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Moralistic behavior change vs. Gospel behavior change (part 1)


~an excerpt from Tim Keller Center Church p. 66-67

"People typically try to instill honesty in others this way: “if you lie, you’ll get in trouble with God and other people,” or “If you lie, you’ll be like those terrible people, those habitual liars, and you are better than that!” What motivations are being encouraged? They are being called to change their behavior out of fear of punishment (“you’ll get in trouble”) and out of pride (“you’ll be a dirty liar; you wouldn’t want to be like one of them”). Both fear of punishment and pride are essentially self-centered. The root motivation is, then, “Be honest because it will pay off for you.” This approach puts pressure on the will and stirs up the ego to more selfishness in order to force a person to curb his or her inclinations to do wrong. We can call this “moralistic behavior change” because its basic argument is this: “Will yourself to change your behavior, and you can save yourself.”

Christians who are taught to act morally primarily to escape punishment or to win self-respect and salvation are learning to be moral to serve themselves. At the behavioral level, of course, they may be performing actions of great self-sacrifice. They may be sacrificing time, money, and much more to help the poor, to love their family, or to be faithful to God’s law. Yet at a deeper level they are behaving this way so God will bless them, so they can think of themselves as virtuous, charitable persons. They are not loving God for himself. They are not obeying him simply because of his greatness and because he has done so much for them in Christ. Rather, they are using God to get the things they want. They want answered prayers, good health and prosperity, and they want salvation in the afterlife. So they “do good”, not for God’s sake or for goodness’ sake, but for their own sake. Their behavior is being changed by the power of their own self-interest.

Stirring up self-centeredness in order to get someone to do the right thing does not get at the fundamental self-regard and self-absorption that is the main problem of the human heart.

Consequently, it does nothing to address the main cause of the behavior you are trying to change (such as lying). Moralistic behavior change simply manipulates and leverages radical selfishness without challenging it. It tries to use that selfishness against itself by appealing to fear and pride. But while this may have some success in restraining the heart’s self-centeredness, it does absolutely nothing to change it. Indeed it only confirms its power.

Moralistic behavior change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape.

But this does not work. If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat it is likely to snap back to its former position. This is why we see people who try to change through moralistic behaviorism find themselves repeatedly lapsing into sins they thought themselves incapable of committing. They can’t believe they embezzled or lied or committed adultery or felt so much blind hatred that they lashed out. Appalled at themselves, they say, “I wasn’t raised that way!” But they were. For moralistic behaviorism – even deep within a religious environment – continues to nurture the “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on self that is the mark of Hell.” (C.S. Lewis The ScrewTape Letters vii) This is the reason people embezzle, lie, and break promises in the first place. It also explains why churches are plagued with gossip and fighting. Underneath what appears to be unselfishness is great self-centeredness, which has been enhanced by moralistic modes of ministry and is marked by liberal does of sanctimony, judgmentalism and spite.

To complete our illustration, if you try to bend metal without the softening effect of heat, it may simply break. Many people after years of being crushed under moralistic behaviorism, abandon their faith altogether, complaining that they are exhausted and “can’t keep it up.” But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape. The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude – new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration. Without this “gospel heart” – the joy, love and gratitude that result from an experience of grace – people will simply snap. Putting pressure on their will may temporarily alter their behavior, but their heart’s basic self-centeredness and insecurity remain.”