It is easy to mistake moralism, the practice of moral behaviour, for Christianity. Sometimes they look the same from the outside. Both are concerned with human behaviour. But moralism is not Christianity at all, and will not lead to an authentic spiritual life. It is a way of life based on doing things, and that isn’t the Christian Gospel. Morality has to do with following certain forms of behaviour based on an idea of what is a good and proper way to act. There is of course a Christian morality. Or rather a variety of Christian moralities, often sharing a basic set of assumptions. But when we put our trust in moralism as a way of life then we find that we have to put all of our behaviours and activities, and those of others, under the microscope and end up making a list, a long list, of things that are permitted and things that are forbidden. This looks a lot like Judaism and Islam.
The Jews, for instance, understood that the Sabbath should be kept special. But it was then necessary to ask what that meant. If work was prohibited then what was work? Walking seemed to be work. So how far could you walk on the Sabbath without doing work? What could you carry on the Sabbath? A bed? It seems not. A loaf of bread? A small coin? Moralism requires that all activities and behaviours come under the spotlight. Moralism essentially teaches us that if we behave in a certain way then things will probably be OK for us. We will be blessed by God in this life and have some hope of going to heaven in the next. But this is not Christianity, however much we might think that it looks like it. Indeed, it is the very opposite of Christianity and will lead those who adopt it away from true life in God by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
If we are think that just adopting a certain way of behaving, a certain morality, is the same as Christianity then we will either become quietly proud that we act in the right way, and judgemental of others, and will believe that the blessings we enjoy are deserved by us. Or we will fail to act as we would wish and we will despair, because it will seem to us that we will lose our earthly blessing and the chance of eternity in heaven. This is not Christianity. It is the religion of the Pharisees. They were very religious. They practiced the right behaviour without fail, but there was no life in them, because the Christian life does not begin with a focus on how we act, and certainly it does not begin with any comparison of our own behaviour with that of others.
There are certainly good things to be done, and bad things to be avoided. But the Christian life is not essentially concerned with how we act, or rather it is concerned entirely with the power and energy in which we act. If we are trying to do the right thing and avoid the wrong so that we will be blessed by God in this world and the next then we are no different from the pagans, who did just the same. If we are trying to do the right thing and avoid the wrong so that we will avoid the punishment of an angry God then we are also no different from the pagans, who did just the same.
The Christian life is not focused on behaviour but on a relationship of love. If I act in a certain way to gain a benefit or avoid a punishment then I am not in a relationship of love, with God or anyone else, but a a slave or a servant. If I child tries to please his father, so that he will not be beaten, then this is not love, nor a relationship of love. If an employee tries to do what he thinks his employer wants so that he will get a bonus, this also is not love, nor a relationship of love.
The authentic Christian life is rooted in the words, God loved the world so much that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world. And it is found in the words of St Paul, who says, God shows us how much he loves us, because it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. Of course this does not mean that sin does not matter, it matters a great deal since sin is not a thing, but a choice of our will turning away from God. When we sin we are not so much doing a bad thing, but we are essentially turning away from the love and life and light of God, into darkness, death and despair.
Moralism is of no use to us because in the first place we are born into a state of being separated from God and without the indwelling life and grace of the Holy Spirit. A little child is born innocent and without sin, yet every small infant lacks the presence of God dwelling within their heart by the Holy Spirit and transforming them, renewing in them the image and likeness of God, bringing about a true union within God by grace. It does not matter how hard a child, and then a youth, and then an adult, might try to follow an upright way of behaviour. Such a person will always be without the indwelling life of God by the Holy Spirit which is what it means to be both truly Christian and authentically human. There is always something missing, if we are just trying to adopt a certain behaviour, and it is this divine life, which is what it means to be alive, what it means to Christian, what it means to experience salvation, even if we do not doubt that every person is loved by God.
More than that. Moralism is of no use to us because none of us can avoid falling into sin, and failing to keep the moral way of behaving we adopt. It provides a long list of things we think we should be doing, and a long list of things we think should be avoiding. But it cannot provide any strength or energy at all to actually do or avoid any of these things. It is nothing more than a new Law, and the Law had no strength to save anyone.
Salvation is not a moral problem. How we behave must always be a fruit of the divine life we receive and in which we participate by the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This new life in Christ is given in baptism as a gift. It is fulfilled in the reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit in chrismation. It is nourished, nurtured and sustained by our commitment to the Orthodox spiritual way of the sacraments, prayer and self-sacrificing service. The focus of the Orthodox Christian life is therefore not behaving in a particular way, but seeking to participate more and more completely in the life of the Holy Spirit, who transforms and renews us so that our behaviour, attitudes and ambitions are also transfigured and brought into conformity with the light, life and love of God.
When we struggle against sin in our own lives as Orthodox Christians it is not because we think that acting in a certain way will please God and lead to us receiving blessings or avoiding punishment. On the contrary, we seek to change our behaviour, through repentance and humility, because we do not wish to lose the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and do not want to withdraw from God into darkness and death. It is an increasing love of God which leads us to hate sin. We love him more and more completely as we experience his love in our lives more and more clearly. Only this loving presence of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit can give us the strength to overcome sin, and to become those whose own lives are filled with love for others. It is the gift of God, which we work out in our own lives with unceasing effort, returning often and always to the presence of God in sacraments and a life of unfailing prayer. It requires a life time of effort, but the strength is of God, the life and love is of God, and it is the love of God which moves us, not a moralism apart from God.
The Law convicts us of sin, but the grace of God, his very presence in our lives by the indwelling Holy Spirit, is salvation.