Additional Thoughts on the First Commandment: The Unity and Foundation of All Ethics, Deuteronomy 5:6-7

“Additional Thoughts on the First Commandment: 

The Unity and Foundation of All Ethics”

Deuteronomy 5:6-7

September 11, 2022

Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service

Pastor Nicoletti

The Reading of the Word

This morning we began our time in the Ten Commandments, as we go through the Book of Deuteronomy. And for some of the commandments, in the weeks ahead, we will come back to that same commandment in the evening to consider additional aspects of it, which is what we’ll do tonight with the first commandment. This morning we considered the rival gods – the idols – in our hearts and lives, and what it means for us to turn from them and toward Yahweh – towards the God of the Bible.

Tonight, our discussion will be a bit more abstract to begin … but the results will be real and practical for us.

With that said, let’s hear again from our text: Deuteronomy 5:6-7. 

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening.

The Lord said to his people:

“‘I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“‘You shall have no other gods before me.’”

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

The Dominance of Ethics in Our Culture 

As I said this morning, we live in a culture that is dominated by ethics. Much of our political dialogue today is really debates about social ethics. Much of what fills our social media feeds are proclamations about ethics, or condemnations of others based on ethics. Many of the things churning in our culture are ethical in nature.

Which means that if we want to understand our culture, if we want to be prepared for life in our culture, if we want to engage our culture, if we want to reach our culture with the gospel, then we need some level of understanding of ethics.

As theologian John Frame writes: “We live in an age in which people are greatly concerned about ethics.” He goes on: “People are far more open to discussing ethics than to discussing theistic proofs or even ‘transcendental arguments.’ Philosophy does not excite many people today, and many do not even want to hear personal testimony and the simple gospel. But they do care about right and wrong. Christians who can talk about ethics in a cogent way, therefore, have a great apologetic and evangelistic advantage.” [Frame, DCL, 5] And Frame is not the only one who has noticed this – The Gospel Coalition recently published an article from a campus minister and one of his observation about how campus ministry has changed is that where, ten years ago, the conversations non-Christians wanted to have with him were mostly theological or philosophical in nature, now they are mostly ethical in nature. [Rexius]

Practical ethics dominates our culture. And so if we, as the Church, are going to live in this culture … and if we are going to be engaged with the non-Christian world in order to present and defend the gospel to them, then we must be engaged with ethical thinking.

The Levels of Ethics 

That said, as focused as our culture can be on practical ethical questions, it’s often quite ignorant of deeper ethical thought. And that can be true of Christians as well. So we need to start with a big-picture overview. 

It might help to think of ethics as a building, with three functional levels. On top, there is a patio roof. Under that is a first story. And then below that is a foundation.

Most of the ethical debates in our culture are taking place on that patio roof. We might label that patio roof as “Applied Ethics.” This is the place we stand as we hash out the different moral and ethical questions we face in our personal lives, and in society. This is where we wonder what the right response is to a tricky moral dilemma, or where we debate with others on twitter about whether what a politician or celebrity did was right or wrong. That patio roof is the level of applied ethics where we live much of our ethical lives.

But even as we do, we rarely look down and think about what we are standing on. And if we did, we would find – perhaps to our surprise – that often people are not all really standing on the same building. But rather, in secular discussions of ethics, there are usually at least three different buildings. 

That first story underneath us we can call “Normative Ethics.” These are the schools of ethical thought that underlie our applied ethics. Most people have not thought much about them, but have absorbed assumptions and ways of thinking from them. But which of the schools we are standing on and drawing from will really shape our ethical perspective.

And just to be clear, to say there are just three schools is a wild over-simplification. Within each of these three types of ethics there is a lot of diversity, and even beyond that things can be more complicated – but we’ll brush that aside for our purposes tonight.

For our purposes tonight, we will label those three broad categories of ethics: duty-based ethics, outcome-based ethics, and character-based ethics.

Character-based ethics, frequently called “virtue ethics” has its best-known secular advocate in Aristotle. And virtue ethics is focused primarily on being the kind of person we should be – on seeking to cultivate virtue in our character. Now already when we get to the question of which virtues we should seek, that becomes a point of discussion and debate … but still, the primary concern in each situation is what kind of person you were being, and what kind of person you were becoming.

