Moralism and the Evangelical Crack-up


While we seldom carry articles about theology, per se, there are times when movements or events in evangelicalism simply require that they be viewed through a specifically theological lens.

To the outsider, Protestantism appears as negatively and positively charged sub-atomic particles, in constant motion, attracting and repelling one another, an impenetrable maze of mergers, splits and schisms. For the hardliners there is no point of doctrine or practice, however small, which lacks the power to divide. Conversely, for the Joiners, there is neither heresy so heinous nor affectation so absurd that it cannot be overlooked in the pursuit of unity. We are, indeed, a perplexing bunch.

Yet, over the course of the centuries, there are some battle lines that have remained more or less constant and, consequently, may well mark the tipping points of orthodoxy. To most Protestants, such issues as common cup, defining (or adjuring) holy days, the vagaries of historically-conditioned liturgies, split chancels, collared clergy, etc. are worth arguing about within our own local churches, but we seem content to let the folks down the street continue blithely in their errors. In short, we haven’t mentally ex-communicated them because we grudgingly have to admit that what really separates believers from unbelievers is probably something a lot more important than any of those other things.

Yet, along the way we have witnessed an uncomfortably large number of individuals, as well as churches and entire denominations, fall so profoundly under the influence of certain ideas that they are soon quite demonstrably not talking about the same gospel as the rest of us. It simply won’t do to toss the epithets of “Calvinist” or “Arminian” about and think we’re done with the matter, because truth be known, the vast majority of today’s so-called Arminians routinely drop to their knees and pray that God will save one of their unbelieving relatives, or otherwise sovereignly intervene in the affairs of men and change hearts, change lives and, yes, change history.

Ah, and let’s not get started for what passes for Calvinism these days. If today’s Arminians act better than their theology, those of us on my side of the debate act a good deal worse. The great 16th Century movement that flooded the nations with missionaries, and whose preaching toppled kings and kingdoms is too often represented in our own era by a smug presumption that were our theological knowledge likened unto a fleet of magnificently crafted fishing vessels, they would catch all of the fish God intended to be caught if—if, mind you—we were of a mind to leave the harbor.1Credit Dr. Jim West of City Seminary for this telling indictment of how we in the Reformed camp presume upon our legacy.

No, despite the historic battle lines, we all know far too many genuine believers in the other camp for this divide to constitute the Evangelical Crack-up. Whether God sends a precise theological acumen along with His saving grace is His business, whether we like it or not. No, the great divide has to do with the ground of our salvation, and on this point the broad consensus in evangelicalism is that we are saved by the blood of Christ, shed on the cross of Calvary to pay the debt for our sins, and that if we come to Christ in faith, He will in no wise turn us away.

Now, the Galatian church was beguiled by what Paul calls another gospel. Many of the early Jewish Christians wanted to require believers to also practice circumcision, dietary laws, etc. It was faith, plus something else. For American Protestantism, it may start out as “faith plus,” but it’s far more likely to be something that presumes the gospel.

I happened across a blog post the other day from a fellow Southerner who writes under the pseudonym B.M. Palmer, and who had this to say about the old Bible Belt;

“You see, the South is slam full of churches; it’s covered up with them like ticks on a redbone hound, in fact. But the churches of the South are largely gospel-less gatherings that largely teach what Christian Smith has called therapeutic moralistic deism. Our Southern churches have begun the dangerous process of assuming the gospel; once that happens, you’re only one generation away from apostasy.”

How is it that a “cause” that begins as a “ministry”, for example, can eventually replace the very heart and soul of the church’s witness in the world? The cause is usually, though not always a good one. It might be abolitionism, temperance, or as simple as good manners. It often begins as an entirely appropriate consequence of our salvation. American slavery, for example, involved the capture and sale of free men and women, something utterly without biblical foundation. Christians ought to have opposed it and many, albeit not all, did.

The rub was that soon the preaching of the gospel took a back seat to the “cause.” When confronted with a great evil, it is maddeningly easy to let the urgency of addressing it overshadow our proclamation of the gospel. It took a darker turn still during the Temperance movement, where implicit in the rhetoric was the notion that what we really needed to do was clean up the sinner and get him fit for salvation. Men who ought to have known better were easily drawn into the “faith plus” web of Moralism, the imperative to do this or that as prerequisite to repentance and faith. Lest we get tangled up in contemporary personalities, let’s look back a generation or two and see just how profoundly different the preaching of the gospel becomes under the influence of Moralism.

