ETHICS

Ethics is a broad subject whose particular concern is with right conduct in human behaviour. This includes every aspect of people’s conduct, whether it involves others or not. People are answerable to God for all that they do (Heb 4:13; Rev 20:12). God’s standards From the beginning people had within them some knowledge of right and wrong. God gave them a revelation of the standards of conduct he required in human relationships, and each individual’s conscience judged that person according to those standards. This was so even when the person had rejected the knowledge of God (Rom 1:21-23; 2:14-15; cf. Matt 7:11; see CONSCIENCE; REVELATION). When God took the people of Israel into a covenant relationship with himself, he gave them a lawcode to regulate their national life. This written code was an application of the unwritten principles which God had placed within the human heart from the beginning but which people had neglected. These principles were based on the truth that the moral conduct of people should be a reflection of the moral character of God, in whose image they were made (Exod 19:6; Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; Matt 19:17; cf. Eph 4:24; see LAW). The ethics of this Israelite law-code concerned a person’s relationships with people and with God. In both cases the motive for right conduct was to be genuine love (Lev 19:17-18; Deut 6:3-7). Right conduct concerned all personal behaviour (e.g. Exod 20:12; 22:21-27; 23:1-8; Lev 18:6,19,22), yet it was more than merely a personal matter. People lived not in isolation but as part of a community, and God wanted the community as a whole to follow his standards (Exod 23:10-12,17; 32:7-10; Lev 19:9-10; Deut 20:10- 20). In giving his law to Israel at Mt Sinai, God’s purpose was not that as Israelites kept it they could earn the right to become his people. Rather he gave the law to a nation that he had already made his people (Exod 4:22; 6:6-8; 24:3-4). Each person was a guilty sinner and received salvation only through coming in faith and repentance to God (Exod 32:33; 34:6-7; Ps 51:1-4; Isa 1:16-20). Salvation was a gift of God’s grace, not a reward for keeping moral laws; though the person who received that salvation loved God’s law all the more and had an increased desire to keep it (Ps 119:14-16,44-48; Rom 9:31-32; Gal 3:10,18). Likewise in the new era introduced through Jesus Christ, no one is saved through keeping moral instructions, whether those instructions come from the law of Moses, the teachings of Jesus or the writings of the early Christian leaders. Salvation is by God’s grace, and repentant sinners receive it by faith. But again, having received it they should be diligent to produce good works (Eph 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-12; James 2:18,26; 1 Peter 2:9-12; see GOOD WORKS). Genuine love is once again the source of right behaviour. As new people indwelt by the Spirit of God, Christians can now produce the standard of righteousness that the law aimed at but could not itself produce (Rom 8:1-4; 13:8-10; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 John 2:3-6; see SANCTIFICATION).

Ethical teachings of Jesus

The foundation of Christian ethics is not what men and women themselves might choose to do, but what God through Christ has already done. Jesus was not primarily a teacher of ethics who showed people how to live a better life, but a Saviour who died and rose again to give repentant sinners an entirely new life (Rom 6:1-11; 2 Cor 5:15,17; 1 Peter 1:18-23; 4:1). God has made believers his children, and they must now show this to be true in practice. Because God has acted in a certain way, Christians must act in a certain way (1 Cor 6:20; Eph 4:1; 5:1; 1 John 3:9-10; 4:7). Jesus’ teaching must therefore be understood in relation to his mission. He was not a social reformer, but the Saviour-Messiah who brought the kingdom of God into the world. He did not draw up a code of ethics, but urged people to humble themselves and enter the kingdom of God. He knew that people would have worthwhile change in their behaviour only when they were truly changed within (Matt 4:23; 5:3,21- 22; 12:28; 15:19-20; 18:4; 19:23; see KINGDOM OF GOD). In dealing with standards of human behaviour, Jesus did not introduce any new set of values. He referred people back to the values which were already clearly set out in the Old Testament but which people had either ignored or distorted (Matt 5:17,43-44; 19:8-9; 22:37-40; see SERMON ON THE MOUNT). Neither did Jesus present his teaching in the form of regulations applicable to all people in all circumstances, as if it were the law-code of a civil government. His requirement, for example, that people sell their houses or leave their families applied not in all cases, but only in those where people had put their interests before God’s (Matt 19:16-22; Luke 9:57-62). But the principle on which that particular instruction was based (namely, that discipleship involves sacrifice) applies to everyone (Matt 10:34-39; 16:24-26). If Jesus had set out a law-code, its regulations would have been suited to the way of life in first century Palestine, but unsuited to other cultures and eras. Instead, as each occasion arose, Jesus emphasized whatever aspect of God’s truth was related to the circumstances (e.g. Matt 22:15-22; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 14:8-11). He also left behind with his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit who, generation after generation, helps Christians to interpret his words and apply their meaning. The teaching of Jesus never goes out of date (John 14:15-17; 16:13-15).

