Sundoulos - Winter 2011

Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation

Spiritual Formation Grounded in the Cross and Justification

by John Coe

This paper is addressed to the dedicated Christian, believers in the Christian university, seminary, church and the ministry who are very serious about their spiritual life, who have a most sincere desire to grow and be used of God in service and ministry.1 What I have discovered, however, is that these same dedicated persons often struggle with a secret and sometime not-so-secret burden of guilt and shame that they are not as mature as they should be, that their lives often feel spiritually dry and withered, that the Christian life feels more like work than joy.

What I want to tell them and what they may not know is that they are in the grips of a great temptation. There are a number of temptations we might fall into. For some, there is the temptation to despair of their spiritual life, to despair that God will come, to tune out, to accept a “dry bones” spirituality. For others, there is the temptation to act out immorally, so that when frustrations mount in the Christian life, the temptation is to say in one’s heart, “I can’t take it anymore, I just want to escape for a while.” These temptations are serious indeed.

However, the temptation I have in mind is a bit different, one especially relevant to those who are dedicated to the Christian life and ministry. It is what I call the moral temptation. The moral temptation is the attempt to deal with our spiritual failure, guilt and shame by means of spiritual efforts, by attempting to perfect oneself in the power of the flesh or the self. It is the attempt of the well-intentioned believer to use spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, ministry, service, obedience – all good in general - as a way to relieve the burden of spiritual failure, lack of love and the guilt and shame that results. It is the temptation to try to relieve a burden that Christ alone can relieve. To carry such a burden is an awful load to carry. And those of us in the professional ministry have a particular professional and even financial temptation to be moral and bear such a burden.

My thesis or concern is simply this: That no amount of spiritual effort on our part can ever relieve us of our burden of shame and guilt in the Christian life except Christ, that no amount of effort in spiritual formation, in doing spiritual discipline, in ministry can deal with the problems related to sin, shame and guilt. What I have just described is what the secular moralists of all the ages have attempted to do, namely, to use morality as a defense against seeing their need for a savior.

Rather, the Christian life and true spiritual formation denounce the moralistic life as a way to find happiness, to please God, to deal with one’s failure and subsequent guilt and shame. Instead, the Christian life is about Christ and less about our efforts. It is about what He has done, and about our life “in Christ,” and how to open the heart to this New Covenant life dependent on the Spirit, and how to obey in light of this new life. This is an obedience of abiding in the Vine and open to the Life of God living within. It is an obedience, but not one of moralism. As we will see, it is more about participation in a new life than imitation of that life.

Thus, the Christian life is about Christ and only on that basis is it about what we do in Him – or, rather, what He does within us. This is the whole point of the New Covenant in Jer. 31:31ff and Ezek. 36:26ff., in which the Spirit, as the agent of change, points to the radically relational nature of the Christian life “in Christ,” which is the ground for true morality and makes possible the movement from moral to spiritual formation.

However, the truth is that most believers are still daily tempted by moralism or “moral formation.” Paul the Apostle – one who was deeply acquainted with moralism – knew that the believer would be tempted by this and addressed this problem to the Galatians.

“You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit [a relationship by faith] are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1-3)

Paul’s concern with the Galatian believers is not so much that they are embracing a legalism of turning back to works in order to be saved. Rather, they are pursuing legalism as a way to grow spiritually, as a way to perfect themselves in the covenant. In Paul’s terms, they started with faith but now are trying to be “perfected [Gk. ἐπιτελεῖσθε, perfected or ending] by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3),2 that is, by the autonomy of human weakness, by the best that humans can muster in their own power. The Galatians are tempted to go back to observance of the works of Torah not as a way to be saved but as a way to go on in growth in pleasing God and dealing with the daily issues of sin and guilt.

As in the case of the Galatians, I think that the problem of Christian legalism is not the temptation to think that one is saved by works. Rather, the legalism that we struggle with seems to be this: though we believe that one is saved (justified in the past tense) by grace working through faith, we are tempted to pursue sanctification (being made righteous in the present tense) by our own efforts (1) to obey the commands of God, (2) to assuage the guilt and shame that comes in our failure, (3) to make ourselves more acceptable to God and (4) to grow ourselves by the righteousness that comes from works. However, not only we are saved by faith but we only truly grow by the obedience of faith. Consequently, a few questions are in order to understand this obedience of faith and respond to this insidious form of legalism or moralism.

