The main mistake of the moralist impulse—what many people call legalism—is an instinct to focus on sins in place of Sin. To fixate on specific behaviors while missing the motives and trajectories that explain those behaviors.
But first let’s give the moralists their due. What makes them so sure of themselves is their high success rate. They regularly find Sin—essential evil—by tracking particular sins to a source. They spot a person who lies, cheats, curses, and kicks dogs and then shout: “Look, folks, here’s a minion of evil!”
Over time their success rate generates confidence. So much so that some even deputize themselves as divine sheriffs. And with more and more success their big ambition in life turns to assisting God in stamping out evil.
Before we go on let’s all agree that any person who lies, cheats, curses, and kicks dogs is on the wrong end of any moral spectrum: those in authority need to say “enough.” And what I’ll say next isn’t an attempt to say otherwise. We can always expect bad fruit from bad trees; and sour water from sulfurous springs. Jesus himself said so.
So why was Jesus such a magnet—in all the wrong ways—to the moralists of his era? They hated him! Think of the number of times Jesus was said to have a demon. Or was charged with being evil. Recall, for instance, John 9—“We know that this man is a sinner”—after Jesus healed a blind man. And in the end it was enough to get Jesus killed.
The “sin” Jesus tripped over most often was the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. He had six days of the week to heal, restore, and bless: Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and even Fridays before sunset. But never, never, on a Saturday! Yet he violated the Bible command to honor the Sabbath again and again. So the moralists had an open and shut case against him when they later shouted, “crucify him!”
But what if moralists regularly use a faulty definition of Sin? What if their version of evil is upside-down—so their ambition to crucify Jesus is actually a massive expression of evil?
Let’s chase that for a moment. What if the greatest impulse of God’s heart is to love rather than to confront and stamp out evil? Does it mean that all those who lie, cheat, curse, and kick dogs are now safe because God loves them? Not at all! But what it does mean is that divine deputies aren’t really on God’s side when they stamp out sin by stomping on sinners.
Think about it. God created the world, with the total human population in view, knowing that Sin would take over the entire neighborhood. And now we have the mess that came of it—the current immoral ethos of the world—and it seems that Satan has won. But Psalm 2 reassures us that God is, in fact, chuckling over Satan’s foolish chutzpah. Just wait.
But wait for what? Again we find the answer in Psalm 2: God is waiting to see who will “kiss the Son.” He sent us his only Son as his ultimate expression of love—think John 3:16 here. And his Spirit is now busy wooing his “sheep”—those who start to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice even amid the din of devices and loud calls to seek personal glory and success.
But most people despise the Son—both past and present—preferring self-love in place of a love for God as revealed in Jesus; and a love for neighbors as born by his Spirit. And this is real Sin.
This is also where the moralists and dog-kickers are common kin: they both prefer the Sin of trying to be “like God” as they take issues of good and evil into their own hands. In the end an ambition to be self-righteous is as malignant as an appetite for unrighteous actions. Both ignore Christ’s warning in John 15: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Now let’s get back to the question of motives and trajectories. One certainty in life is that God has a spreading goodness. He is not a selfish God. Instead his Triune love—as capsulized in 1 John 4:8 & 16, “God is love”—is his driving impulse for both creating and redeeming. And those who know him come to be increasingly characterized by that love. Call this the ultimate motive of authentic faith.
And with that motive in play we find a constant trajectory in believers: our love is always outward-oriented, not selfish. It’s centrifugal rather than centripetal. Bold sharing starts to replace both dog-kicking rebellion and rule-driven morality.
Back to Jesus: did he really violate the Sabbath as the crucifying moralists insisted?
Nope. The real call to Sabbath was expressed in his heart for others: to restore, build, and sustain relationships. The blind man Jesus healed in John 9 later worshipped Jesus—as one of the sheep who heard his voice and responded. It was especially fitting on the Sabbath, the day God meant for rest and relationship.
So let’s enjoy God’s spreading goodness; and then join in as his Spirit pours out that love in our hearts. Nothing in the world can match it!