The false gospel of moralistic deism

Matt Chandler
The antithesis of the gospel of the grace of the Triune God given to us in the person of Jesus, is a moralistic deism (sometimes referred to as moralistic therapeutic deism) that posits a distant God whose relationship with us is grounded in a system of moral religion.

From this viewpoint, Jesus is our Savior in an historic sense, but now relates to us as a great moral teacher whose perfect moral example we are called to emulate. The Holy Spirit is then given to help us do so.

I'm grateful that some well-known contemporary evangelical leaders, like Matt Chandler, are speaking out against this false gospel. To view videos of other leaders addressing this issue, click here.


Ted Johnston said…
Pastor Jim Valekis, quoting T.F. Torrance, wrote in his daily Bible study today something that relates directly to this topic:

"Everything necessary for being and behaving as a Christian is inherent within and derived from the One with whom we have spiritually identified and united, Jesus Christ. Being and living as a Christian is not a religious exercise of conformity to the example of the historic life of Jesus Christ, striving to be Christ-like.

"Attempts to pattern one's behavior after that of Jesus amount to nothing more than self-serving attempts to "parrot" or "ape" the behavior-pattern of another.

"The Christian life is not an imitation of Jesus, but the manifestation of His life and character in our behavior, 'that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal body' (2 Cor. 4:10,11)."
I'm reading "The Spirit of the Disciplines" by Dallas Willard, and wishing I had done so years ago. He writes similarly to Torrance's quote, with an additional twist: not merely 'imitation' but investing our time in spiritual preparation as Jesus did, in order to live in Christ fully.

Some Christians live merely asking "WWJD?" as though they can instantly and with full assurance both know and choose to do exactly as Jesus would, but without spending the hours in prayer and the other disciplines, seeking God's face like Jesus did. It's as though we believe anyone can throw like Tebow just by looking at a still picture of his passing stance and holding one's arm the same way; but without the dogged hours of weight training, aerobic exercise and repetitious (probably boring) practice.

Willard writes on page 9 "The secret of the easy yoke, then, is to learn from Christ how to live our total lives, how to invest all our time and our energies of mind and body as he did. We must learn how to follow his preparations, the disciplines for life in God's rule that enabled him to receive his Father's constant and efective support while doing his will." That's not a moralistic life, as though life consists of making all the right choices all the time; but a life of devoted following, such that we will be able to understand and do the will of God through ongoing communion with the Triune God.
Anonymous said…
It is hard for us to connect the dots. But this post points towards a chance to do so. For instance:

Luke 6:37-38--“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (NIV)

Ah, yes, it sounds so easy, doesn't it? And popular Christianity has manufactured a sweet, sickly Jesus to tell us that it is all so doable so that we can indeed please God and live a great Christian life. But the harsh truth is that we can't do any of the "righteous things" Jesus said to do, especially to the high performance levels He set.

However, a different Jesus than the sweet, sickly Jesus was the one who actually walked this earth 2000 years ago. This Jesus was and still is oh so mighty, powerful, and God. When viewed this way, the words Christianity often uses to tell people how to live become something different. These words become provoking taunts filled with urgency, authority, and a strong emphasis on just how pathetic we humans are at living righteous, approval deserving, lives. In other words, Jesus' words now become, "Why can't you do better?" or as Luke writes:

Luke 6:46--“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (NIV)

Well again, if we are to be frank about the answer, it is that we simply can't do what He said, and that is the point of Jesus' taunts to those people back then and to all those who do not live in belief. However, the fix that God puts forth and that the rarely listened to New Covenant declares is that Jesus can and does fix our situation and makes us better. In fact, He fixes things so much that the fix is complete, final, and forever. All we do is rest in belief in His name.

So, what does that mean to you? Well, it means that you don't need to run around doing this, that, or the other thing to be better. On the purely human level, you are as "better" as you are going to get, which, for me anyway, is not very good. You can't, even though there are all sorts of messages out there telling you otherwise, study, pray, fast, tithe, or meditate enough to be better with God or the Christian life. Instead, Jesus is right now better for you and in you, and He is all the better you need.

