A number of years ago, my kids were into VeggieTales. And, truthfully, so was I. It was quite enjoyable to watch those charming videos, cataloging the journeys of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. I could probably recite the opening song word for word.
But in an interview several years ago, VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer expressed regret over the “moralism” of his show:
As I reflected back, I realized that 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.
There is much to be commended in Vischer’s realization. Certainly Christianity is more than simply behaving a certain way. Christianity, at its core, is about God’s redemptive work in Christ to save sinners by grace.
When it comes to proclaiming the Christian message, we always need to present the imperative (here’s what you should do) within the context of the indicative (here’s what Christ has done). The latter is always the foundation for the former.
That said, I wonder if VeggieTales can be so quickly swept aside as non-Christian. Vischer declares: “You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so’ . . . But that isn’t Christianity.”
It depends what he means.
If I said in a sermon, “Be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” would that be considered non-Christian? I hope not. Surely Christians need to be more forgiving. And surely God’s Word is a compelling motivation—though not the only motivation.
Proper Context for Imperatives
At this point I suppose one might object and say we are free to give moral imperatives as long as they are always given alongside the gospel message. But it depends on what one means by “alongside.” I certainly agree that any moral imperative must always be rooted in the gospel. But does this mean it must always be stated immediately in the next sentence? Does it always mean the gospel must be expressly stated each time you give a moral imperative?
I would argue the gospel is the foundation, context, and backdrop for moral imperatives. But we must be careful about insisting on a fixed formula for how that must be expressed within Christian preaching or teaching. A number of biblical examples bear this out.
James is clearly a letter of morals. We are called to not show partiality (2:1), to help the poor (2:15–16), to watch our tongues (3:1–12), to stop coveting (4:1–2), to be patient (5:7–8), to pray faithfully (5:16), and much more.
This letter does not explicitly mention the atonement, the cross, salvation by grace alone, or any other core aspect of the gospel message (though it is implied in places like 1:18; 1:25; and 5:15). But does James teach moralism? Not at all. You have to take James in context of the entire New Testament, knowing the core aspects of the gospel are explained elsewhere. No doubt James wrote assuming his audience understood the basic gospel truths.
2. Sermon on the Mount
It’s often overlooked that Jesus’s most famous sermon is mostly composed of moral imperatives. Jesus covers an impressive list of moral topics: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, fasting, worry, and more. Indeed, he even warns his listeners that God’s judgment will fall on those whose righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and on those who fail to keep his Word (Matt. 7:21–26).
There is no explicit mention of atonement, the cross, or justification, but they are implied in places such as 5:3 and 6:12. Does this make his sermon moralism? No—the sermon must be taken in the larger context of Jesus’s teachings and the New Testament as a whole.
Here is an entire book filled with wisdom on how one should live. It tells us how to act, think, and feel on a variety of critical issues. And there is no express discussion of atonement, justification, or salvation by grace. Does this make Proverbs moralism? Not at all. These exhortations must be understood within the larger context of the Bible’s teachings.
Don’t Fear Imperatives
These three examples make a simple point: it is okay to take large blocks of teaching and focus on Christian morals. One shouldn’t have to stop every five minutes to give a “gospel presentation” out of fear of communicating moralism. The key question is this: is there a larger context around those moral teachings that adequately provides a gospel foundation for obedience?
If VeggieTales were used as a supplemental teaching aid for parents who adequately explained the gospel to their children, it could be a useful—and Christian—tool. The episodes were never intended to be a complete Christian curriculum for kids, even though some parents may wrongly use them in that fashion.
All of this, of course, should not downplay or deny the real threat of moralism in churches today. Many pulpits lack the gospel message entirely and simply preach a “do this” version of Christianity. But the solution is not to impose a “one size fits all” preaching style where any extended moral exhortation is immediately labeled moralism. Indeed, the Bible is filled with such moral exhortations.
We must always remember the indicative is the ground—not the obstacle—for the imperative.