STUDIES IN BIBLICAL ETHICS No. 1
January 28, 1996
I have long wanted to devote some Sunday evenings to the consideration of Christian ethics. I would have got there eventually, Lord willing, but was spurred to action by the recent publication of an excellent new introduction to Christian ethics by our own Prof. David Jones of Covenant Theological Seminary. His book is entitled Biblical Christian Ethics and is the first major study from the evangelical Reformed perspective since Professor John Murray’s Principles of Conduct, published in 1957. Neither of these books is a full blown Ethics. Dr. Jones’ book is really an introduction to ethics, Professor Murray’s a study of a few specific ethical issues. We have no major treatment of the entire field written in English from our theological and biblical point of view in the modern period. It is time we have one, but whether it shall be supplied is anyone’s guess and how useful it will be should it be written is still more uncertain. We will cover much that Dr. Jones does not cover in his manual, but his fine work reminded me of how timely a study of biblical ethics would be. You will hear more of David Jones in the course of our study.
I want to begin this series, tonight, by reminding you why such a study is important, why we ought to think carefully and deeply about ethics and why we should be concerned to be faithful to the ethical instruction of the Bible.
The word “ethics” is derived from the Greek word ethos. That word meant “custom” or “usage” and referred to human behavior. The only instance of the use of the word in the NT in anything approaching its general meaning is 1 Corinthians 15:33 where Paul writes “…bad company corrupts good character,” or, as the KJV had it “…evil communications [i.e. relationships] corrupt good manners [i.e. morals]” where the word translated “character” or “manners” or “morals” is our word ethos. The Latin synonym for ethos was mores from which we get the words “morals” and “moral.”
The term the NT uses more frequently is a word (anastrophe) which is usually translated with “way of life” or “manner of life.”
And that is what ethics, both as an area of human philosophy and of Christian theology, is concerned with: how people live; their behavior, and, particularly, whether it is right or wrong, good or bad. Now, we use the term “unethical” to refer to improper or immoral behavior, but that is a derived and secondary use of the term. We may call a person’s behavior unethical because, as Christians, we regard it as sinful, but the behavior may, in fact, be perfectly in keeping with that person’s ethical system, his or her beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad. Abortion may be unethical to us, but it is highly ethical to others. So the Bible does not use “way of life” or “ethics” without qualification. It talks both of a “good manner of life” (James 3:13) and a “filthy manner of life” (2 Pet. 2:7). One must know what kind of way of life or ethics is being considered and one must know how ethical judgments are made, upon what basis someone judges between right and wrong. We may decide that the entire ethics is flawed, sinful, and unbiblical or, contrarily, someone may decide that our Christian system of ethics is evil, as Ted Turner thinks, for example. Or we may decide that a person’s behavior is unethical in the strict sense, that is, he believes wrong what he himself is doing.
Traditionally in Christian theology, ethics was treated as a part of theology and the study was organized around the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. More recently, theology has tended to consider ethics a separate discipline. We also have become use to the division of the subject into “personal ethics” and “social ethics,” the former having to do more with our private behavior and the latter having to do with our relationship to institutions such as the church and the state. Whether this is at all a helpful division of the subject is doubtful, but you will hear these terms still widely used. Carl F.H. Henry’s large work, published also in 1957, bore the title Christian Personal Ethics. We will lump ethics together as a single subject and consider both issues that would be classified as matters of personal ethics and those that would be often treated under the heading of social ethics.
Reasons to Study Ethics
Let me begin, then, by setting out some of the reasons for Christians making careful study of biblical ethics, of gaining a mastery of this discipline and this part of the Bible’s teaching.
1. First, like it or not an immense amount of Holy Scripture is
devoted to the teaching of ethics, good behavior versus bad.
Whole tracts of the OT deal with what is proper or improper
behavior in a believer or, indeed, in any man or woman. The
NT is no different in this respect. Every book is full of
ethics. Jesus taught ethics to his disciples and so did the
apostles to theirs. The importance that the Lord attaches to
the matter of our behavior being good and holy is surely
indicated by the amount of space devoted to the subject in the
Bible. Don’t think that a too obvious point to make. God
cares deeply about our behavior in the world — grace and
forgiveness notwithstanding — and has made a large point of
giving us specific, detailed, thorough instruction in a holy
way of life.
2. Second, the Bible is always making a connection between true
faith and a good and holy life. The one is designed to lead
to the other, must lead to the other. Paul’s close connection
between faith and life in his letters. We were saved to be
3. Third, Christ himself left us, Peter says, an example that we
should follow in his steps. His own life, his own way of life,
his own behavior, was given to be a model for us. He said this often himself. “As I have loved you, so love one another.” “As I washed your feet…”We were saved that we might live as he did, make the sort of choices he made, govern our behavior by the same principles, or, we might say it, practice the same ethics as he did.
