Might Morality Be The Greatest Obstacle to Christianity?

[To listen to a reading of this article, click here.]

A year or so ago, a Christian friend described how he was beginning to bring the gospel his softball team. He had joined the local league that spring—partly for the fun of the game and partly to get outside his Christian bubble and to meet non-believers.

However, he felt uncomfortable with his teammates’ cussing during the game. He asked them if they would stop, at least while he was with them.

They agreed and stopped (for the most part). He deemed this “cleaner language” an evangelistic victory. It hinted that his teammates might be choosing the right path.

He felt that somehow the gospel had been advanced. Next he planned to ask them to stop drinking.

Something about my friend’s story felt discordant. I didn’t sense anyone closer to God.

Somehow, I felt the gospel had been perverted.

But I wasn’t exactly sure why

The world is filled with brokenness and oppression. We should be men and women who fight for justice, loving our neighbor as ourselves. But that activity isn’t the gospel.

Linking the cessation of cussing to introducing the gospel unsettled me. It was like a slightly off-key singer or a slightly out of tune instrument. The soft dissonance of his story kept disturbing. I couldn’t shake it. But I wasn’t quite sure why.

Then last weekend I heard someone critique the modern version of the gospel:

He said the modern gospel is: Sin less. Work harder. Give more.

And that’s just wrong. It is a counterfeit gospel, and counterfeits succeed only when they look like the real thing. The problem with the false gospel portrayed above is that everyone smitten by the gospel will sin less, and will work harder, and will give more.

It’s just not the gospel. It’s a result of the gospel, but it isn’t the gospel.

It’s also not just a modern counterfeit

I’ve asked a dozens of people (believers and non-believers) who the greatest enemies of Jesus were. Virtually everyone says the same thing: the enemies of Jesus were the Pharisees, the religious leaders, or the scribes.

No one—not one—answered: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, or the adulterers (or the cussers).

Isn’t that weird? People of all religions—even non-religious people—consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher. And yet, his greatest enemies were the moralists; and some of his greatest friends were society’s sinners. It seems upside down. Wouldn’t a moral teacher’s friends be the moralists, and his enemies be the sinners?

When asked by Pharisees about his upside down living, Jesus answered,

Healthy people don’t need a doctor—the sick do … I came to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. (Matt. 9:12-13)

Jesus didn’t say that the Pharisees were healthy and the tax collectors were sick. He said that the tax collectors knew they were sick; the Pharisees thought themselves healthy.

Someone is going to say I’m against morality. I’m not. I wish everyone in the world were a thousand times more moral. Including you and me. But in our morality we need to be cautious. It can lead us—ever so slowly—to feel good about ourselves, which can lead us—ever so slowly—to self-righteousness. Which is the enemy of the gospel.

Another counterfeit gospel is when we say, “Hey, I’m not so bad. I’m okay, you’re okay.” It’s a modern version of the ancient Pharisee. We don’t see our need. And such self-righteousness is killing the world.

The key difference between the sinners and Pharisees was they knew they were needy.

Identifying counterfeits

One way the Secret Service trains agents to spot counterfeits is to spend lots of time handling genuine currency. The best way to spot a counterfeit is to know the real thing.

So, what is the real gospel?

  • The gospel is not us being good so God will like us; it is God loving us despite our brokenness and sin. All we really need is need.
  • The gospel is not us giving God a good report card; it is Jesus living a perfect life and giving us a good report card. All we need is need.
  • The gospel is not us emptying our bank accounts to give to God; it is God pouring out his riches on us, the morally bankrupt, to make us rich. All we need is need.
  • The gospel is not us cleaning up our acts or our families or our relationships or our mouths; it is God cleaning them up for us. All we need is need.

Tim Keller says the gospel is like a two-sided coin: we are more wicked than we have ever dared admit; and we are more loved than we ever dared imagine.

Or, we were in such a dreadful moral condition that the death of the son of God was our only cure; and his love for us was so great that he died for us joyfully.