Oh! When you acknowledge His life in you, He will not taunt you. Instead, He walks with you as your dear, encouraging friend forever.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Jerome Ellard said…
Thanks for your post, Mr. Parker! A very poignant picture: "He walks with you as your dear, encouraging friend forever." I thought of the scriptures that encourage us to give up our lives in order to gain real life. To sacrifice our own lives (taking up our cross)so that Christ's life might be manifest in us. Surrender instead of strive - the only path to true life as a Christian - it seems so counterintuitive to our human ways, doesn't it?
Mike Hale said…
I appreciate Jerome's helpful comment about surrender, and would add that such humble surrender also brings great joy, which also seems counter-intuitive.

I particularly appreciate Richard's comment that, "you are as "better" as you are going to get.....[because] Jesus is right now better for you and in you, and He is all the better you need. 
When you acknowledge His life in you, He will not taunt you.  Instead, He walks with you as your dear, encouraging friend forever."

The phrase "you are as 'better' as you are going to get" is a real keeper!!!  Being continually prodded by people to somehow 'do better and do more' is not the way to go, and tends to rob us of the joy of the Lord. 

At the same time, God is not static, and our life in Christ will not be static either.  So I would say that in Jesus (the Immanuel that is God with us and for us), and with the creative loving leading of the Holy Spirit, we are provided the God-given desire to keep our eyes on the finished work of Jesus -- including reading the Bible and other helpful material (hey, even blogs!) praying (though not with some 'standard' of where, when, or how much or how long) having Christian fellowship, and the outward sharing of our life in Christ in whatever fashion the creative move of the Spirit is doing with us. 

And part of the point is that there is joy in that journey when we are doing it in and through Christ as he walks with us.  There is joy and it glorifies God.

One of the things that give me the most joy is writing about, or singing about or talking about the freedom that is in Christ, and I'm sure that is a great joy to many readers of this blog as well. 

But this is so very different than the continual prodding of folks with their 'measuring sticks' trying to help us be better and better.  Not much joy there.
Anonymous said…
I really like what you are saying and I want to believe it's true. But I keep getting my thinking pushed back on when I go to church and also read some passages in the Bible. Our pastor is doing a series on the 7 Churches in Revelation. Jesus has flames in his eyes and has very harsh words for these churches. Thyatira was compared to the modern day church and individual who is a relativist rather than absolutist. Our pastor said that we need to wake up because Jesus is not limitless in his grace, mercy, and patience. This really upsets me and I don't have answers. Can anyone shed some light on this?
Ted Johnston said…
Dear anonymous,

I hope you'll keep reading this blog. And I encourage you to review older posts where some of your concerns are addressed.

Unfortunately, it is common for people to see in Revelation the unveiling of a Jesus different than the one we find in the Gospels and the Epistles. But that would be to misread this important book.

Revelation was written as encouragement and exhortation to Christians facing terrible persecution from the Roman government. The book assures them that Jesus who died for them is alive and fully in control, despite earthly appearances to the contrary. The exhortation is to remain faithful to Jesus - to worship him, and him alone. The messages to the seven churches in Revelation make this point in particular ways to particular congregations.

The message is not that at some point the grace of God, in Christ, "runs out." Rather, the point is that our ability to enjoy that grace can be diminished, and even overthrown by turning away from the one source of that grace - the incarnate life of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The one who assures us elsewhere that "I will never leave you or forsake you" is not now taking his promise back. Rather he is exhorting us - "Don't leave or forsake me."

It's important to note here that God's grace is not a *commodity* that is dolled out, and thus has a limit as to its quantity. Rather God's grace is a *person* - the God-man Jesus Christ. And Jesus is revealed in Revelation and elsewhere in Scripture to be the eternal Son of God who, through the Incarnation, permanently added our humanity to his divinity.

And this incarnate Son of God, through his life, death, resurrection, ascension and continuing ministry of intercession, permanently and continuously unites all humanity to himself and thus permanently extends his love and life (God's grace) to all people.

The invitation to all people is thus to believe this truth, and in believing, to personally experience the life that is ours in Jesus.
The invitation/exhortation of Revelation should thus be seen as a message to believers (primarily) and to non-believers (secondarily) to not allow the cares of this life, and even the terrible persecutions wrought by forces of evil, to turn their loyalties away from this Jesus, who is both the Lamb and the Lion of God. Part of Jesus' unrelenting love for all people, is his white-hot fury, portrayed in vivid symbols in Revelation.

