Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Nature and Basis of Christian Ethics


  1. Introduction: the importance of studying Christian ethics

    1. What we are doing – and how it connects with our study of Bible doctrines (first three questions of the Shorter Catechism).

    2. We won’t act with conviction on what we don’t believe is true or if we don’t understand why it is true. “When the pollsters go on to questions how beliefs influence life, it becomes clear that for many people ‘belief’ is little more than religious assent. . .. They give conventional answers because they have never stopped to consider the implications of those stated beliefs for their manner of life. There is a disturbing gap between belief and personal commitment to those beliefs.” Eddie Gibbs, In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity; Qtd. In The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer, p. 82.

    3. The state of our culture. The rebellion against authority, esp. Biblical authority. “Americans are making up their own rules, their own laws. In effect, we’re making up our own moral codes. Only 13 percent of us believe in all of the Ten Commandments. Forty percent of us believe in five of the Ten Commandments. We choose which laws of God we believe in. There is absolutely no moral consensus in this country as there was in the 1950’s, when all our institutions commanded more respect. Today, there is very little respect for the law – for any kind of law.” (Findings from a survey by James Patterson and Peter Kim of over 2000 Americans who responded to 1800 questions. Quoted in The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer, p. 79-80.)

  2. Definition: What is Christian Ethics? John Murray writes: “If ethics is concerned with manner of life and behaviour, biblical ethics is concerned with the manner of life and behaviour which the Bible requires and which the faith of the Bible produces.” Basically, the question of ethics is: what is right and wrong, and how do we go about determining this? Christian ethics is the Christian [Biblical] view of right and wrong.

a. This assumes the Bible is from God, which assumes that God is the ultimate basis for ethics.

3. Opposition: Alternatives to Christian ethics

  1. The secular materialist point of view: getting “ought” from “is.” Problem: you

    don’t get moral facts from non-moral facts.

  2. Relativism: all values are relative. Each person decides for himself or herself.

    There is no ultimate standard. Problem: no one actually lives that way. (You see how this is worked out in the LGBTQ+ advocates: these lifestyles are permissible and celebrated as good because they are the products of human self- determination. However, if you disagree with their choices, you are viewed as a bigot, which is the ultimate sin of our generation.)

  3. An action is right if it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (utilitarianism). See Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal. Problem: how do you define “greatest happiness”?

  1. We should just let “love” be the standard. This seems to have Biblical warrant (see, for example, Mt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8-10). Problem: who defines what is “loving.” Also, as for the Biblical warrant, note that

    1. First, love fulfills the law, not in the sense that love exclusively defines the content of the law, but in the sense that love motivates and propels us to fulfill the law. As John Murray put it, “love fills to the brim the cup which the law puts in our hand.”

    2. Second, love itself depends on God’s law: it is itself commanded: “Thou shalt love...”. God’s law is primary to and precedes the act of love.

    3. Third, Biblically, the exercise of love is determined by God’s commandments. We love precisely when we keep the commandments of God. Jn 14:15; Phil. 1:9-11.

  2. Each of the above alternatives dissolves into relativism and ultimately makes determining what is right and wrong impossible. This is scary because at this point the only thing that is left to order society is not law but power. And that is truly frightening.

4. Foundation (I): The Ultimate Basis for Ethics is God. Ought implies a law and law implies a lawgiver. Any lawgiver other than God makes law arbitrary.

       a. Why God has the right to dictate behavior: he is our Creator. We are not our own. He is the Potter and we are the clay. Ps. 100; Rom. 9:20-21.

            i. For the Christian, there is another reason: he is not only our Creator, but also our Savior. Far from becoming a reason to live any way we want; it is another reason to live a holy life: 1 Cor. 6:19-20.

  1. Right and wrong, good and bad, is determined by the character of God. 1 Pet. 1:15; Lk 6:36; 1 Jn. 4:19; Eph. 5:1-2; Mt. 5:48; Col. 3:9-10; 1 Jn. 3:2-3.

  2. Ethics are not arbitrary nor could God’s law look any different than what it is for God is unchanging.

            i. Objection: What about the differences between OT and NT? Ans: We must make a distinction between temporary regulations (like the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law) and abiding moral norms. What we are talking about in this study are those laws that are always true for all people. We will talk more about the laws of the Old Covenant and how they relate to the NT Christian at a later date.

       d. God’s laws are universal. His rules don’t just apply to Christians but to everyone, regardless of their spiritual condition or their geographical location. Gen. 18:25; Ps. 96:13; Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 2:13-15; 1 Pet. 4:4-5.

5. Foundation (II): The Ultimate Source of Ethical Standards is God’s Word. We made a case in our first study on Bible doctrines that Scripture is God’s written word. We will see that an obvious implication of this fact is that it is authoritative for what we believe and how we are to act.

      a. We cannot rely on reason alone because we are corrupt and sinful. Sin has blinded our ability to perceive God’s law. Our consciences are imperfect.

  1. Certainly, if God has spoken in Scripture, we should listen! Ps. 1; 19; 119. (In our study of Bible doctrines, we will look at reasons why we can trust in God’s word.)

  2. The purpose of Scripture is not only to tell us how God saves us but also how we are to live. To insist on the latter is not legalism; it is obedience. Mt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 7:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Jn. 2:3.

6. Application. This should:

  1. Increase our love and gratitude to God for revealing to us what is best for us and

    for our flourishing. “Blessed is the man...”.

  2. Increase our confidence in knowing what is right and wrong. God has spoken

    clearly in his Word.

  3. Increase our desire for the Holy Spirit who through Christ enables obedience.

Resources: Christian Ethics by Wayne Grudem 

Principles of Conduct by John Murray


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