1st Question:

How do you know whether you are a Christian moralist? How do you know whether you are susceptible to the moral temptation?

A primary test is to determine whether one is tempted by Christian moralism is as follows. Whenever you are convicted by sin (e.g., from a sermon or the Scriptures ) and your first and abiding response in conscience to guilt is “I will do better, I need to work on that,” then you know you struggle with being a moralist. Then you know you are trying to use obedience and your own efforts as the primary response to deal with sin, guilt and shame before God. However, this response to sin and conviction is unhealthy and contrary to what is prescribed in the Scriptures.

It signals the presence of an unhealthy (neurotic or ill-trained) conscience.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us that the law of God was a tutor to lead us to Christ, not to morally train the believer.

“But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith that was later to be revealed. Therefore, the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal. 3:23-5)

The law and commands of God are good in themselves but did not provide the power for obedience (2 Cor. 3:3-7). Thus, the law of God was ultimately intended to tutor or lead the conscience to Christ, to awaken us to our moral inability and to show us our need for forgiveness and the work of God on our behalf. The law was not to be a moral tutor alone, to train or lead believers to becoming better people by their own effort, but rather it was a tutor to lead them into covenant with the forgiving and faithful God and to live daily on that basis.

This unhealthy “conscience-as-moral-tutor,” created by the legalistic conscience to assuage guilt and shame by moral effort and then advanced by most false religions and ethicists of the ages, in fact ravages the unbeliever and believer alike in their attempt to find freedom from moral failure, guilt and shame in one’s works apart from the work of Christ. This is quite in contrast to the “conscience-as-tutor-to-Christ” that encourages the believer to daily trust in Christ in the midst of failure. Notice the two different kinds of responses to conviction of sin in the unhealthy (neurotic) and healthy conscience (see chart below).

First, notice that the initial conviction of sin and pangs of conscience in terms of feeling guilt-as-culpability, that I am responsible for my sin, is normal and healthy. However, the neurotic, moralistic believer does not experience conviction as mere culpability but rather experiences conviction in terms of guiltas-condemnation in their heart. This feeling of condemnation is not that they will be damned but that though they may be forgiven, they are unacceptable as they are, they should have done better in their own power, and they should be able to do this even now if they tried. Consequently, they consciously exhort themselves to work on this to do better, to find their acceptability on the basis of their works and not on the basis of Christ – a form of self-atonement.

Rather, the healthy believer’s conscience when awakened to sin has been re-trained by the Word and Spirit to respond well to the commands of God, so that the self is ultimately led back to person of Christ, His work on the cross and in His indwelling Presence. In this case, pangs of guilt are experienced as culpable, not condemning, more like that of a secure child feeling responsible for having disobeyed a loving Father. The heart of a healthy conscience has been re-trained in the deep to believe through experience of the Spirit’s loving conviction that one is incapable of keeping the commands of God in the power of the self, which, in turn, has convinced the heart of its need for continual forgiveness and acceptance from God “in Christ.” He is our only hope.3 Thus, the Spirit of God uses the commands of God and conviction as a tutor to teach the conscience to fly to Christ, to the cross, to experience once again the forgiveness and acceptance of God in Christ. Here alone in weakness is our freedom; here alone the conscience is safe. And on the basis of being “in Christ,” the healthy conscience and heart appeal to the Spirit, to learn to obey in the Vine, for apart from the indwelling Christ “you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

2nd Question:

How can we resist this temptation to be a Christian moralist and learn to depend upon the cross and Spirit?

The remedy to our moralism lies in the Spirit’s application of the reality of the gospel to our hearts in daily experience. To put it another way, we resist the temptation of moral formation by opening our heart and mind deeply to the reality of Christ’s work on the cross in justification by the Spirit.

Paul the Apostle informs us of our justification in the following words:

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21) and
“ . . . that I may gain Christ, and may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith . . . .” (Phil. 3:8-9)

Embedded in these two texts is the truth that the Reform-
ers called “double imputation,” in which the Father imputes, attributes, or ascribes certain realities to the believer. The two imputations that make up the heart of Christ’s work on the cross for us are as follows:

  1. All of my sins (past, present and future) are imputed or ascribed to Christ so that there is no condemnation towards me, resulting in my full pardon and acquittal from guilt.
  2. All of Christ’s merited righteousness is imputed to me so that God relates to me on the basis of His Son’s perfect obedience and righteousness, so that I am totally accepted by the Father “in Christ.”

