Christian Ethics – Introduction
Ethics is the study of good and evil, right and wrong. Biblical Christian ethics is inseparable from theology because it is grounded in the character of God. The task of Christian ethics, then, is to determine what conforms to God’s character and what does not. Francis Schaeffer explains the uniqueness of Christian ethics: “One of the distinctions of the Judeo-Christian God is that not all things are the same to Him. That at first may sound rather trivial, but in reality it is one of the most profound things one can say about the Judeo–Christian God. He exists; He has a character; and not all things are the same to Him. Some things conform to His character, and some are opposed to His character.”1
Muslims believe that moral norms are arbitrary, a product of God’s decree, and therefore can change as God chooses. Marxists and Secular Humanists rely almost exclusively on their economic or naturalistic philosophy to determine ethics. Postmodernists argue for a morality based on shared “community” values and Cosmic Humanists assume that everyone acts morally by following inner truth determined on an individual basis. Christians, on the other hand, believe that moral norms come from God’s nature or essence. Rather than believing in some passing fancy bound to society’s ever-changing whims, as Christians we are committed to a specific moral order revealed to us through both general and special revelation.
We know that God’s ethical order is the only true source of morality, and, in fact, the only possible morality; there can be no other. “The human mind,” says C.S. Lewis, “has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”2 For the Christian, the moral order is as real as the physical order—some would say even more real. The Apostle Paul says the physical order is temporary, but the order “not seen” is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18). This eternal moral order is a reflection of the character and nature of God Himself.
Christian Ethics – Our Common Moral Heritage
Christian ethics, in one sense, is simply an expansion of a moral order that is generally revealed to everyone. Despite some disagreement regarding the morality of specific actions, Calvin D. Linton comments on the consistency of the moral code within all people everywhere: “...[T]here is a basic pattern of similarity among [ethical codes]. Such things as murder, lying, adultery, cowardice are, for example, almost always condemned. The universality of the ethical sense itself (the ‘oughtness’ of conduct), and the similarities within the codes of diverse cultures indicate a common moral heritage for all mankind which materialism or naturalism cannot explain.”3
We may define this common moral heritage as anything from an attitude to a conscience, but however we define it, we are aware that some moral absolutes do exist outside ourselves. According to this universal moral code, whenever we pass judgment we are relying upon a yardstick that measures actions against an absolute set of standards. Without a standard, justice could not exist; without an ethical absolute, morality could not exist.
Christian Ethics – A Common Moral Standard
This objective, absolute standard is apparent throughout humanity’s attitudes toward morality. According to a secular philosophy, we should treat all morals as relative—but in practice, even secular society treats some abstract values (such as justice, love, and courage) as consistently moral. Secular society also cringes at the Nazi holocaust, the Russian prison system of Siberian gulags, and the abuse of children. We cannot explain this phenomenon unless we accept the notion that certain value judgments apply universally and are somehow inherent to all mankind.
Christian morality is founded on the conviction that an absolute moral order exists outside of, and yet somehow is inscribed into, our very being. It is a morality flowing from the nature of the Creator through the nature of created things, not a construction of the human mind. It is part of God’s general revelation. “At the core of every moral code,” says Walter Lippman, “there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.”4
This moral light is what the Apostle John refers to as having been lit in the hearts of all men and women—”The true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9, NIV). It is what the Apostle Paul calls “the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience” (Romans 2:15).
This morality is not arbitrarily handed down by God to create difficulties for us. God does not make up new values according to whim. Rather, God’s innate character is holy and cannot tolerate evil or moral indifference—what the Bible calls sin. Therefore, if we wish to please God and prevent sin from separating us from Him, we must act in accordance with His moral order. Christians are assured of these truths about God’s nature and judgment as a result of special revelation. Whereas general revelation has informed all people of the existence of a moral order, special revelation—the Bible—discloses specifics regarding that order. In the final analysis, Christians rely on God and His Word for a full explanation of the moral order.
Christian Ethics – Conclusion
Christian ethics and the Christian ethical system is both like and unlike any other system ever postulated. Every ethical system contains some grain of the truth found in the Christian code, but no other system can claim to be the whole truth, handed down as an absolute from God to humanity.
As Christians who recognize the truth of God’s law, we must dedicate our lives to obeying it. This dedication is far too rare today. Bonhoeffer asks, “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?”5
Such Christians are those who are willing to treat God’s moral order with the same respect they show His physical order; who love God with their whole body, soul, spirit, mind, and strength; who treat others as they desire to be treated. They may be in the halls of government, standing firm against tyranny and slavery, or in the mission field, sacrificing everything for the sake of the gospel. More often they are quite ordinary Christians living extraordinary lives, showing the world that Christ’s truth is worth believing and living. (For biblical examples of ethically responsible men and women, see Hebrews 11:32–12:3.)