When we admit we are needy—in real need of a heart transformation, then the receipt of unjustified love for us changes us, it gives us the needed transformation.

When we can admit that we are really no better than anyone else AND that we are also incredibly loved, then—and only then—are we going to be able to love those around us who don’t live up to our moral standard.

Because—like others—we didn’t live up to them either; but he loved us anyway.



30 Responses to Might Morality Be The Greatest Obstacle to Christianity?

  1. Coach D says:

    I totally agree here! The Pharisees would fit right into so many evangelical churches today as model members. And yet they found a way to kill Jesus.
    I think sadly that much of what we call faith in God, especially the moral coding in it, is simply a construct to shield us from the living God. He wants our hearts…not our best behavior.

  2. Randy says:

    AMEN to that Sam! I have been getting this passionate feeling about what WE do now after this whole election thing. Regardless of the outcome, WE are no better than the other party and the words and actions we use are carefully watched and critiqued. Our words and actions can be observed and interpretted as “conterfeit” and drive hearts further away from HIS truth! We so easily forget that it is by HIS grace that we are saved. What do we do now? We begin to live the in our true identity and rejoice in the gift of grace we have recieved. The result of our joy will fall on the ears of those that would otherwise be offended and interpret our words and actions as conterfiet! Yes, we need that mortal adjustment but a great place to start is right here in our own hearts. Preach always. Use words only when necessary.

    • Hey Randy,

      Wasn’t the retreat in Minnesota (a couple weeks ago) GREAT!!

      I love your application of the message to our approach to politics. Our almost universal mantra seems to be that we are good and they are bad, and then you come along and say, “WE are no better than the other party.”

      You are 100% right. Thanks for that.

      As you say, “a great place to start is right here in our won hearts.”



      • randy says:

        It was REALLY GREAT! I’m so excited to see where this takes us in the next step in our journey. What an awesome foundational way to build some trusted relationships and partner together in this mission! Thank you for following what God is calling on your heart! It is something so needed and only you can offer through our Father’s giftings. If any of you out there have not attended a Calling Intensive retreat, you really need to check it out!

  3. Kevin Miller says:

    Thanks for this Sam. I’m gathering with a group of guys tonight, similar to when you were out here a couple months ago. ‘Unsafe Christians’ I call them. They love the Lord and are plenty moral. But cussing and drinking they don’t avoid. Now that I think about it…they aren’t ‘tamed’. Seems that’s the call of the church, for tamed men. The MOST tamed me. I think Jesus needs more untamed guys, eh?

    • Kevin,

      I so love your phrases, “Unsafe Christian,” and “Untamed Christian.”

      I love the image it brings to mind. We are not meant to be tamed. Yuck. The very idea of being “tamed” seems disgusting. Hey, maybe I could also learn to drink my tea with my baby finger sticking out.

      I don’t want to go to a place that domesticates me; I want to go to a place that trains me to be wild.

      Can you picture Pete or Paul in a tux at a cocktail party? I think they’d be hanging outside with the chauffeurs. Maybe smoking a big cigar.



  4. Timm says:


    Gordon Dalbey wrote a recent book called, Broken by Religion, Healed by God, addressing this subject. He takes a deeper look into mainline denominational schisms, but addresses the underlying spiritual issues.

    One of the recent paradigm shifts in my life is about the way I view sin. I have been blinded by a spirit of religiosity and legalism that tends to have me place myself on a pedestal above others whenever sin is overcome in my life. The outcome is that I judge others who are dealing with sin…somehow thinking I am better than they are…and totally forgetting that the reason that I am better (liberated from sin)…because of the One whom has redeemed me.

    I tend to cast the first stone a bit less these days. I seem to have Jesus’s eyes, understanding why he spent more time with the “sinners” than the religious leaders. I think that I’ve been given the understanding that there is no sin that I am exempt from without Jesus. I have no strength or goodness of character without him.

    As an aside, the thing that caused me to stumble and become a religious person is the scripture that says, “Avoid the apperance of evil.” Same thing with verses that tell us to separate ourselves from those who continue in their sin. Who is without sin? I mean, really, who is without sin? Not only do I have to avoid everyone else, I have to avoid me. What a setup for failure. What a setup to pretend we are without sin. And no wonder that non-believers tend to not like Christians.