4. Fourth, the Lord himself said that if we loved him we would
keep his commandments. Ethics are the demonstration of love,
either for God or for oneself.
5. Fifth, behavior is one of the grounds of assurance of salvation
in the Bible. “By their fruit you shall
know them.” “Make the tree good and the fruit will be good.”
“No man in Christ continues to sin.” “In Christ all things have become new.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of
my father in heaven.” “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male
prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the
greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit
the kingdom of God.”
6. Sixth, our ethics are our witness to the world. “May they be
brought to complete unity that the world may know that you sent
me…” “If you enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty,
give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap
burning coals on his head.” “I counsel younger women to marry,
to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy
no opportunity for slander.” “Teach slaves to be subject to
their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to
talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show
that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will
make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”
7. Seventh, ethics are important as the way to God’s blessing.
“In the keeping of the commandments of God there is great
reward.” “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the
way of the wicked shall perish.” The covenant blessings!
As well, of course, as a way to avoid his chastisement, even
as his children. “You were to Israel a forgiving God, though
you punished their misdeeds (Ps. 99:8).” The covenant
curses! 1 Cor. 11!
8. Eighth, ethics are the way we bring good to others and to the
world. Consider the Bible’s concentration on the obligations
we have to the alien, the poor, the sorrowful.
But, there is still a further consideration to place before you as a reason for the considered study of the Bible’s ethics. Ethics are often the window through which we judge the quality, the integrity, the authenticity of faith.
Have you ever noticed that most of the issues that produce divisions in the church, that identify the true fault lines in the body of Christ, are ethical in nature?
1. PCUSA in the 1930s: the published issue was faithfulness
to the program of the institutional church; the nature of
loyalty to vows. The real issue, of course wasn’t that
at all. It was the affirmation of or denial of super-
natural Christianity. The church split over the Indepen-
dent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. For this
Machen was tried and deposed.
2. Today the issues are gender matters, gay rights, etc.
But these aren’t the real issues: the nature of the
Bible and our Christian faith is at stake.
Why ethics out front? Well, for several reasons:
1. Much harder to admit theological defection (for both
personal reasons — one doesn’t easily admit that one is
abandoning the faith; and for tactical ones —
congregations and denominations will stand for debates
over ethics, but take poorly to open admissions that
one doesn’t believe the Bible anymore.
2. But, even more: ethics hit us where we live. We bump
into them more forcefully in the world. That the Bible
is the Word of God, that Christ is the Savior, that
salvation is by God’s grace — one can say all of these
things and his life not be affected, not circumscribed,
not confined in any particular way. But, tell someone
that he cannot have sex outside of marriage, that she
cannot have an abortion no matter what, that he must
give a portion of his income to God’s church, that
she must practice love and charity toward her enemy,
that she cannot be an elder, that he cannot mistreat his
wife, that these children must obey their parents, that
he must obey the elders, that she must submit to her
husband, that they must pay their taxes, and so on,
all of that hits people where they live. And so we
find out how serious they really are about the Bible
and the Lordship of Christ and the Christian life.
This is why Calvin recommended that self-examination begin with the second table (comment) of the law. Concerning the first table we too easily deceive ourselves. Most lies in the intention of the heart or in the outward acts of worship and perfect hypocrites always think they do well. But the works of commandments 6-10 show the true state of the heart more clearly. Remember Paul: it was the 10th commandment that exposed him!
That is why these ethical issues are, at the last, just as important as the doctrinal ones. The Devil is only going to allow an argument in the church over the deity of Christ or the nature of salvation when he is sure he can win that battle with little cost and loss to his cause. Ordinarily, he will fight it one step removed from the doctrines of the faith, that is, in the area of ethics. If he can get Christians to embrace unbiblical ethics out of love to the world, it matters not if they continue to profess their loyalty to the faith once delivered to the saints. He has got them and he has won. And no one will know that they have already given up the faith until much later, when it is far too late to go back.
Scanzoni and Hardesty; Fuller prof. I know: gender then
gay rights, what is next? On the right: a man who
professes faith but will not stop being cruel to his wife,
or faithful in providing for his family, or honest in his business practices.
The Bible is full of both doctrine and ethics — both come to us from God’s mouth. Both are his Word. Both are to be believed and obeyed by us with willing hearts. In Holy Scripture, belief and life are two sides of a single coin, inseparable. The one draws from the other and then returns the service. It is only when faith and behavior are together that we have a true Christian and a true Christian life.
And if that is so, we should be just as systematic, just as comprehensive in our study of the Bible’s ethical teaching as we are in its teaching of doctrine.