Many youth workers have rightly rejected the temptation to teach moralism, or behavior modification intended to win God’s favor. Realizing that the point of Scripture is not the human actors, but the gospel itself—that Christ lived, died, and rose again to rescue sinners—we are no longer content with moralistic axioms. (“We should be faithful like Ruth! Brave like Daniel! Good like Noah!”) Instead, we want students to know the grace of the gospel that has achieved their salvation (Eph. 2:8-10).
But if we’re not careful in presenting the doctrine of grace, we might find the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. The authors of The Gospel-Centered Life for Teens have helpfully articulated this continuum between legalism on the one hand and license (or antinomianism, to use the fancy theological term) on the other. In contrast to these extremes, grace neither demands perfect adherence to the law (legalism/moralism) nor dismisses the law as obsolete (license). The gospel calls us to obedience to God’s ways, based on the finished work of Christ.
The Reformers were familiar with this same pendulum. During the Antinomian Controversy of the mid-16th century, contemporaries of Martin Luther asserted that Christians saved “by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8) are no longer obligated to follow the moral law of the Old Testament, and that the law has no place in gospel proclamation. Luther rightly refuted this “anti-law” caricature of his teaching on salvation by faith alone, insisting that the law is useful both for bringing sinners to repentance and for providing moral guidance to those who are in Christ (Romans 3:31).
In today’s culture of tolerance, the gospel can be easily diluted in a similar way which Luther sought to guard against. Our students are being catechized day by day in the school of tolerance. Everywhere they turn they hear, “You do you!” and “It’s not for me to tell someone else what’s right for her.” In this setting, grace can start to sound a lot like tolerance. As we speak against moralism, it’s therefore important that we don’t accidentally diminish the law itself.
Understanding how moralism differs from a biblical view of the law can help us guard against accidental antinomianism in our youth ministries today.
Moralism reveals human standards; the law reveals God’s standards.
The apostle Paul explained the divine standard of the moral law to the early Christians in Rome when he wrote, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20). The Reformers would later explain that the law is like a mirror, allowing us to see the darkness of our own hearts and our desperate need for salvation outside of ourselves.
Moralism, on the other hand, aims too low in its standard for human conduct; rather than holding up God’s character as the moral standard, it presents the human personalities of the Bible. These human actors struggled with sin and failure just as we do, so their attempts at morality cannot be our measuring rod. Sally Lloyd-Jones explains the flawed nature of the Bible’s characters in the Jesus Storybook Bible, saying “Most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.”
We should rightly move away from moralistic teaching that holds up a human standard for obedience. But if our response is to dismiss God’s righteous standard, we have erred in the other direction. Instead, God’s people are called to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2, 1 Peter 1:16).
The law convicts our feeble human hearts by revealing God’s own nature, calling us to be like Him. To be holy like God is holy is truly an impossible task in our own strength. By boldly sharing the requirements of the law in our teaching, we reveal that our students—and we ourselves—truly need a Savior.
Moralism requires human resources; fulfilling the law requires Jesus’ resources.
Jesus fulfills the requirements of the Law—he doesn’t abolish them (Matt. 5:17-18). In doing so, he calls his disciples to pay attention to the law and to heed its commands, not as the grounds for salvation, but as the overflow of life in him.
In his song “A New Law,” singer-songwriter Derek Webb infamously quipped, “So what’s the use in trading a law you can never keep for one you can that will not get you anything?”
His point was that our sinful nature inclines us to erect a “new law” that we can self-righteously keep through behavior modification—or at least we tell ourselves we can keep it. Because moralism is based on human standards, it is often subjective, emphasizing rules we feel we can uphold in our own strength.
God’s Law, on the other hand, is one that God’s people have struggled to keep since its institution. When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, we read in Exodus 24:3 that they responded in one voice crying: “Everything the LORD has said, we will obey!” Yet just as soon as they had made their vow, they were back to sinning (Exodus 32).
The law is limited by our sinful human nature, but it is not obsolete. We need Jesus’ resources in order to uphold the moral law. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that God’s plan for His people is for the righteous requirements of the law to be fully met in us based on Jesus’ work in our place (Rom. 8:3-4).
As we teach our students from the moral law, we do so not to “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” (Luke 11:46), but to remind them of the way Christ has satisfied the law on their behalf.
Moralism fixates on the Old Covenant; the law looks forward to the New Covenant.
Because moralism is concerned with outward behavior, it directs our focus to the Old Covenant instead of to the New. Proponents of moralism tend to leverage the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant as motivation for believers to behave morally. If we dispense with the law itself, however, we are at risk of what Tim Keller relates to reading a chapter of a Charles Dickens novel completely out of context. In other words, we should include the law in our teaching, lest we drop our students into the middle of the Story with no context.
The promises of Scripture speak to a new experience with the law under the New Covenant, in which the law is written on the hearts of believers (Jeremiah 31:31-33). The law is necessary to this new framework, since those who are in Christ are “set free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). We must therefore teach our students that the law is the context for our salvation under the New Covenant.
As we point our students away from moralism to the gospel of grace, let’s not diminish the weight of the law. When we were unable to keep it, Christ intervened on our behalf, making a way for sinners to be declared righteous.
 Robert H. Thune and Will Walker, The Gospel-Centered Life for Teens Participant’s Guide (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2014), 27.
 Justo Gonzales, From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3 of A History of Christian Thought, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987).
 Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 15.
 Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skeptics (New York: Viking, 2015), 59.