond after the initial shock of some terrible sin.  Such a congregation mourns the sin and the pain it causes.  It reflects on the misery of sin –  my sin/our sin – the sin that led Jesus, the truly sinless one, to the cross for us.  The grace focused congregation reflects on the reality of human brokenness, and finds solace in the truth that the  only solution to the affront of sin is the gospel!


Such a congregation rejects moralism because it knows that no amount of admonitions to try harder or live better will ever have the power to change peoples’ lives.  Only the gospel can change us.  No amount of externally driven formulas for behavior modification will fix what wrong with us.  Only the good news that Jesus came into the world to save sinners can begin the process of rooting out sin, your sin, my sin, everybody’s sin, including the sins of self-righteousness, pride, and self-loathing which moralism so often engenders.

Samuel Williamson tells a story that many of us can probably relate to.  It turns out that one day he hit his sister.  He didn’t remember why, but he was sure she had it coming.


Of course, his parents sat him down to set him straight. First they appeal to his sense of identity.  “You don’t want to grow up to be THAT kind of person.” Next they appealed to his sense of comfort:  “If you ever hit your sister again, there will be hell to pay.”  Then his parents describe the version of hell they had in mind with some specific and undesirable consequences. In other words, his parents taught him morality by appealing to his self-centeredness.  Here’s the problem with that, according to Williamson:


“…people lie, cheat, and steal. But we lie, cheat and steal precisely because we are self-centered. Our moral teaching replaces one selfishness (lying, cheating, and stealing) with another (version of) selfishness (identity and comfort).[ii]

So what’s happens is that we try fix what ails us with moralism instead of grace.  We try to cure heart disease with cancer.  But it will not stick because it is appealing to the same selfish and self-centered brokenness that corrupted the heart in the first place.  We are conforming to standards and codes of conduct, but we are not being transformed by the renewing of our minds.


So instead of treating heart disease with cancer; instead of treating what ails us spiritually with a try harder sense of religious moralism, what Grace seeks to accomplish is a heart transplant.


That brings us to the story of Jonah


I once heard two sermons about Jonah on the same day.  The first argued that the story of Jonah had to be literally true, and then the preacher proceeded to speak for about 30 minutes about the chemical composition of the gastric juices inside the belly of a whale, explaining how a person could survive in such a place for three full days.  The second preacher took 30 minutes to speak about how the story was more parabolic than literal.  The problem is that both sermons missed the point. This morning we are not going to talk about Jonah’s whale.  Instead, we are going to look at Jonah’s heart.


The story begins with the voice of God:  “Jonah, go the Nineveh and preach.” Jonah disobeys and flees. So God arrange a consequence, the whale.

Then God’s voice comes to Jonah again, saying the same thing.  “Jonah, go the Nineveh and preach.”


This second time, Jonah relents, but his heart is not in it.  He does not like those Ninevites, not one little bit.  So what he tells them is this:  “In forty days you’re all going to burn.”  He doesn’t even offer them the chance to repent.


Yet despite this graceless proclamation, the Ninevites still repent of their evil, injustice, and violence (Jonah 3:5-8).


So God does what God is prone to do.  God forgives them, releases them from judgment, and allows them to start over.


At this, Jonah becomes extremely angry at God.  He didn’t want to go preach to those people anyway.  But when he finally relented, the frustration with going was at least mitigated somewhat at the hope of seeing them burn. Like a petulant child, Jonah stomps off into the wilderness to sulk.  While there, the sun beats down on his brow as he leans back on a rock to take a nap.  At first, God provides a plants to offer Jonah relief from the heat.  But then, as Jonah naps, God sends a worms to eat through the branches so that the comfort disappears.  When Jonah wakes us he’s hotter and madder than ever.


So God addresses Jonah one more time, saying:

“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 …Should I not be concerned for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people, who do not even know their right hand from their left.”  (Jonah 4:10-11).


Finally, Jonah figures it out.  His heart is transformed.  How do we know that?  According to Jewish history, the Book of Jonah is autobiographical. Jonah wrote this story to share his testimony about his spiritual heart transplant.


In telling his story in this book, Jonah…

…describes his own weakness

…confesses his own sin

…describes his rebellion and disobedience

…acknowledges his bigotry and hatred of the Ninevites

…reveals desire that God punish rather than show mercy


Jonah expresses anger toward God for offering grace to the Ninevites.   Jonah divulges his own selfish pettiness at the loss of the shade tree in the wilderness.  Jonah’s story is an autobiographical confession of his own self-righteousness.


At the beginning of his encounter with God, Jonah could have easily prayed as the Pharisee had from Luke 18:
“Lord thank you that I’m not like those evil Ninevites” (see Luke 18:11).


After his dealing with God, Jonah prayer might be more like that of the tax collector.
“Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).


Jonah’s story is that of a moral but self-righteous man needing God’s mercy.


God is after our hearts. [iii]


Consider that God was not content with Jonah’s simple, external (even selfish) obedience. God desires more than graceless goodness. God does not intend that we try to cure heart disease with cancer.  God wants Jonah’s heart to be transformed.
Reading this story in this season of Lent should prompt us to ask:  “What will we allow to happen with our hearts?”
Will we pray like the self-righteous and moralistic Pharisee who says, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like these other sinners?”


Or might we come to God to find the only true hope we have that comes to us by grace.  Will we pray like the sinner who says:  “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner?”



[i] I found these observations on a blog.  Unfortunately, after copying them down on my notepad, I lost the link.  There is no intent to plagiarize anyone’s ideas.

[ii] Samuel Williamson, “Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids:  How Moralism Suffocates Grace,”  Beliefs of the Heart Press, 2013, page 22.

[iii] Ibid, Williamson retells the story as the bulk of chapter four.  I have paraphrased most of his retelling in my own words, but the credit belongs to Williamson for the application of the story.


Jonah: Navigating a Life Interrupted – Member Book
by: Priscilla Shirer
publisher: LifeWay Christian Resources, published: 2010-07-01
ASIN: 1415868492
EAN: 9781415868492
sales rank: 18592
price: $10.98 (new), $5.99 (used)

Jonah: Navigating a Life Interrupted – Member Book by Priscilla Shirer provides a personal study experience five days a week, leader helps, and viewer guides for the group video sessions of this in-depth women’s Bible study.

What do we do when God interrupts our lives? Many times, like Jonah, we run! In this 7-session Bible study, Priscilla redefines interruption and shows that interruption is actually God’s invitation to do something beyond our wildest dreams. When Jonah was willing to allow God to interrupt his life, the result was revival in an entire city.

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