Duty-based ethics, frequently known as “deontological ethics” has its most well-known advocate in Immanuel Kant. This approach focuses on identifying and doing our duty – with universal rules for how we should behave. It is much less concerned with what the outcomes of those right actions will be, or whether we will benefit ourselves by cultivating a more virtuous character, but its focus is on the identification and the fulfillment of the actions that are our duty.

Outcome-based ethics, frequently known as consequentialism or utilitarianism, find their classic proponents in Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This approach is primarily focused on the outcomes of what we do. Unlike virtue ethics they are not so concerned with our motives, and unlike deontology they are not that worried about abstract duties or moral commands, but instead their focus is on which actions will lead to the most happiness for the most people. They are chiefly concerned with outcomes.

Each of these schools is a first floor of our secular ethical building – the first floors that hold up the root-top patios of applied ethics on which we stand. [MacIntyre; Schur; Frame, 49-53]

Then, beneath those is the foundation. This is what philosophers call meta-ethics. This is the actual foundation of our ethics: the basis on which we can call certain things good and certain things bad. This is the ground on which we can define good and bad. Without that, any ethical thinking we may do will lack a solid foundation, and under any real pressure or scrutiny, the whole building will fall.

And so, when we, or when people in the culture around us, engage in ethical decision-making or ethical debates, there’s a lot going on under the surface. Beneath our actual discussions are different schools of ethical thought, and beneath that must be a foundation on which we determine what is good and what is evil.

But if we look closer at the building of secular ethics, problems with it begin to emerge.

The Problem of Ethics in Our Culture

To get better acquainted with non-Christian ethics, I recently read and listened to two very different books on the subject, both by non-Christians (at least they were both non-Christians at the time that they wrote). 

One was A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century by Alasdair MacIntyre, who has taught at Oxford, Yale, and Notre Dame. The other is titled How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, by Michael Schur, a former writer for the TV show The Office, and the creator of other sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Schur took a deep dive into moral philosophy, resulting in the creation of another popular sitcom designed around various moral questions, and also resulting in this book.). 

Both books were helpful in getting a better handle on the various secular approaches to ethics and moral philosophy. But both were also very helpful in unmasking their shortcomings.

At the end of the day, together they pointed to the realities that secular ethics are inherently fragmented, and inherently foundationless.

First, they are inherently fragmented. The three schools, in their secular forms, are separate. They approach moral reasoning in different ways. They often give different answers to the same question. There’s something about each, by itself, that can feel true. And then something about each that can feel off. But there’s also no obvious secular grounds on which to combine them. And that’s not even getting into the substantial differences within each school. The result is that moral thinking becomes divided and fragmented. 

On the fourth-to-last page of his book, MacIntyre just begins to list the various approaches to ethics in our culture, and the contradictions that exist between them – both in their approaches, and also in their conclusions. And he doesn’t have a solution. “Between the adherents of rival moralities,” he writes, “there exists no court of appeal, no impersonal neutral standard.” [266]

C.K. Chesterton got at the same thing half a century earlier. Chesterton wrote: “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues.” He goes on to explain: “When a religious scheme is shattered […], it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity, and their pity […] is often untruthful.” [Chesterton, 26]

The result is fragmentation. The result is endless battles over right and wrong, with no real resolution.

Michael Schur tries to respond to this situation with a more pragmatic approach. He imagines the various schools of ethics as a hall of advisors and urges his readers to just pick and choose which to listen to in any given situation. [Schur, 124-129] But the problem here is how obviously we then lack a foundation for our ethical decisions. At the end of the day, when two approaches to ethics disagree, we end up simply choosing what feels right. But how can that be solid grounds for morality – especially when the whole problem is that people disagree on morality?

And MacIntyre points out that – that problem of lacking a foundation is not solved by just committing to one secular ethical school or another. So much of MacIntyre’s book is him interrogating one approach to moral philosophy after another, revealing that at bottom, there is no foundation – there is no objective basis which can truly support the ethical proclamations various thinkers are trying to make.