    • Hi Timm,

      Yes, I’ve read Dalbey’s book. It’s good.

      I love your personal vulnerability in your comment, or maybe how in touch with your heart that you are. I think many of us put ourselves on pedestals when we improve in an area, and therefore we look down on others. Yikes! God save us … from ourselves.

      Your last paragraph touches on that incredibly complex idea of being in the world but not of it. We need — together with other believers — to learn how to do this, as well as how to avoid the “appearance” of sin — but not growing in deceit or posing.

      We need each other, one sinner with another.



  5. Randy Luce says:

    Great stuff Sam, keep it coming. I am reminded of this message of how dead the gospel of sin management really is in two other sources…the “road of good intentions” in John Lynch’s “The Cure,” and a quote for which I cant remember the source, about one of the greatest dangers for Christians is to not fail but succeed too much!

    • Hi Randy,

      I read John Lynch’s quote–and love it–but I hadn’t read that other quote. It’s good.

      As I said in the article, I believe we should be moral and the whole world would be better if everyone in the world was moral.

      But, we can’t get our identity from our morality; that is moralism. And moralism will lead to pride (when we think we are successful in our morality) or it will lead to despair, when we fail.

      Thanks for the comment,


  6. I believe this is so true. I was a missionary for a couple of years with two different organizations and this is what I struggled with the most. you had reports to do, a person comes forward at church and accepts Christ that goes in the win column then a few weeks latter you see them having a beer and it moves to the loss column “REALLY” with out even talking to them.
    My belief is that as long as You come to Christ in truth he will love and deal with you the way he wants. Truth to me was the difference between the pharisees and the the thief’s, murderers, and prostitutes. Jesus came to them and said this is who you really are and they would say yes, then he offered his love. And this is why I have had such a hard time with belonging to a church they want tamed people that pretend to by good with no issues in there life’s or marriage’s. Life is a struggle by design so we can learn and this needs to be a part of church so we can truly help others.

    Thanks so much for this blog it makes me believe I am not totally crazy.


    • Hi Perry,

      First let me address your final comment; at least if you are crazy you are in good company!

      I agree–totally–with your strong desire not to be tamed. Christ did not come into the world, endure suffering and death and hell, just so that we can be nice boys and girls.

      The idea makes me sick (and you too, I can tell).

      Thanks for the great comment,


  7. Joseph Villa says:

    “All we need in need” What a beautiful way of putting it. Thanks Sam.

  8. Beth says:

    G’day Sam
    When I was younger I went to New Tribes Mission bible college here in Australia. Just yesterday my dorm mate popped in for a visit, I hadn’t seen her for 25yrs. We had a good laugh about old times, she made one statement “Beth they could never tame you”. I was accepted by the sinners and never the Christians. How sad. I was an unsafe Christian, ( love that saying Kevin) and still am.
    I want to be more like Christ.
    Goodonya Sam, your posts encourage me every time.

  9. Ron K says:

    It seems to be such a battle to convince our Hearts, not just our Minds, that God loves us, and that He really is the best possible thing for us and for all… but we so often go getting all caught up with clever intellectual devices to help us to somehow create a righteousness through the power of the flesh, not the Spirit… and wonder why our credibility in the world can be so low…
    But how do we teach this, without it becoming another clever intellectual diversion? I have just been trying, whenever I remember, wherever I am, whatever is happening, to fight my way back to that spiritual place where God’s goodness is that much clearer, and, when I can, try to bring someone along with me… & then, try to live out of that place…
    Thanks for digging into such a significant aspect of being real.

  10. Paul Ebert says:

    Paraphrasing Brian McClaren (I think it was): so often our orthodoxy gets in the way of our orthopraxy. We’re called to unconditionally love and, specifically, to not judge. So often, our expressions of morality are nothing more than our ego involvement (the modern term for the old nature). Isn’t this what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 23:4? Isn’t it rather foolish and arrogant to think that Love needs our puny and misguided efforts as a defense?

