“Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; 

I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” 

Matthew 5:17


Tunes we hear as children often stay with us as adults. Who doesn’t know Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star? Even after many decades, who couldn’t start a round of Wheels on a Bus? Children’s songs are nostalgic, bringing us back to a time of simplicity and safety—who can’t hear their mom singing a sweet lullaby in their ear? 

Today’s Siren also has a childhood song. It’s the song of moralism—the chorus we heard growing up, the melody that plays in the background of our mind, and the ditty we hum to ourselves without even realizing it. Be Nice is the title. Do good things is the refrain. And God will accept you is the message.

It’s the song that prioritizes external behavior. In Christian circles, it sounds like this: Put something in the offering plate and say your evening prayers, and then God will bless you; you’ll put a smile on His face and earn His favor. After all, “God helps those who help themselves.” Right?1 

An Oldie, But Baddie

Moralism is an oldie—the song the Pharisees sang as they followed their man-made rules for righteousness, measuring personal holiness by external benchmarks and their own legalistic traditions. But it is not a goodie. It is a damning song that dismisses God’s requirement for acceptance and spurns Jesus’ words, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). 

Jesus Was No Moralist

Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus addressed a person's inner condition over their external obedience. He searched hearts; He didn’t offer lists to cross off. He called His hearers to recognize their spiritual bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3); He didn’t give boxes to check. Jesus pleaded with men to sorrow over sin, humble themselves, and seek a righteousness they could not earn (Matthew 5:4-6). 

The contrast was unmistakable. Jesus taught that only “the pure in heart…shall see God” (Matthew 5:8), while the moralistic Pharisees promised divine acceptance based upon ritual adherence (Mark 7:3-4). No wonder Jesus said, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20)—a standard that still applies today. 

Cleaning Up the Moralistic Mess

Moralistic righteousness is the context of Jesus’ mission statement in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” 

For centuries, the Pharisees had elevated their oral traditions to the status of Scripture. According to the Talmud, “It [was] more culpable to teach against the ordinances of the scribes than against the Torah itself.”2 The rabbis commanded, “Give more heed to the words of the rabbis than to the words of the Law.”3 They even warned, “He who transgresses the word of the scribes throws away his life.”4 By opposing the Pharisees’ moralistic application of the Old Testament, Jesus knew He was stepping into dangerous territory. 

Thus, to avoid any misunderstanding, Jesus defended His heart-probing teaching from the outset. Yes, His teaching would differ significantly from the religious leaders’ hallowed traditions, but He was not “abolishing the Law” in any way. He was fulfilling it—filling out the Law’s true meaning, something the Pharisees had covered up for centuries. 

This is why the next 31 verses of Matthew 5 are framed by the statement, “You have heard it said…but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21–22; 27–28; 31–32; 33–34; 38–39; 43–44). Jesus was cleaning up the moralistic mess the Pharisees had made. He was contrasting His gospel with theirs, making it clear that no amount of outward obedience (“you have heard it said”) could ever earn acceptance into God’s presence (“but I say to you”). The righteousness God requires must surpass the Pharisees’ external behavior. Nothing less than a sinless mind, righteous motives, and flawless attitudes would suffice.. 

Exposing the Heinousness of Hate

Jesus began to unmask the Pharisees’ moralistic gospel by setting His sights on their view of murder. “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court’” (Matthew 5:21). Who would disagree with that? Murder is a heinous sin (Exodus 20:13). 

But Jesus was not disparaging the sixth commandment. He was showing how shallowly the Pharisees had interpreted it. Simply checking off the box, “I did not murder,” was never what God intended—though that is what the Pharisees taught. God demanded much more. His requirement ran much deeper. He was looking for a murder-free spirit, a heart without hatred, and a mouth free from insulting speech. 

This is why Jesus added, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matthew 5:22–23). 

Quite a contrast, isn’t it? Even the unseen sins of anger and hatred, and the all-too-common sin of insulting words, are worthy of hell. This is no moralistic message. 

Condemning an Adulterous Mind

Jesus then turned to the Pharisees’ superficial application of sexual purity. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” (Matthew 5:27). Again, Jesus was not calling into question the Law, but the Pharisees’ application of it. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). 

The contrast is once again clear. Moralism defines sexual purity as an adultery-free life. It is a standard that can be reached. A box that can be checked. But according to Jesus, sexual purity is measured by freedom from lust on the inside. Jesus even upped the ante and equated sexual purity with a commitment to mortify fleshly desires in the most severe of ways: 

 But I say to you…If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell (Matthew 5:28–30).  

Are you seeing how superficial the moralistic gospel is? How powerless it is to unlock the gates to God’s kingdom? How impossible it is to keep Jesus’ perfect standard?  

 Denouncing a Pick and Choose Religion

Jesus also exposed the Pharisees’ application of the Exodus 21:24 command, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’” (Matthew 5:38). The Pharisees had turned God’s law on its head! They measured righteousness by personal retribution. They took a law meant to curb sinful retaliation and used it to justify personal vendettas. 

