Christian Ethics Considered

What should motivate Christians? What should guide them and control them? Toward what end should we be motivated and led?

These are questions of Christian ethics. They are questions every Christian ought to seek to answer. The Bible has much to say on the matter of Christian ethics and it ought to be the touchstone by which we find the right answer to our questions.

Today I will take 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 as the starting point for a brief consideration of Christian ethics.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

There we have a beautiful encapsulation of Christian ethics.

Christ’s love compels us. Paul wrote those words, and they should be our words and motivation too. That statement is succinct, and yet so much can be drawn from it. He didn’t say a law or laws compelled him. He said love compelled him. More than that, Christ’s love. It is not our love–something that comes from us–which should motivate us. No, it is the example of Christ’s love put before us, and, even more, the working of his love in us.

Because we are convinced that one died for all. Love, in the minds of men, can be such an airy undefined thing. Not so with Paul. What is Christ’s love? What is its relation and substance? Its relation is to God the Father, the one Christ loves, and its substance is found in obedience to Him (John 10:17, 14:31).

When we think of Christ dying for us it is common to think and speak of how much Christ loved us. It is true that Christ loves us, and that is not to be belittled, but we must understand it from the proper perspective. Jesus Christ’s love is for the Father and in that love he was obedient to the will of the Father, even to death on a cross (Phil. 2:8)! Further, it was in that love for and of the Father that he loved us and laid down his life for us. As our Lord says, “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14:31) and, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:9-13)

Men, with their man-centered thinking, like to think of themselves as the focus of God’s love (whether it be in the trinitarian expression of God the Father’s love or Christ Jesus the Son’s love). Not so. Certainly, as the Bible makes clear, we are the recipients of Gods love, and undoubtedly we are the beneficiaries of His love, but we must always remember how that is so. It is in God the Father’s love for the Son that we are loved (John 17:23,26) and it is in the Son’s love for the Father that we are loved. This in no way diminishes the love God has for us, but rather puts it rightly in its God-centered perspective. And, understanding how greatly God loves His Son we then see how greatly He loves those who are in His Son, and in seeing how greatly the Son loves the Father, we see how greatly he loves us. The fact that the love God has for us is found in the God-head and not in ourselves is the source for our surpassing hope and confidence. As Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. We should no longer live for ourselves. The love of Christ compels us–to live in obedience to the Father, after the example of Christ: a self-sacrificing expression of God’s love.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. There is a great divide between the world’s point of view and the view of those who are in Christ. For as it is said,

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

“Therefore come out from them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

(2 Cor. 6:14-18)

That which motivates our life and action is entirely different from that which motivates the world. The world lives for itself, we live for God.

He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. How do we live for God? We are called to be His ambassadors, declaring His message of reconciliation. Those who have not received the message–the world–can have no part in this.

So we return to the question, what motivates us? The love of Christ. And to what does it motivate us? Obedience to God as ambassadors of His message of reconciliation that, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them [. . .] We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I say again, what compels us? The love of Christ. Why? Because we believe that one died for all. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God” Christian ethics is based on faith and love produced by the work of God. You cannot force the compulsion of love upon someone else, it must spring up from inside him, and that is from God. It is radically different from what has come before. The ethics of the flesh is “Do this and live.” Do no murder, do not steal . . . and so on. Countries and societies enforce their ethics by the power of the sword and the might of their arm. In contrast true Christian ethics is an inward work of God. The love of Christ compels because we believe. With no belief there is no love, and no Christian ethic. Therefore, partaking in the Christian ethic requires belief. Christians partake in the promulgation of Christian ethics not by legislative force but by the declaration of God’s word. In other words, we have no power to enforce Christian ethics in ourselves–we are ambassadors of God’s message of reconciliation. And those whom God has chosen, in whom He works to believe the message–in them the Christian ethic comes to dwell through the love of Christ.

Throughout church history Christians have failed to reckon with this truth. Instead of resting in the power of the new creation wrought by God Christians in every age have instead attempted to work with the old creation fashioning an ethics of the flesh enforced by the means of the flesh–laws and regulation. Instead of resting in the promise, “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” Christians have attempted to enforce ethics on the church, and on society as a whole and in so doing have yoked themselves with unbelievers in a multitude of ways. But how can a true spiritual ethic of a new creation be lived by an old creation under the methods of that old order?

For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?

What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?

Can I be any more clear?

Nonetheless, it has been attempted in the past, and it is attempted to this very day. And so I watch appalled as Christians make a devil’s deal with the powers of this present age in an attempt to bring about a so-called Christian ethic upon today’s culture and society. Instead of resting by faith in the inner working of God by the power of His Spirit Christians attempt to work by the wisdom and strength of men. They sow a wind and will reap a whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). We ought to remember, “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Let us leave behind worldly ways, and cling fast to the promise of God:

Therefore come out from them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.

****

Further Reading:

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has much to say on the matter of Christian ethics. For anyone who might be interested in further reading I will list some scripture that could serve as a starting point. First, as is highlighted by my constant references, the chapters of John 13-17 are packed with ethical teaching. I will not quote those chapters here, but a voluminous study could be made of all that is said there. One could also look to 1 John 4.

Some other passages one could start with:

Romans 8:1-17:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind[f] is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Philippians 2:1-16:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life

And that would be just a start.

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