These truths are not merely stodgy old doctrines but reflect realities that are the very heart of the liberating power of the gospel and the only remedy for moralism: full pardon and full acceptance.4 This is almost impossible for the heart to believe due to the shame and guilt of original sin and the resulting habits of hiding and covering sin and guilt.

The implications of double imputation for the Christian life cannot be more dramatic.

  1. If all your sins are truly imputed to Christ so there is no condemnation, then come out of hiding in your prayer life and be honest with God. You have nothing to lose but to open more deeply to your need of Him and the daily forgiveness of the cross.
  2. If Christ’s righteousness, not your own, has really been imputed to you so that you are totally accepted by the Father as in the Son, then stop trying to cover your badness by being good but in full confession of your badness and failure, obey in light of your failure and what He has done for you.

One of the most important spiritual disciplines for daily resisting the temptation of moral formation is to open and center the heart with the Spirit on these two realities of full pardon and full acceptance. Sometimes our moralism has to do with not really accepting the reality of our full pardon from the condemnation of sin. In this case, we seek to hide from our sin by being good, for it is too painful to see our sin as it is insofar as we experience guilt as condemnation. As an antidote to this malady, we must come out of hiding in prayer and open deeply to the truth of our sins and how these have been imputed to Christ, that there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1), so that we may open deeply to the Spirit applying forgiveness and love in our experience.

At other times, our moralism is linked to a deep belief that we are unacceptable because of our sin. I find it very common in my own life and in those I minister to that we feel forgiven for particular sins and failure but we do not feel acceptable. This explains why many believers do not experience liberation through awareness of sin: they feel forgiven but unacceptable, and, thus, they must work harder at being good to become acceptable. This is the true heart of moralism.

Consequently, in prayer we must learn to open to the full justification by God and the unbelievable truth that I am not only fully pardoned but also fully acceptable to God on the basis of Christ’s merited righteousness that has been imputed to me and not on the basis of what I have done. Everything else in my culture and in my heart informs me that I am acceptable for what I do. This is the whole point of Christ’s active obedience in life, such that his merited righteous would be imputed to me so that “in Christ,” I am totally accepted by the Father.5

However, this opening to our justification is not merely an intellectual meditation on doctrine that I can do in my own power but it requires the work of the Spirit applying this to the heart.

Both our regeneration and transformation, our spiritual formation, are the result of the Spirit of God at work in the heart of the believer.

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Eph. 5:18)
“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

It is the indwelling Spirit of Christ that regenerates and transforms, not our own efforts. Our actions work in synergy and participation with the Spirit, but He is the agent of change. My obedience and practice of spiritual disciplines do not transform me but are means that allow me to be filled or acted upon by the indwelling Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ words, I can do nothing to accomplish transformation apart from abiding in His indwelling Presence through the Spirit. Thus, our transformation is the result of the Spirit of God opening our hearts more deeply to Christ’s work on the cross and the judicial or forensic realities of justification.

This centering or recollecting the heart in the cross and the Spirit will not come in a day or by mere assent to these truths. There are other places in our heart that militate against these realities; deep beliefs that drive us to feel guilty, condemned, unacceptable and needing to be better by our efforts. These deep beliefs betray us in our feeling frustrated and unacceptable rather than liberated in the awareness sin.

Consequently, with the Spirit’s help, we need to retrain the beliefs of the heart as well as the conscience by these great doctrines and realities. We can begin by the daily practice of meditating upon and speaking these truths into the heart with the Spirit. This can take the form of even such small steps as daily praying the following Prayers of Intention:

  1. Lord, I no longer want to deal with my guilt by hiding in the power of the self. I no longer want to be afraid of seeing myself as I really am, to hide from seeing my badness, sin and failure.
I do not want to hide anymore from my sin. I want to come out into the open with You who fully forgive my sins entirely “in Christ.”
  2. Lord, I no longer want to deal with my shame and vice by trying to cover it by being good in my own power. I do not want to fix myself anymore, to grow myself, to cover my badness with good works, with regimens of formation. I want to be found in Christ, having His righteousness as my covering alone (Phil. 3:9). I want to learn to obey and engage in formation in the light of my sin and Your work, not as a way to cover my sin.

