Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, Veggie Tales was a Sunday School staple. Everybody knew about Bob and Larry, could sing the theme song by heart, and owned each and every one of the episodes on VHS. Each video taught a lesson, like unselfishness, loving your neighbour, honesty and forgiveness, and we kids loved it. By any standard, Veggie Tales was wildly successful.
So it was a bittersweet surprise when my newsfeed told me, years later, that Big Idea Productions had gone bankrupt and the original Veggie Tales was no more. I read an interview with Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, where he discussed his regrets about his company going south. But to my surprise, his biggest regrets were around Veggie Tales itself. He commented:
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,’ or, ‘Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!’ But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.
The morals taught by Veggie Tales weren’t the problem, per se. Forgiveness, honesty and being thankful for what you have are all good things to teach kids, each supported by Bible verses. But what Vischer is saying is that he was teaching kids how to “live right”, instead of teaching what Christian faith really means.
My sentimental attachment to Veggie Tales means I can’t be too hard on it. But these comments got me thinking about how easy it is to fall into moralising as Christians.
Human society is about ‘morality’
“Moralising” is talking about behaviour in terms of right and wrong, good and bad.
Human society is built on morality. Parents are expected to teach good morals as they rear their families. Teachers teach morals as they reward good behaviour from students. Police teach morals as they give out speeding fines. Judges teach morals as they deliver a sentence on a lawbreaker. It’s everywhere. Good people are what good people do.
Unfortunately, our natural inclination to morality wreaks havoc when we apply it to Christian life.
Too often in church communities, we expect that once someone professes their faith in Christ, they need to act like it. We expect believers in Christ to be good law-abiding citizens who respect their neighbours, attend church every week, and have no secret scandals or past. We expect believers in Christ to subscribe to all the right social causes and hold all the right personal convictions. We want them to get their ducks in a row.
None of these things may be bad things to do. But this is not the gospel, and “doing right”, by itself, is only about outward appearances. Albert Mohler commented:
Just as parents rightly teach their children to obey moral instruction, the church also bears responsibility to teach its own the moral commands of God and to bear witness to the larger society of what God has declared to be right and good for His human creatures.
But these impulses, right and necessary as they are, are not the gospel. Indeed, one of the most insidious false gospels is a moralism that promises the favour of God and the satisfaction of God’s righteousness to sinners if they will only behave and commit themselves to moral improvement.
The moralist impulse in the church reduces the Bible to a codebook for human behaviour and substitutes moral instruction for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Quick quiz. Look at the following list of statements about faith and see which ones you agree or disagree with.
1. If you teach children the commands of God, they will grow up to be good Christians.
2. Your Sunday School teaching should centre on the love that man should have for God.
3. All people must do something for their salvation, namely believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour.
4. Children learn to trust in God through the Law, which shows them the need for a Saviour.
5. Christ has redeemed all men, believer as well as unbeliever.
6. When we have faith in Christ, we will lead a good life.
7. If you are sorry for your sins, then God will forgive you.
Was it easy? Some of the answers on this list aren’t obvious. Some might sound like something you’ve said yourself. What it illustrates is how insidious this twisted gospel of moralism can be.
When we equate the gospel with “living a good life”, we remove Jesus from the equation and become no better than Pharisees. We shift the focus from God’s grace onto our own performance. This is what troubled Vischer about what he’d been teaching kids, but it’s just as easy for adults to fall into the same trap.
God’s society is about grace
So, good morals are not the gospel. What is?
It’s this: While we had turned our backs on God, Jesus took our sin on himself and died under the terror of God’s judgment, then rose again. This was what was needed to right the wrongs we’d committed, and we are now able to be right with God (Romans 5:8).
That’s it. All we do is accept what’s already been done because, as John Piper wrote, “the connection between the sinner and the Saviour is trust, not improvement of behaviour”.
When we are in Christ, we are instantly new creatures (2 Corinthians chapter 5 verses 17-20), and we didn’t earn this in any way. So we act in a godly way not because we’re told to, but out of gratitude to God. It’s grace that spills over into how we relate to God, ourselves and others.
Understanding the grace of God is mind-bending, because moralising comes so easily to us. I’ve realised how I struggle to understand the real gospel, instead of morality. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But I am so glad that living a Christian life isn’t about “being good”; it’s about accepting what God did for us. That is really good news.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians chapter 12 verses 5-10)
Cheryl McGrath is a communications and editing professional at the Christian mission organisation CMS Victoria. She loves words, op shops and dogs, and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html