I’ll never forget the moment when a dear church attender struggled to grasp that morality alone does not bring glory to God. She couldn’t seem to fathom that good works don’t grant some measure of godliness. In her defense, evangelical churches have often missed the heart of the Gospel by teaching that morality equals godliness and a right standing before God. In an attempt to simplify the Gospel and make it easier to understand, holiness has been reduced to little more than moralism and good works. Alarmingly, the message of the Gospel has been practically packaged as simply doing right and abstaining from wrong in order to gain salvation.
Scripture is clear that while God always uses both moral and immoral actions for His purposes, morality alone is insufficient for salvation. Quoting from Psalm 53, Paul argues that no human is capable of righteousness and that no person does good on their own (Romans 3:10, 12). Paul understands that mankind’s natural sinfulness negates any possibility of pleasing God through external good works. Furthering this notion, the Psalmist describes the divide between God and sinful man by stating that God “hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Ps. 11:5). Isaiah bleakly declares that even “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment”, negating any hope of unbelievers producing righteousness. This truth leads to the broader reality that the absence of faith results in sin (“Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” Rom. 14:23 says). Scripture plainly declares that worldly morality can never sufficiently justify sinners before a holy and righteous God.
Of course, the Bible firmly acknowledges that through common grace, unbelievers regularly engage in morally good things. Unbelievers are quite capable of helping the poor, loving their family well, and overall living according to moral standards. However, Scripture affirms that God is infinitely more concerned with the internal (heart) before the external (actions). God is most interested in complete heart change rather than behavior modification alone. In the same way that Christian parents desire their children to love truth more than merely obeying commands, so too does God desire believers to live obediently out of a heart-felt love for God (John 14:21).
Ultimately, godliness is not a human effort, but a free gift from God that changes the sinner’s heart. Salvation and godliness are only possible through grace given to those who respond in faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Grace changes the hearts of sinners, makes us right with God, and enables the believer to glorify the Lord through good works (Matt. 5:16). The beauty of salvation is though sinners are unable to please God, Jesus Christ “who committed no sin…bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:22, 24). Whereas humanity deserved the wrath of God, He “who knew no sin became sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). The picture of grace is the sinless Son of God defeating the debt of our sin, so that we who have been born again might be imitators of the God who in Himself defines goodness (Eph. 5:1). Unless a person has freely received this gift of grace, then “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Christianity hinges on the clear teaching that salvation and godliness are gifts of grace, rather than merely the presence of moralism. Therefore, churches must call sinners to receive grace, not just to be a good person. Christian parents ought to direct their efforts towards Gospel transformation rather than just behavioral obedience in their children. Christians must pray for grace motivated cultural change, rather than just moral compliance. When the Gospel of grace is kept central to everything Christians teach, then godliness will be understood in the light of Christ, hearts will be transformed by grace, and Christians will complete the good works for which God has called them (Eph. 2:10).