In my last post, I described what biblical ethics is not. The purpose of today’s post is to suggest something of how we should positively think of biblical ethics. Ethics are of fundamental importance to our faith and to our society. Pragmatism and convenience have left a legacy of anemic moral reasoning throughout modern American life. One example will suffice. Most of us take it for granted that the cameras on our phones may be used freely to capture images of other people without considering if the person wants to be photographed. We don’t think of about the rightness or wrongness of the matter because the technology is readily available and there could be some use for the image or video. But is it really ethically correct to turn a person made in the image of God unto a meme for personal enjoyment? Does filming a person in distress prevent us from helping a person in distress? Such is the world in which we now live. But there must be a better way than pragmatism and convenience.
Biblical ethics are all about God. And the ethical training that must be part of our discipleship is God-centered training. Biblical ethics is composed of at least three key ideas – God’s character, God’s glory, and God’s wisdom. There is much more to be said on the subject, but this seems like a good starting point to me. Let us take these in turn.
Ethics in the character of God. Our ethical outlook must be shaped by the revelation of God’s character as found in Scripture. Our actual ethical choices must be applications of God’s character to the situations of life. In my last post, I mentioned the biblical law requiring a parapet be built around the roof of a house (Deuteronomy 22:8). Broadly speaking, this law teaches us that homeowners are responsible for the safety of their buildings. But we might also add the insight that people who are near the edge of a roof and behaving in ways that could lead to falling are people that are behaving foolishly (such as drunk persons).* Yet the Israelite homeowner was required to take action that actually mitigated the consequences of the foolish person’s behavior. Why go to all this trouble? Because the God of Israel cares about the well-being of his people and acts in ways that demonstrate his mercy. He is “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6 NIV). He is the one who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). We should be like this God – “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
Ethics for the glory of God. But not only are we to live our lives to reflect God’s character; we also live our lives to bring glory to God. In everything that we do, we must ask ourselves, “Am I glorifying the God who made all things and gave me new life through Jesus Christ?” As Paul writes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Our right ethical actions are intimately connected to the gratitude that we have to God for creating us and redeeming us. Bible teacher R. T. Kendall often refers to the doctrine of sanctification as “the doctrine of gratitude,” and I believe that there is much that is correct about this idea. The Heidelberg Catechism positions reflection on the Ten Commandments under the heading “Our Thankfulness” and Lord’s Day 32 informs us that one of the reasons that we must do good works is that “we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits, and he may be praised by us.” So, in any given situation, does our behavior give God glory and show him gratitude? What actions are less honoring to God and what actions are more honoring? How does what we do show how much we esteem God? If we commit small acts of theft, does it not say to God and to others that we are not satisfied with what God has provided for us?
Ethics according to the wisdom of God. Finally, biblical ethics are interested in living in ways consistent with God’s creation and the way God made human beings. If wisdom is defined as something like skillful living, then it is clear that ethics are closely related. We should not consider something ethically correct which is out of step with the way that God has made the world and other people. We do not murder because human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). To murder is to deface the image of God. It is true that the violation of this commandment is a violation of God’s character which fails to bring glory to God. It is also, however, a denial of the way that God has made people as image-bearers; therefore, it is a failure of wisdom, a refusal to function correctly within the parameters of God’s creation. Hence Christians should oppose abortion-on-demand because it seems that God has so created human reproduction that human life begins at conception and, therefore, the dignity due to the image-bearer belongs to the baby in the womb. This is wisdom, skillfully working within the parameters of God’s good creation. Just as we should not murder our neighbor, it is wise and ethically right to prohibit the murder of the vulnerable child in utero. We might conclude with the words of James, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13, emphasis added).
Of course, anyone familiar with biblical ethics is intensely interested in the actual imperatives of Scripture (openness to the Bible is a requirement for the use of the word biblical). In relation to my analysis, it might be said that any “ought” of Scripture is an application of God’s character, in which God shows us how to praise him in the daily choices of life, and in a manner consistent with the way he created the world. The Bible’s teachings on everything from marriage to business transactions can be understood in this light.
For more about biblical ethics, check out these resources.
Dan Doriani’s class on Christian Ethics, available through Covenant Seminary. *If my memory serves me correctly, the above mentioned insights on the parapet law came from this class. (Disclaimer – I took this class with Dr. Doriani, and none of my errors should be associated with his class!)
Evangelical Ethics by John Jefferson Davis (Takes a look at the perennial topics of ethical discussion such as euthanasia and sexual ethics)
Just Say Thanks! by R. T. Kendall (A very helpful book on gratitude)