In fact, what becomes obvious from reading both is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong. But we don’t know where it came from. And we don’t know what it’s rooted in. We know it’s there. And we know it’s important. And for centuries – for millennia – some of the smartest people in the world have tried to discover or come up with an objective abstract basis for those moral intuitions we have … and they haven’t been able to do it. Human beings, on their own, and talking together, know that certain things are right and certain things or wrong. But they can’t explain why beyond just saying that they feel right, or they feel wrong. Yet, as C.S. Lewis points out, they know that those truths must be based on something more solid and more permanent than just their own feelings or personal preferences.

And so, the two big problems that emerge in secular moral philosophy is that secular ethics are fragmented and foundationless. Everyone may be on the roof patio, debating right and wrong in the details of life, but the building they stand on is divided – with each person standing, knowingly or unknowingly, on a different logic, a different school of thought, with a chasm between them.

And then things get worse if they look down even further. Because none of the building has a foundation. None of the approaches has a satisfying meta-ethic. None of them can explain in a plausible and satisfying way what the objective basis is for good or bad, right or wrong.

Which may be part of why so much division exists on such questions. The secular ethics employed are fragmented and foundationless.

The Triune God as the Unity & Foundation of Ethics 

By contrast, the Bible provides a unity and a foundation for ethics in the Triune God himself.

First, it provides a foundation.

This truth is at the heart of our text – at the heart of the first commandment. Because with that first commandment we are reminded that the Bible’s ethics begin not with a principle, but with a person … really with three persons, united as one God.

The Ten Commandments, and all of Biblical ethics, are a personal revelation of Yahweh’s character. And the Ten Commandments are a call for the children of God to imitate and image their heavenly Father, whose character has also been revealed to us in the person of Jesus, his Son. [Leithart, 4-6]

And that’s significant, because it is a reminder that all of Biblical ethics is rooted, ultimately in a person, and not in a principle. And that is, in many ways, what sets it apart from so much of secular ethics.

Secular ethics seeks to establish itself in a principle. And that betrays an important fact. As John Frame points out, in a secular way of looking at the world, what is most foundational is the impersonal: matter, energy, principles, and laws – these make up the foundation of the universe. And so, the reasoning goes, if we want to get to the foundation of ethics, we must look for something that is impersonal: for a principle or a concept.

But, as Frame points out, according to the Christian Scriptures, it’s the other way around: “the personal is greater than the impersonal” – the personal is more foundational than the impersonal. In fact, anything impersonal that exists, is the creation of a person – of our Tri-Personal God. The personal is “what the universe is really all about.” [Frame, ST, 38; see also Frame, DCL, 20, 402]

And that is reflected in biblical doctrine, biblical narrative, and biblical law. Our ethical lives are not abstract – they are about how we relate to a personal God with whom we have a personal relationship, and whose personal image we are called on to faithfully bear. [Wright, 62]

And so, where secular ethics search in vain for a principled foundation, Christian ethics finds its foundation in the person of God.

But in God we find not only a foundation for our ethics, but a unity for it as well. Because the Bible does not divide moral character from moral duties or moral outcomes. Instead, it calls us to all three. We are to seek to be morally good people, using morally good means, to pursue morally good ends. Character, duty, and consequences all matter to God, and so they should all matter to us. And each one is rooted in God: in his character, in his actions, and in his goals for us and for creation. Seen in that light, what in the secular worldview are three different “schools of thought,” in a Christian worldview, becomes, as John Frame argues, three perspectives on the same reality. For there is not tension between God’s good character, God’s good actions, and God’s good goals. Instead, each expresses, or is derived from, the others.

In our own lives, and from our own finite perspectives, we may struggle to hold those three realities together. But these struggles are a result of our limitations as finite creatures – not the result of an inherent contradiction from God. And so, our calling, in part, is to move between those different perspectives, valuing them all. [Frame, DG, 31-37]

The result is that in Christian ethics, our foundation – our meta-ethic – is God himself. Our first floor unites moral character, moral duty, and moral outcomes in the character, actions, and goals of God. And then even our applied ethic is centered on God, as we seek to identify and pursue those actions, attitudes, and outcomes that the Bible tells us receive God’s blessing and approval. [Frame, 10]

Of course, navigating all of that is not easy. But God has not left us alone in that struggle. He has given us his Word. He has given us the fruit of centuries of Christians reflection and thinking about his Word. He has given us the insights of non-Christians by common grace. He has given us Christians in our lives today who can help us. He has promised to give wisdom to those who ask it. And he has given us his Holy Spirit.

Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll always know what to do. It doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right. But it does mean that we can be assured that there is a real answer to what we should do in each situation, that’s rooted in the person of God. And it does mean that we can be confident that God has spoken to us in his Word, and he has not left us alone to seek his will. He has provided a way.

How Do We Proceed? 

So, once we see all this … how are we to proceed?

How do we move forward in seeking to live out the Christian ethic?

Well, let me mention a few things.

Accept the Biblical Foundation

First, we need to accept the biblical foundation of all ethics, which is the person of God: his character, his actions, and his goals.

And this foundation must be grounded on God not as we imagine him, but as he has revealed himself to be – in his Law, in his Word – in the Christian Scriptures.

And the person of God, as he is revealed in the Christian Scriptures must be the foundation of our ethics … not just one of the tools or building materials. We cannot start with a secular theory of ethics and then try to nail the Christian God onto our ethical system to give it a little bit more support. Such an approach will not stand – though it is very common.

Some may want to start with the ethical philosophy of Karl Marx and then fit the Christian God into it. Others may want to start with the ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand and then fit the Christian God into it. Either of those approaches is an example of rejecting God as the foundation for all ethics, and turning primarily to something else.

And that means that we need to resist the categories of our culture and subcultures when we approach ethical questions.

John Frame puts this really well in his book The Doctrine of the Christian Life. He writes this – he says:

“All of us are biased in favor of certain conclusions, even at the outset of our study [of ethics]. We cannot be neutral. But we ought to be self-conscious, even critical of our biases.

“There are those who enter the field of ethics with a goal of dispelling legalism. Perhaps they were raised in a church that imposed all sorts of rules on the kids and they didn’t like it. So as ethicists they want to emphasize our freedom as individuals to make decisions for ourselves.

“Others enter the field disgusted by the moral decline in our society. They may also be impressed by the rigorousness of Scripture and the high cost of discipleship. They are attracted to an ethic that does not compromise with worldliness, a radical ethic of discipline and self-control.

“We tend to describe the first type of ethic as liberal, the second as conservative.” 

[…]

“The liberal tendency to find loopholes in the moral law, to justify apparent sin, has given casuistry a bad name. The conservative tendency towards harshness and austerity has given moralism a bad name.”

Then Frame writes:

“In this book, I urge readers not to side with either tendency. The point of Christian ethics is not to be as liberal as we can be, or as conservative. It is, rather, to be as biblical as we can be. So this book will seem to be more liberal than the majority on some issues […] and more conservative on others […]. God’s word has a way of surprising us, of not fitting into our prearranged categories. Jesus rebuked both the conservative Pharisees and the liberal Sadducees; Paul rebuked both legalists and libertines. Understanding God’s will rarely means falling into lockstep with some popular ideology.”

[…]

“My goal,” he writes, “is to go as far as Scripture goes, and no farther, to follow its path without deviating to the left or right.” [Frame, DCL 6-7]

So, the first thing we need to do is to accept the biblical foundation for Christian ethics, which is the person of God: his character, his actions, and his goals, as they are revealed in the Christian Scriptures.

Accept the Biblical Value of All Three Perspectives

Second, we need to accept the biblical value of all three perspectives on the Christian moral life: the value of seeking to be good people, who pursue good goals, by good means – the value of intentionally cultivating Christian character, intentionally fulfilling Christian duties, and intentionally pursuing Christian outcomes.

That might seem obvious and straightforward. But experience shows that it’s not.

We see this in the lives of those who often seem, somehow, to be great successes in the church … while simultaneously being great failures.

We’ve seen it in many of the celebrities of the Reformed world in America over the last few decades – those Reformed leaders who worked hard to do great things – to build great ministries … but then had a significant moral fall. It feels like very few months there’s another one. And it’s not just “out there” in vague evangelicalism, but it’s happened repeatedly now in the Reformed world. 

Now, in each story there are many factors. And I don’t believe there is only one cause in any one of these situations, let alone one cause that spans them all.