Of course, not even these prayers will transform you. As I tell my students, doing spiritual disciplines do not transform; they become relational opportunities to open the heart to the Spirit who transforms. However, these prayers are a good beginning for our souls to open to the truths and realities that ground our whole existence and freedom in Christ. This is the only safe ground for our life of obedience. At the very least, these prayers may reveal the truth of how much I still act like a moralist, how little I feel forgiven and accepted by God, how little I depend upon the Spirit. But even this realization of my sin and dysfunction is capable of pointing me back to the cross and my need for Christ and the Spirit, which is an invitation once again into love and forgiveness.

3rd Question:

What will happen to our spiritual life if we do not resist the moral temptation?

If we do not resist the temptation of moralism, then, first, Christ will be of no benefit to us in the spiritual life. As Paul says,

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Galatians 5:1-3).

Paul’s point to believers is this: if we are tempted to try to use good works in the Christian life as a way to grow ourselves, as
a way to deal with the daily issues of guilt, shame and being acceptable to God – consciously for the Galatians, and perhaps unintentionally for us – then Christ’s work on the Cross will
be of no benefit to our Christian living. Why? Because we are doing all the work to cover our shame, when Christ offers daily forgiveness and a covering in His righteousness and the possibility of experiencing real righteousness in the Spirit!6 If we choose to pick up a righteousness of works again rather than a righteousness of faith, then the Christian life will just become just that: all work and no power, freedom or love in the midst of our failure and shame. But it was for this very freedom that Christ set us free.

The life of moralism, of hiding and covering, of using “obedience” or spirituality as a means to avoid painful self-awareness is an awful burden to bear for a human being. And it is a dread-
ful waste of time for a believer. Rather, let us be open to the Spirit, unafraid of seeing our sin and the daily need for Christ’s love and work on the Cross. And on that basis, in the light of our sin and His righteousness, in the light of full pardon and acceptance, let us freely give ourselves to a life of obedience and regimens of spiritual formation. As in our conversion, let us daily fly to the cross, to the Spirit, to forgiveness, to where love and its transforming power awaits.


1 For the full version of this article, see John Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit,” The Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, (Spring 2008).

2 “The main point of Paul’s rhetorical question here, however, has to do with the incongruity of beginning one’s Christian life on this basis (“with the Spirit”) and then shifting somewhere to another basis (“by human effort”). What Paul wants his converts to see is that the Christian life is one that starts, is maintained, and comes to culmination only through dependence on the activity of God’s Spirit . . . ” Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary (Word Books: Dallas, 1990), 103-104.

3 For a very thoughtful and helpful account of guilt, shame, the conscience and godly sorrow, see S. Bruce Narramore, No Condemnation: Rethinking Guilt Motivation in Counseling, Preaching and Parenting (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984).

4 For more in-depth and helpful accounts on the doctrines of justification and imputation, see W. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 724-729; G. T. Shedd, Systematic Theology, 793-800 and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 953-959.

5 Theologians distinguish between the “passive obedience” of Christ on the cross in atoning for sin so that our sins could be imputed to Christ and the “active obedience” of Christ throughout his life, meriting a righteousness before God that would be imputed to the believer. Cf. W. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 570-577 and W. T. Shedd, Systematic Theology, 799.

6 R. N. Longenecker observes on Galatians 3:2 the “severer tone” with which Paul addresses those tempted to turn back to legalism than prior in his letter and adds, “For Gentiles to revert to the prescriptions of the Jewish law as a necessary form of Christian lifestyle is, in effect, to make Christianity legalistic rather than Christocentric, and so, not to have Christ’s guidance in one’s life” (Galatians, 226).

John Coe Dr. Coe is a specialist in the philosophical and theological foundation of the integration of faith and learning. His research focuses on understanding the nature of spiritual and psychological health, the history of spirituality, the work of the Holy Spirit in personal change and the interface between psychology, spirituality and philosophy. A particular interest is in exploring approaches to spiritual direction as a complement to Christian psychotherapy. Dr. Coe is also the Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation.

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