The Questions of Christian Ethics
Many want merely to express their opinion and have everyone accept what they say as equally valid among all the competing ways of doing ethics. Our thesis in this blog is that not all systems of ethics are of equal value. In fact, our thesis is that apart from the God of Christianity, ethics is impossible. So I am not defending some general form of what might be called “theistic” ethics. The defense is the system of Christian ethics taken from God’s revealed will in the Bible as the standard for all of ethical life.
So we begin with an introductory blog on the “questions of ethics.” What do I mean here? The questions of ethics are similar to the following: What goals ought we to pursue in life? What sort of persons ought we to be? What practices ought we to follow?
Most people in our society don’t spend a lot of time and attention focusing on these questions. They tend to live life almost totally unreflectively. But to answer these questions requires a great deal of thought and understanding. The questions require that all human conduct be subject to a threefold evaluation from a moral point of view. Let me break this down.
First, when we get ready to do something we need to know that the end that we seek to realize with our decision is good and worthy of human pursuit.
In the second place, our motive must also be good, so that the end is worthwhile and the mark of good character.
Finally, the means to the end must be good and honorable, confirming to an absolute standard of what is right and wrong, since neither a good end nor a good motive is compatible with a bad means.
Since non-Christians have no such standard, the only way they can really do ethics is to “borrow capital” from Christianity in order to find justice in a realm of relativism. Christian ethics is quite different. “In the biblical ethic we are concerned with the norms, or canons, or standards of behavior which are enunciated in the Bible for the creation, direction, and regulation of thought, life, and behavior consonant with the will of God.” (J.Murray, Principles of Conduct, p.14).
Let me flesh this out by using Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-2. In this short article I don’t have the time to give all the attention necessary for a full explanation of what Paul is saying, but I would like to paint with a broad brush and hit on some of the most important features for our purposes.
In the first place, Paul’s words point us to the focus of his admonition: in view of God’s mercy. Christian ethics is a reflection upon God’s merciful dealings in our lives. God’s mercy is meant to awaken the “affectional” side of our lives. That is, since the Holy Spirit is making us sanctified or holy people, we must understand that this sanctification process concerns all of our being. Our emotions and affections must be sanctified as well as our minds. We learn to love, for example, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19; Rom. 5:8). When God, in love, calls us to be his children, then, we are to respond with biblical repentance, faith, and obedience—all three. At the end of 12:1 Paul speaks about “your spiritual act of worship.” What does mean? The word translated “worship” is latreia, which always means “service” in the New Testament. But what Christians are to offer is a particular type of “service.” Paul calls it “spiritual.” The word is logikos, which is rare indeed. It is a word that carries with it the connotation of “possessed of reason” or “intellectual.” Christian “service” is not a matter of unthinking, mindless activity or rote, unfeeling performance. It engages the mind a well as the heart and will of man. When Paul proceeds to speak about the will of God, he uses three terms to describe it.
What are they? Paul says God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect (Romans 12:2). This is what sinners must know and live. Human beings have affections; they have a will; and they are rational, but they are also fallen and sin has severely, spiritually, and radically (from the Latin: radix, meaning “root”) depraved them. What man must have is a standard that is good, pleasing, and perfect. That's God’s will in the Bible. Paul says that God’s will is “good.” That’s the most comprehensive term for what human beings ought to do and to be. Christian ethics is unique in that it identifies the good with the revealed will of God (Micah 6:8; Deut. 10:12-13) and calls upon man to seek what is good (Amos 5:14-15; Rom. 12:9; 16:19). We’re also told that this will of God is “pleasing” or “acceptable” (euarestos). I put the Greek word in italic because it is such an important one in the New Testament vocabulary for moral conduct (Compare Heb. 13:20-21).
What is indispensable in man’s ethical decision-making is receiving God’s approval and not doing what is “good in our own eyes” (Ex. 15:26; Deut. 12:28; 1 Kings 11:38). Mankind is not called upon to conform to some impersonal command or whatever he might think is right or wrong. He is commanded to conform to the pleasing will of the Creator. Paul concludes his comments by telling us that God’s will is also “perfect.” That is, God’s will is “complete.” (Compare Matt. 5:48).
The standard that is help up before us is God. This is anther way of saying that we must continually learn to deny ourselves and submit ourselves to God’s will. You see, the Christian life is not aimed at doing away with man’s personality, but at getting rid of sin in our lives. God’s will is the perfect way to show us how that is to be done. To sum up, Christian ethics is the constant and continual study from the Bible of the way of life that conforms to the will of God—the way of life that is good, that pleases God, and that fulfills human nature.
Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.