But a common theme is a focus on good moral outcomes, while neglecting good moral character. In some of these stories it was very clear to at least some people – or even to many people – that the leader they were following had serious character deficiencies. But the results of his work and his ministry were staggering. And the people who saw decided that the good moral goals – the good moral results of a growing ministry – mattered a lot more than the character of the one doing the work. In other words, they split the ethics of the results from the ethics of character. And the moral value of the results was striking: people were coming to faith, and being baptized, and striving to conform their lives to the teaching of the Bible. The ethics of the results were without question a moral good. But at the same time, people within the ministry, and alongside the ministry, saw the lack of moral character. But often they discounted it. Rather than seeking to hold on to all three ethical perspectives in the Christian life, they latched on to the ethics of outcome, and they let other biblical perspectives go. The long-term result was eventually an implosion.

As Ed Stetzer put it: “There’s a body count of young pastors whose ability rose them to prominence before their character was ready for it.” [From The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast]

That said … others tend in a very different direction.

Other Christians who may at first catch our eye as examples of great success, inspire us not by the size of their churches, but often by their reflective approach to the Christian faith and the Christian life. Often they’re writers. And their reflections on their standing before God, on the cultivation of virtues, and so on, can strike us for their depth and insight. They can become examples for us of those who seek to cultivate moral virtue as Christians.

And yet, in some of those cases, we can then be struck when we learn about their failure to do their duty towards others in their lives. They may fail in their duty to be faithful to their spouse. Or they may fail in their duties towards their children. Or they may fail to stand up to the challenges of the unbelieving world. They have focused on the call to try to cultivate moral virtue within, but they have failed, and neglected, and maybe even overtly discounted the importance of the moral duties the Lord has called them to in their lives. 

They latched on to the ethics of virtue, and they let other biblical perspectives go. The long-term result was disillusionment for many.

Still others make this mistake in the third direction. And this may be a more common tendency in some of our circles. It’s the tendency to elevate moral duty, and discount the deeper cultivation of personal virtues.

This is a picture we see at times in Presbyterian history and culture. It is the man or woman who is a model of hard work and sacrifice for the kingdom of Christ. Their life is the story of giving up things we couldn’t imagine giving up. They poured themselves into their ministries, working harder than we can imagine working. And in many cases, they had good moral outcomes in their ministries to go with it. We can see the fruit and the results of their efforts. And these are the kind of Christians we often hold up and we laud in our circles.

But then … at the same time … in many such cases, we may learn that those same people – those same saints we so admire – are not, or were not, very pleasant people to be around. If they are Christians from the past, we may learn of how difficult their family or others found it to be with them and work with them. If they are people we know in our lives, we may find that they are not especially enjoyable people to be around, or to get to know closer. For all the good moral duty they have accomplished, they often have not cultivated the biblical virtues of patience, or kindness, or gentleness, or joy, or peace. 

They latched on to the ethics of duty, and let the other biblical perspectives go. The long-term result is often cynicism for those who know them.

We can fall into this pattern too, when we are confronted by someone for a character deficiency, and our response is to point to a list of duties we have fulfilled, and to ignore the rest. When we do that, we are insisting on viewing our lives from only one moral perspective, rather than all three that the Bible calls us to.

Now … none of these divisions, of course, are so simple as that. In the long run, a lack of character ordinarily will undermine the good outcomes someone worked so hard for. A lack of fulfilling our duties to others obviously means our virtues and character are not as sanctified as we thought. And since cultivating a heart of love for God and for others is our highest duty, we cannot claim to have fulfilled our duties if those virtues are lacking in our lives.

You can’t actually master one of these approaches to Christian living without the others. But you can be deceived into thinking you have.

But in truth, they are three different perspectives on the same thing – the moral calling of the Christian before God.

But when it comes to how you view yourself, which perspectives do you tend to favor … and which do you tend to neglect?

And how can you learn to better value and better address those aspects that you tend to neglect?

That’s the second thing we need to do as we seek to live out a Christian ethic: We need to accept the biblical value of all three ethical perspectives.

Be Intentional About How We Relate to Non-Christian Ethics

Third, we need to be intentional in how we relate to non-Christian ethics.

And that means remembering two truths.

The two truths we need to remember are called antithesis, and common grace.

Antithesis describes the divide between the Christian worldview and the non-Christian worldview … the divide between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world …. the divide between those in Adam and those in Christ … which we’ve already addressed as we have talked about the difference between secular ethics and Christian ethics. 