Two men with enormous followings in 20th Century evangelicalism were prolific writer Aiden Wilson Tozer, long associated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Henry Ironside, whose long association with Moody Bible Institute capped a life devoted to preaching the blood of Christ. My mother worked at the lunch counter at the drug store down the street from Moody Church in Chicago and often served Dr. Ironside lunch. Her father (my grandfather) was Superintendent of the Calvary Gospel Mission on Halsted Street. Years later, my mother and father (himself a rescue mission convert) would run the skid row mission in Roanoke, Virginia.

It so happened that Rev. Ironside was travelling through the South and stopped in Roanoke one evening. Never one to miss an opportunity for fellowship, he sought out the local rescue mission and discovered that they had an evening service. To his surprise, the young woman who greeted him at the door was the same girl who had often served him lunch. Two local Presbyterian brothers, the “Horner boys”3 James and Richard “Dick” Horner. I had the privilege of worshiping at Garst Mill Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Roanoke many years later, a church founded by Richard and pastored for 33 years by Dick, who continues as Pastor Emeritus.
These quotations come from a famous Henry Ironside sermon preached (and frequently reprinted) entitled “What is the Gospel?”
, were scheduled to conduct the service that night. “You boys figure out which of you is preaching tonight because Henry Ironside will be in the audience.” After a very brief conference, the two Horner boys decided that Dr. Ironside should preach, to which he graciously consented.
Ironside had first set up a makeshift outdoor church at the age of 11. When no preacher would come and preach, he took to his homemade pulpit and regularly spoke to a large gathering of neighborhood children and, often, a number of adults. While I share my Reformed brethren’s disagreements with Dispensationalism, I have known far too many wonderful believers among the Dispensationalists to question the evidences of grace in their lives.

When it came to this business of the gospel, Henry Ironside would have none of the moralism and works salvation that abounded in his day, and in ours. “The Gospel is not a call to repentance,” he proclaimed, “or to amendment of our ways, to make restitution for past sins, or to promise to do better in the future. These things are proper in their place, but they do not constitute the Gospel; for the Gospel is not good advice to be obeyed, it is good news to be believed. Do not make the mistake then of thinking that the Gospel is a call to duty or a call to reformation, a call to better your condition, to behave yourself in a more perfect way than you have been doing in the past.

“Nor is the Gospel a demand that you give up the world, that you give up your sins, that you break off bad habits, and try to cultivate good ones. You may do all these things, and yet never believe the Gospel and consequently never be saved at all.”4

He wasn’t done. While making short work of the theological liberalism of his day, he minced no words when it came to the condescending presumptions of the academy.

“So in our great universities and colleges men study this Science of Comparative Religions, and they compare all these different religious systems one with another,” wrote Ironside. “There is a Science of Comparative Religions, but the Gospel is not one of them. All the different religions in the world may well be studied comparatively, for at rock bottom they are all alike; they all set men at trying to earn his own salvation. They may be called by different names, and the things that men are called to do may be different in each case, but they all set men trying to save their own souls and earn their way into the favor of God. In this they stand in vivid contrast with the Gospel, for the Gospel is that glorious message that tells us what God has done for us in order that guilty sinners may be saved.”

In the great battle for the souls of men, the believing church could shout a hearty “Amen” for such boldness. And remember, this was not the boldness of a big fish in a small pond, this was boldness from a man whose prominence opened doors into the parlors of America’s elite. Such things, however, mattered little to a man who would preach whenever and wherever asked. Nor was Ironside reluctant to speak forthrightly even when a guest. On that trip to Virginia, he was invited to speak at a local church and had this to say about the evening.

“I was preaching in a church in Virginia, and a minister prayed, ‘Lord, grant Thy blessing as the Word is preached tonight. May it be the means of causing people to fall in love with the Christ-life, that they may begin to live the Christ-life.’ I felt like saying, ‘Brother, sit down; don’t insult God like that;’ but then I felt I had to be courteous, and I knew that my turn would come, when I could get up and give them the truth. The Gospel is not asking men to live the Christ-life. If your salvation depends upon your doing that, you are just as good as checked for Hell, for you never can live it in yourself. It is utterly impossible. But the very first message of the Gospel is the story of the vicarious atonement of Christ. He did not come to tell men how to live in order that they might save themselves; He did not come to save men by living His beautiful life. That, apart from His death, would never have saved one poor sinner. He came to die; He ‘was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death.’ Christ Jesus gave Himself a ransom for all. When He instituted the Lord’s Supper He said, ‘Take, eat: this is My body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of Me. . . This cup is the new covenant in My Blood’ (1 Cor. 11:24,25) There is no Gospel if the vicarious death of Jesus is left out, and there is no other way whereby you can be saved than through the death of the blessed spotless Son of God.”