This fury of Christ is not contrary to his love and grace, but a fundamental expression of it. Jesus is furious about anything that should hurt his Father's dearly loved children (all humanity). And at the end of days, he will return bodily in his glorified humanity to put a final end to all such evil.

This declaration is encouragement and reassurance to those who suffer, and exhortation to those tempted to turn their allegiance away from Jesus to the forces of evil which he conquered at the cross.
Ted Johnston said…
Dear anonymous,

For a helpful overview of the book of Revelation, I recommend reading the article posted at
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much, Ted. I read the article you referenced and am now literally feasting myself on the wealth of interviews and articles on that website. I think am finding what my soul has been longing and searching for even though I've been in Christendom for a long time. I keep crying each time I read an article or listen to an interview. I am overwhelmed and so excited to read all of the blog as well. Thanks again!
Ted Johnston said…
You are most welcome. I'm very thankful to God that this material is of help to you. The gospel truly is good news.
Ted Johnston said…
In a recent "Out of Ur" blog post, Skye Jethani comments on what Matt Chandler says about moralistic deism:

As Matt Chandler explained, [many of the] de-churched are fed, knowingly or unknowingly, a false gospel of morality. They believe that if they just follow God's rules he will bless their lives. When things fail to work out as promised, they bail on the church.

Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion, has called this belief MTD—moralistic therapeutic deism. I prefer a more sinister and downright damnable name: Moralistic Divination—the belief that one can control and manipulate God's actions through moral behaviors....
Anonymous said…
I appreciate that Matt has given us the language to describe movements such as "True Love Waits" or the "Pro-Life" movement. ("moral diesm") I have been bothered by the fact that the bottom line for such movements is morality based and could fit into many worldviews - even secular humanism. If God really stepped on this world as Jesus, it seems that he should have left us something more than sin lists to refrain from doing.

Matt's analysis of the state of mind of the de-churched is probably more complicated than this short clip reveals, however.
Anonymous said…
I was brought up in a very fundamentalist Calvinistic environment as well at home as in private grade and high schools.
I prayed at least 6 times daily along with bible reading at least 8 times a week for the first 25 years of my life.
Then I was introduced to Deism and I embraced it. It felt wonderful (and still does) to throw off the religious yoke with all of its superstitions, inconsistencies, cruelties and contradictions. I do feel rather sorry for the people believing in the man created vindictive bible God!
Anonymous said…
Greetings Anonymous,

I found your upbringing very interesting, and very similar to my own. Though not Calvinist, it was highly fundamentalist. I was taught to gain God’s favor with regular prayer and bible study, like you. Our peculiar sect of “Christianity” believed that all followers of God must keep most of the laws found in the Old Testament. Notice I said most, because, (like you have noticed), there were inconsistencies.

I grew up observing the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments, which meant never working, or “doing your own thing” from Friday sundown, to Saturday sundown. I was unable to be a part of school activities if they took place during this time. Observance of the Sabbath, and other Holydays, made many occupations difficult, if not impossible. We found it hard to feel part of our communities, because of our aversion to military duty, and our dietary standards, which forbade the consumption of pork, and other “unclean meats”. We tithed twenty percent of our income, and even gave a “third tithe” every seven years. As you can see, we had more than ample reason to believe that God was beholden to bless us. I’m sure that I became comfortable with the idea of being alone at the top.

However, when our fellowship was blessed with a better understanding of God’s current covenant with New Testament believers, the “Yoke” was lifted. It felt strange at first, but the relief of freedom was wonderful. Many who write and read this blog have shared my experience, so we know well of what you speak.

When this blog speaks of Moralistic Deism, it is speaking exactly of what you seem to have rejected. In fact, it is probably the real beliefs of much of western Evangelicalism. What I see in this term, is the belief that God created humanity, but has little regard for our problems. He did send his Son to give us a legal loophole in his justice system, but gaining entrance through that crack, requires us to copy the model of behavior given to us by Jesus. The fact that most of the world’s population hasn’t had access to this info, is of little concern to God. No one can be sure if they are following it close enough. No one really wants to get too close to the Father, since he is known to go ballistic…look what he did to his own son.

From your comment, you seem to have a different definition of Deism. What is your definition?