    • Hi Paul,

      Great to connect again. How long has it been? Maybe 20 years or more.

      I like your line, “that Love needs our puny and misguided efforts as a defense?” Yeah, like our puny efforts are really going to help.



  11. Brooks says:

    Great post, Sam! I especially loved your comment about Jesus being considered a great moral teacher by so many. Now I can respond, “What are you talking about? His greatest ENEMIES were all the moralists!”

  12. Tom J says:

    Very insightful, thanks. I was at the event in MN, absolutely excellent!
    This article really touches on a point that I have been struggling with for some time (as I enjoy a cold beer while responding).

    Attending a ‘good Baptist’ church, there is so much ugly drapery hung on morality. I agree with your point that the world needs much, much more morality but, as you said that comes from walking closer with Jesus, NOT the other way around.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Something I have always struggled with two, but one day was talking to a pastor friend of mine and he said he had the same struggle preaching no beer or wine. So one day he was at a church meeting with the big wigs of his church and had to ride with the head big wig he got the courage up to ask why they preach different from what the bible says. Heres the answer ,We preach no alcohol because we don’t want to make a brother fall, and we know some are predisposed to alcoholism So we preach no alcohol. My friends response then why don’t we preach that? Thats something I could preach on. At this point he said he should of kept his mouth shut.

  13. Guy says:

    Hey Sam,

    I posted this on my personal Facebook page and within a couple of minutes I had people both believers and non believers respond positively to it. The reason for this is because good news is actually evident. I hate it when I hear a message, particularly a sermon at church which is supposed to be telling me some good news and it makes me feel ill on the inside. And I don’t mean conviction. I mean nauseous.
    Behavior modification isn’t good news, it is repression at best and denial at it’s worst, which is destined to crumple under pressure (I know from astounding amounts of firsthand experiments). The beauty of what you’ve discerned is that there really is a greater and more heartwarming AND confronting message that Jesus brings us. Love for free. If you really want it, it will change us.

    Thanks for your reflection,


    • Paul Ebert says:

      Repression and denial – exactly! It’s “offering” our old nature which is passing away. So, in effect, we are offering death to the other, not life. Some friends of mine, who are Christian, were talking about some article they’d read and called it “refreshingly judgmental”. They can’t see how this just cannot be. It’s a spiritual oxymoron. They talk about “speaking the truth” being an act of love, but they are blind to the fact that at a deeper (and, hence, more True) level it is not loving at all.

      You’re absolutely right, Guy, that really wanting it is what’s needed. We have many reasons not to want it. The one I struggle with is that when I genuinely try to love I so quickly run into my limits to do so. But, this is a key part of the transformation process.

  14. Joshua Schmidlkofer says:

    I don’t think your friends morality, as seen here, has anything to do with recognizable moral improvement. We may as well just leave this at: asking people to stop smoking, drinking and cussing has very little to do with Christian morals. The type of degrading talk which healthy morality opposes has very little interest in word choice.

    Concepts and Ideas we begin explaining and describing are often kind of empty when measured against Jesus saying; “the work of God, is to know the one whom He sent”. Christians are men and women who live by Blood. We did not kill Jesus in order to gain life, but God arguably did so to give us life. The only Christianity in The World that is “Christian”or Christ-like, is the one with Christ Jesus at the center.

    Reducing any of this to the level of socially acceptable speech patterns is… awkward. Morality is the hardest way to Christianity, because it involves so much self-deception. “Blessed are the poor on Spirit” e.g. the ones who know they’re bad.

    Pray for your friend, that he does not become like the Pharisees. “You search the earth for a disciple, and when you find him you make him twice the child of hell”

  15. A Swirl Girl says:

    Excellent post! This: “Jesus didn’t say that the Pharisees were healthy and the tax collectors were sick. He said that the tax collectors knew they were sick; the Pharisees thought themselves healthy” is GOLDEN.

    Thanks for writing this!

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