A.W. Tozer

Lest we think that moralism, this busyness of saving one’s self, can only creep in once the gospel has been abandoned, no less a personage than Aiden Wilson Tozer was rightly criticized for his error on this point. Tozer lived on South Halsted Street, the same street as my grandfather’s mission and, of course, all in the city of Chicago. His two most famous books were The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy. We have all met and known Christians who count these among the most influential books they have read. Yet, even so prominent an evangelical as Tozer was not immune to the seductive power of moralism. In 1955, he wrote an essay entitled No Regeneration Without Reformation which begins:

“In the Bible the offer of pardon on the part of God is conditioned upon intention to reform on the part of man. There can be no spiritual regeneration till there has been a moral reformation. That this statement requires defense only proves how far from the truth we have strayed. In our current popular theology pardon depends upon faith alone. The very word reform has been banished from among the sons of the Reformation!”

It’s important not to twist the words of another and one might conclude that he simply misspoke. Although he repeats the notion quite forcefully, at the same time he dismisses the notion that man can save himself. Those who followed in his footsteps, as is often the case, missed the caveat. Instead, we are left with the central thrust of his words:

“We often hear the declaration,’I do not preach reformation; I preach regeneration.’ Now we recognize this as being the expression of a commendable revolt against the insipid and unscriptural doctrine of salvation by human effort. But the declaration as it stands contains real error, for it opposes reformation to regeneration. Actually the two are never opposed to each other in sound Bible theology. The not-reformation-but-regeneration doctrine incorrectly presents us with an either-or; either you take reformation or you take regeneration. This is inaccurate. The fact is that on this subject we are presented not with an either-or, but with a both-and. The converted man is both reformed and regenerated. And unless the sinner is willing to reform his way of living he will never know the inward experience of regeneration. This is the vital truth which has gotten lost under the leaves in popular evangelical theology.

The idea that God will pardon a rebel who has not given up his rebellion is contrary both to the Scriptures and to common sense.”

Yet this self-same author would write that “Christianity takes for granted the absence of any self-help and offers a power which is nothing less than the power of God.” It is this seeming intellectual schizophrenia that challenges us to be careful indeed when presuming to widen or narrow the doors of heaven. Tozer himself said “The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.” Tozer’s real problem was, arguably, an incorrect ordo salutis, i.e. the “order of salvation.” Getting repentance, faith and regeneration out of order is serious business and leads to serious errors, but it is still something quite different than altogether substituting works in the place of regeneration, faith and repentance—for surely, that is what moralism does most effectively.

Consider a Christian that becomes obsessively devoted to a cause that is completely consonant with their evangelical faith, e.g. as the pro-life movement, or the campaign against human trafficking, or the campaign for traditional marriage. There are meetings to attend, arguments to post, and clinics to picket. Another brother may conclude that the kingdom depends upon the election or defeat of this or that candidate. I’ve spent most of my life working in and around politics, and I would be the first to tell you that if our salvation depends upon the election of the best among us, we’re in deep trouble. Yet, there is clearly a moral imperative that is ours once we come to saving faith. There are indeed moral, social and political aspects to the Christian faith, but they come at the end, not the beginning, and when movements take the place of the gospel of salvation in our daily lives, we have left the Great Commission by the wayside, and simply failed the test of discipleship.

1 Credit Dr. Jim West of City Seminary for this telling indictment of how we in the Reformed camp presume upon our legacy.
3 James and Richard “Dick” Horner. I had the privilege of worshiping at Garst Mill Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Roanoke many years later, a church founded by Richard and pastored for 33 years by Dick, who continues as Pastor Emeritus.
These quotations come from a famous Henry Ironside sermon preached (and frequently reprinted) entitled “What is the Gospel?”


1 Credit Dr. Jim West of City Seminary for this telling indictment of how we in the Reformed camp presume upon our legacy.
3 James and Richard “Dick” Horner. I had the privilege of worshiping at Garst Mill Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Roanoke many years later, a church founded by Richard and pastored for 33 years by Dick, who continues as Pastor Emeritus.
These quotations come from a famous Henry Ironside sermon preached (and frequently reprinted) entitled “What is the Gospel?”