But the other truth we need to remember is the reality of common grace. This is the Biblical teaching that God has distributed good gifts throughout his creation and throughout humanity. He gives gifts, and insights even to those who do not know him – even to those who actively reject him. We see this when it is the rebellious line of Cain that first produces musical instruments, which God’s people will later use, or when Solomon incorporates wisdom sayings from non-Israelite kings into the Book of Proverbs, or when Paul quotes from pagan poets in agreement, and so on. In terms of culture, ability, and insight, God gives good gifts to Christians and non-Christians alike.

John Frame reflects this same observation. Frame is a conservative Reformed theologian. And in the preface of his thousand-page book on Christian ethics and the Christian life, he writes: “Over the years […] I have gained a greater appreciation of the secular literature [on ethics]. Non-Christians often have a better grasp than Christians of the complications of ethical decision making. They may be ultimately confused, but at least they can help us define the options. […] Christianity, unlike any other ethical system, provides a solid basis for ethical decision making, but it does not make ethical decisions easy.” [Frame, DCL, xxvi]

That means you can’t dismiss an ethical perspective because of where it comes from, or the philosophy that you know is behind it. They may still be seeing something that you are missing. Think right now of the secular ethical approach that you think is the most damaging out there in the world today. Even if it’s 95% wrong, that remaining 5% may be a true common grace insight that the Lord has granted to that group of non-Christians, but that we so far have missed. And therefore they may still have something to teach us. We can’t just wholly dismiss them.

Our call, instead, is to sift what non-Christians may be saying to us about an ethical situation, to receive those things that turn out to be common-grace insights that can help us to see more clearly, and then to purify whatever we receive by washing it, and positioning it, in a Biblical worldview.

We can’t unthinkingly receive just anything from non-Christian ethical thought … we need to sift it. And anything we do receive, we need to be careful that we first cleanse it of any unbiblical components. But once that has happened, we can receive such things as gifts from God, and we must learn from them. For all truth is God’s truth.

So, we must be intentional in how we relate to non-Christian ethics, remembering the truths of both antithesis and common grace. 

Do Not Separate Your Morals from Your Relationship with God

Fourth, we need to make sure that we do not separate our ethics from our relationship with God.

Ultimately, what is so devastating about our sin – about the evil we do – is that it is rebellion against God, it dishonors God, it defaces his image in others, and it disrupts our relationship with him.

And ultimately, what is so important about righteousness is that it is an expression of love towards God, it honors him, it honors his image in others, and it strengthens our relationship with him.

The moment we detach our moral lives from that – from the centrality of God and our relationship with him – then whether we are doing lots of good things or lots of bad things, either way, we’ve missed the central point.

Because the greatest commandment is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” [Mark 12:30]

Do Not Forget That You Can Do No Good Apart from Christ

Fifth, and finally, do not forget that you can do no good apart from Christ.

Any good we do is not only for Christ, but it is only possible through Christ. In John 15, Jesus said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5]

And that does bring us to one other major distinction between secular ethics and Christian ethics. In rigorous secular ethics, there isn’t much reason for hope. There isn’t much reason for encouragement. If we think too much about it, it can all seem like an exercise in futility.

But in a Christian perspective, our good works, our moral victories, even when very imperfect, still have value and still have worth … because they matter to God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states that even  “our best works” are “defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.” And we know this. And it should humble us. Even our best moral works fall short. And so we should not be arrogant. We should not be proud.

But at the same time, the Confession reminds us that there is also reason for encouragement, and even rejoicing. In the very next chapter it says that since we, as believers, are accepted by God through Christ, so also our good works are accepted by God through Christ – “not,” it goes on to say, as though our good deeds were “wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.” [WCF 16.5-6]

Our moral reasoning and our best works will always fall short in this life. But in Christ God has already accepted us. And in Christ, our Heavenly Father “is pleased to accept” and even to reward our deeds that are “sincere,” even though they are “accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

That is how much our God loves us. 

And so let us strive to love him – with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength.

For that is what’s at the heart of all true ethics.

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1908 (2001 Edition).

Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.

Frame, John. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Leithart, Peter J. The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. Second Edition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

Rexius, Solomon. “What’s Changed – and What Hasn’t – over 10 Years of College Ministry.” The Gospel Coalition. August 23, 2022. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/changed-years-college/ 

Schur, Michael. How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

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