This is what moralism always does: It picks and chooses what it wants to obey. In this case, the Pharisees rejected Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart...You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in its place, they chose eye-for-eye payback. Why? Because moralism always panders to our fallen nature. It never spurs us to true godliness. It always sets the bar to its lowest level. 

But according to Jesus, true righteousness is measured by selfless love and interpersonal forgiveness—each an issue of the heart. “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39–42). 

Jesus Obliterates Today's Moralistic Message

Can you feel the weight of Jesus’ words? Can you sense the unreachable standard He has set? Are you beginning to ask, Who will ever enter the kingdom of heaven? I hope so—because that is the question Jesus is driving towards.  

No one has kept his mouth free from angry words or his heart pure of sinful desire. No one has shown selfless love flawlessly. But that is the righteousness Jesus is commanding. That is the perfection God requires, which is why Jesus concluded with these words: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  

While moralism sets the bar to an achievable height, Jesus sets the standard farther than we can reach. The Lord requires perfection. Nothing less will do. 

 Christ, the Only Righteousness God Will Accept

The Siren’s moralistic song tells us that we are good enough to appease a holy God. It assures us that our external deeds can open heaven’s door. But Christ’s Gospel rings a far different tune. We are nowhere close to being good enough in God’s eyes. We fall short every moment of every day. But not Christ! He is the only One who knew no sin. And through faith in Him, God does what no moralistic gospel can do—He credits to us the very righteousness He requires, the only righteousness He will accept (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

Who, then, will God allow into His presence? Only the sinner who acknowledges the futility of his external morality and clings to the unsullied righteousness of Christ alone—for only Jesus can say, “I am perfect, as My heavenly Father is perfect.” 



Since the moralistic Gospel has been embedded within us from our youth, we must strive to drown out its noise. The only way to do this is by guarding against moralism’s subtleties, realizing the evil of our secret sins, and replacing this Siren song with a more excellent melody. 

Beware of Superficial Application of God's Word

Christians are expected to be doers of the Word and not hearers only (James 1:22). Yet, if not careful, we can unknowingly become like the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized—those who applied Scripture in shallow ways. 

How do you know if you are applying God’s word moralistically? Note the following examples: 

  • You create a checklist of ethical principles that fall short of the Bible’s clear commands. 
  • You are satisfied with external duty without allowing the Bible to confront your pride, self-love, anger, and lust. 
  • You treat obedience as a means of earning God’s blessing. 

Of course, there are other ways morality rears its ugly head. But the undistracted Christian refuses to limit the Bible’s impact to only the surface level of his life. Instead, he lets the Word drill into his heart, asks the Spirit to uncover his sinful motives, and prays for his conscience to be convicted and complete repentance to be granted. 

Remember God's Perfect Knowledge of Your Secret Sins5 

Moralism loves the visible and does everything it can to hide the secret sins of the heart. It explains away lust, justifies anger, and dismisses selfishness—each time offering this assurance: No one was hurt and so no one will know. 

But isn’t that what Jesus confronted in Matthew 5? Didn’t Jesus warn that even unseen lust deserves hell’s fire? Isn’t Adam and Eve’s failed attempt to cover their sin Exhibit A, proving that sin can never be hidden from omniscient God? 

What silences the moralistic gospel of our day? Remembering that God sees our hidden sins, never forgetting that our ways are always before Him (Psalm 119:168), and believing that “there is no darkness or deep shadow where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves” (Job 34:22). The question is this: Will you care more about God’s all-seeing eye or man’s limited view?  

Oh, may the omniscient God bear more weight upon your soul. 

Treasure God's Grace More than Your Good Deeds

The answer to question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism is the song we must daily sing because it is the only song that drowns out the moralistic melodies that play so subtly in our day. 

Question 60: How are you righteous before God? 

Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.6 

Yes, God is a demanding God. And yes, His righteous standard has not changed. But no, you do not need to earn His favor. Because “there is…no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1). 

Treasure God’s saving grace more than your good deeds. Cherish Jesus’ sinless perfection more than your flawed submission. And rejoice that, through faith in Christ, God sees you “as if you had never committed any sin, and had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled.” 


[1] The Barna Group indicates that 68% of Christians believe this often-cited cliché. See: https://www.9marks.org/article/god-helps-those-who-help-themselves/ (accessed February 6, 2024). 

[2] As quoted in Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 47. 

[3] J.W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1952), 281. 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] This section was influenced by Mark Jones, Knowing Sin (Chicago: Moody Press, 2022), 91-100. 

[6] https://heidelblog.net/2015/03/only-by-true-faith/ (accessed February 6, 2024). John Bunyan puts this principle into autobiographical form in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: “As I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand: there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, He [lacks] My righteousness; for that was just before Him. I also saw moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, not yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, The same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” John Bunyan, Grace Abounding: With Other Spiritual Autobiographies. Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 37.