Motives and behaviour

Because God’s work of redemption through Christ is the basis of Christian ethics, the relationship that believers have with Christ will largely determine their behaviour. Their understanding of Christian doctrine will enlighten them concerning Christian conduct. Their appreciation of what Christ has done will deepen their love for him and give them the desire to please him. They will want to obey his teachings (John 14:15; 15:4,10; 2 Cor 8:9; 1 Thess 2:4; 1 Tim 1:5; 6:3; Heb 13:21). This obedience is not the fearful keeping of stern demands, but the joyful response to Christ’s love (1 John 2:1-5; 4:10-12; 5:3; cf. Matt 11:29-30; see OBEDIENCE). It is not bondage to a new set of laws, but a freedom to produce the character that no set of laws can ever produce (Rom 8:2; Gal 5:1,13; Col 2:20-23; see FREEDOM). The fact that Christian obedience is free from legalism is no excuse for moral laziness. Christians have a duty to be obedient (Rom 6:16; 1 Cor 9:21; 2 Cor 10:5; 1 Peter 1:14-16). They need to exercise constant self-discipline (1 Cor 9:24-27), and they will be able to do this through the work of Christ’s Spirit within them (Gal 5:22-23; see SELF-DISCIPLINE). The work of the Holy Spirit helps believers produce that Christian character which is the goal of Christian ethics. The motivating force behind the conduct of Christians is their desire to be like Christ and so bring glory to God (Rom 13:14; 1 Cor 10:31; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:9-10,17; cf. Matt 5:48). Being like Christ does not mean that Christians in different cultures and eras must try to copy the actions of the Messiah who lived in first century Palestine. It means rather that they have to produce the sort of character Jesus displayed and be as faithful in their callings as Jesus was in his (John 13:15; 15:12; Eph 4:24; 5:1-2; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). Christians know that in some bodily way they are to become like Christ at his return, and this should encourage them to become more like him in moral character now (Phil 3:17-21; 1 Thess 3:13; Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 3:2-3). Christians live with the sure expectation that a better life awaits them in the heavenly kingdom. This, however, is no reason to try to escape the problems of the present life (1 Cor 15:54,58; Phil 1:23-24; 2 Tim 2:10-15). On the contrary, the affairs of the present life help develop personal character and communion with God, which give meaning to life now and will last through death into the age to come (1 Cor 13:8-13; 1 Peter 1:3-9). The awareness of future judgment creates for Christians both expectancy and caution. This is not because they want rewards or fear punishment, but because the day of judgment is the climax of the present life and the beginning of the new (Matt 25:14-30; 1 Cor 3:12-15; 2 Cor 5:10; 2 Tim 4:6-8; see JUDGMENT; PUNISHMENT; REWARD).

Applying Christian ethics to society

Christian ethical teaching is aimed, first of all, not at making society Christian, but at making Christians more Christlike. Their character and behaviour must reflect their new life in Christ (Rom 6:4; Eph 4:22-24; Col 2:6-7). But Christian ethics are not a purely private affair. Christians are part of a society where Christ has placed them as his representatives, and they must apply their Christian values to the affairs of that society (Matt 5:13-16; John 17:15-18; see WITNESS; WORLD). The immediate community in which Christians must give expression to their standards is the family (Eph 5:22-6:4; see FAMILY; MARRIAGE). Beyond the family is the larger community where they live and work, and where they inevitably meet conduct that is contrary to their Christian understanding of righteousness, truth and justice (Eph 6:5-9; see JUSTICE; WORK). Over all is the civil government. Although Christian faith does not in itself make people experts on economics, politics or sociology, it does teach them moral values by which they can assess a government’s actions (Rom 13:1-7; see GOVERNMENT). Since the Creator knows what is best for his creatures, Christian ethics are the best for people everywhere. Christians should therefore do all they can to promote

God’s standards.

A society will benefit if its laws are based on God’s standards (Exod 20:13-17; Deut 5:29; Rom 13:8-10), though Christians should realize that it is not possible to enforce all those standards by law. Civil laws can deal with actions that have social consequences, but they cannot deal with the attitudes that cause those actions (cf. Matt 5:21-22; Eph 4:25-32). In addition, the ethical standards of a society may be so poor that laws have to be less than ideal in order to control and regulate an unsatisfactory state of affairs (e.g. Exod 21:1-11; Deut 24:1-4; see DIVORCE; SLAVERY). This does not mean that Christians may lower their moral standards to the level of the civil law; for something that is legal according to government-made laws may still be morally wrong (cf. Matt 19:7-9). Nor does it mean (as the system known as Situation Ethics claims) that nothing is absolutely right or wrong, and that in certain situations Christians are free to disobey God’s moral instructions, provided they feel they are acting out of love to others. The more knowledge Christians have of God’s law, the more he holds them responsible to obey it (Luke 12:48; John 9:41; James 2:10-12; cf. Amos 3:2).

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