As with anything we touch, even good behaviors and initiatives can be twisted to harmful effects in our lives. The Bible holds out many precepts and instructions for right behaviors that are “acceptable” and “pleasing” to God. These guidelines are helpful for Christians to discern how to make choices in harmony with God, instead of in violation of God. The twist is when we mistakenly attempt to leverage the good actions we might do to prop up our sense of our acceptability before God. Many children learn from parents’ responses that behaviors can evoke positive and negative responses; how much of this learning is projected onto our relationship with God, our father in heaven?
The performance trap that evangelicals are prone to (like the Pharisees that were rebuked by Jesus) is to view our actions as the basis of, or at least a contribution to, our acceptance by God. Do more of the “pleasing” actions, and the person is more “pleasing” to God. Do less of the actions, and the person is less pleasing to God. Pride easily sneaks in under the disguise of moral performance in our piety. We can look very good as those diligently serving God, but we may well be in danger of increasing our distance from God. Jesus repeated the divine rebuke from the Old Testament, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
Moralistic performance drives evangelicals to do the “right” things, however understood and defined. For example, we “should not” grieve as those who have no hope, so we are prone to detach from genuine sorrow, anguish, and anger over the death of a loved one. We “should” forgive those who wrong us, so we are prone to suppress bitterness when others wrong us without telling them the wrong and approaching real reconciliation (Luke 17:3-4). We “should” do ministry, so we volunteer for participation in home groups, outreach projects, and other church activities even when our Lord might not have called us to these things (and to the consequent neglect of other activities that we have been called to: marriage, children, friendships, personal experience of God, etc.). Sometimes, “doing” the right things can be the wrong things to do if these are not what we have been called to do (cf. John 17:4).
Jesus warned the Pharisees that pursuing moral performance made them a danger to others who look to them as models (i.e., children, family, other observers, as in our churches). Like unmarked graves that people walk over and are spiritually defiled for it, moral performers mislead others to go through the “right” motions of all the evangelical “shoulds” under the assumption that we are pleasing God by our performance. Like the Pharisees, moral performance tempts us to focus on the external action—the outward appearance of the cup and dish—while neglecting the hidden internal motions of our pride, envy, illusions of self-sufficiency, and fear. Distracting ourselves and others from the reality of our emotion, desires, and thought in the heart may win the approval of our moralistic co-conspirators for a time, but God is not fooled.
We may be concerned that evangelicals will live in the self-satisfied assurance that we have “believed the correct theology of grace” and may enjoy ourselves while waiting for the reward of everlasting life (hence Bonhoeffer’s critique of “cheap grace”). I agree that there is a risk that some people might misunderstand costly grace and overlook the cost of discipleship. The risk is that people will embrace God’s grace without selling out to their heavenly father and living as a true child and sibling to Jesus. The “ticket to Heaven” concept of salvation is certainly misleading.
What I doubt is that the proper remedy is to exhort people to action in the behaviors that are pleasing to God, as if religion alone were our mission. Yes, the actions can be good to do, and Scripture is clear that such goods are pleasing to God. But too much emphasis on our ability to please God through actions can boost pride and deflate real enthusiasm for Christian involvement with others. Instead of evangelical moralism, I think that justification means we are unchangeably 100 percent pleasing to God in Christ, with Jesus’ righteousness, so that no amount of good deeds can make us more pleasing to God. Instead of moral performance, the call to salvation is a lived existence in reconciliation with the Creator. The relationship of living with God as father in daily experience will take care of all the external expression of a heart in the process of divine renewal.
Indeed, there is a cost of discipleship, a price that we must pay of self-denial in daily life, as in the call to take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23). Moral performance cannot be the way we fulfill this cost. As a rebuke to the attractiveness of moral performance, Jesus warned about the Pharisees who were honored for their many actions that were ostensibly pleasing to God, as he said, “they have their reward in full” when Pharisees were praised by other people. Instead of grasping a form of godliness through doing the things that are said to please God, I am more concerned that we inwardly respond to the father who has made us pleasing to him through Jesus Christ. To know we are a delight to our father because we are in his Son is the only healthy starting place for our outward action.
The reason for this is that any other starting place for our self-perception, as in being able to please God by our actions, pulls us back into the performance rut. We will not be able to resist making judgments about ourselves (and others) that more performance means we are more pleasing, and less performance means we are more displeasing to God. Such calculations are natural for life in religion done from ourselves (as with the Pharisees). Sometimes right actions do shape the heart in healthy ways, but actions without relationship are deadly religion.
By contrast to moral performance, the gospel is a new starting point for living with God that cares less for performance—caring little for even tracking the actions that please God—because of a narrow focus on responding to God. Instead of looking to the external code (as in the Old Covenant) of duties to be performed, the New Covenant positions us to live with Jesus, as he says: “I do and say only what My Father tells Me.” Responding to our heavenly father, being moved by his Spirit, and being near to Jesus in the existential motions of our core experience (heart) is only the way home that is safe from the pitfalls of moral performance and self-satisfied apathy. Instead of working from our own good intentions and initiatives of “shoulds,” the only should to obey is that which comes from the Spirit of God.
Four theses from Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation may be helpful to remember:
1. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
2. Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end [of righteousness before God].
3. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good [outwardly], they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins [if we put any trust in them for our status before God].
28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.
God is not like us, and he is not pleased with us the way we are pleased with others or ourselves. He has made us pleasing to himself, and we move forward with him from that starting place.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 39, 41.