Many Christian churches teach Christ’s sacrifice made God’s law irrelevant. Is this true? If so, then what are Christian ethics? What are they based on?
I was surprised as I watched my fellow students. The professor’s question had clearly made them uneasy, and they seemed to be at a loss as to how to answer his question.
What he had said was: “Since we know that righteousness comes through faith rather than law, can we point to anything as a basis for Christian ethics?”
This class was the introductory session of a master’s level course on Christian ethics. My fellow students—from a variety of denominational backgrounds—were all committed to their individual beliefs, and they were all sincere in their desire to live as Christians.
But they found it difficult to answer this question. Why?
The dilemma of Christian ethics
Although my religious beliefs differed from those of my fellow students, I admired many of them. Like me, most of them were already working, but had chosen to put their time, energy and effort into graduate studies. Some were ministers. Most seemed intelligent and upright in character.
So why were they struggling with the professor’s question?
I realized fairly quickly that their dilemma was the result of how the professor had worded his question. It seemed that he intentionally mentioned faith and law in such a way so as to prompt his students to consider the theological issue underlying the concept of Christian ethics.
That’s undoubtedly because many of the students believed that Christians, under the New Covenant, are not “bound” by the law. In fact, many professing Christians automatically label people as “legalists” if they suggest the law is necessary.
Without going so far as to suggest that people can live however they please, my fellow students were reluctant to identify the law of God as the basis for Christian ethics. The result was that many of them were left without any clear foundation for considering biblical ethics.
Professing Christians often speak of ethics in terms of following God or Jesus, glorifying God or emulating God’s character. Some even speak of obeying God (as opposed to obeying His law), but they wrestle with establishing any specific code of conduct. In their minds, any such required code might become a manifestation of legalism.
Proponents of this approach to God’s law generally find justification for it in the writings of the apostle Paul, though they take their stand without fully appreciating the historical and cultural context of his letters.
So, before we can begin to answer the question “What are Christian ethics?” we must briefly consider the roles of law, grace and faith for the believer. (For a more in-depth study of law and grace, see our article “Law and Grace: Jesus vs. Paul?”)
A quick look at law, grace and faith
None of the passages that supposedly prove the law is no longer in effect actually say that. They tell us that salvation and justification come through faith, but that is a far cry from abolishing the law. Rather, these statements help pinpoint the various roles of law, grace and faith.
In essence, the purpose of God’s law is to define sin and, by extension, righteousness. It shows us what is right and what is wrong—as defined by God. In his first epistle John wrote, “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness . . . Whoever abides in Him does not sin” (1 John 3:4, 6, emphasis added). In the very next verse, John adds that “he who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.”
However, because all humans have disobeyed God’s law at some point, something more is required. Paul addressed this need in his letter to the Roman church: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
Notice that we all have sinned, and sin is defined by the law, but repentant Christians have also been justified by grace. Justify means “made right.” Through the blood of Christ, Christians are cleansed of their sins. The death penalty they earned by breaking God’s law has been removed (Romans 6:23).
This does not mean we are free to continue in sin.
In fact, the same Paul in the same letter rhetorically asked the same Roman church, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” His answer was a resounding, “Certainly not!” (verses 1-2).
We can see, then, that God’s law helps us understand God’s righteous character, the fullness of which is beyond our reach as sinful humans. It is through God’s grace that we are forgiven and that justification begins. God wipes the slate clean.
What, then, is the role of faith?
Faith is trust in God. This trust leads us to believe that God loves us and that His way is best. This should fuel our desire to change, to live according to His will and to strive to obey His law, even in the face of adversity. We won’t live perfectly. We will continue to slip up. As John noted, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
Then John added another thought: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (verse 9). Faith has to do with the way we live our lives—endeavoring to obey, but continually looking to God for His guidance, His strength and His mercy. And faith means trusting God even when obedience is difficult or possibly dangerous.
The foundation of Christian ethics
Since God’s law defines sin and, therefore, righteousness, it is the foundation of Christian ethics. The psalmist who wrote the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, understood this. This beautifully composed poem is all about God’s law.
Its acrostic style was intended to make memorization of the psalm possible. The mere fact that this poem was intended to be memorized demonstrates the importance of the subject. The psalm uses a variety of synonyms for law—such as testimonies, precepts, ways, statutes and commandments—to drive home the importance of God’s law.
Throughout its 176 verses, the psalm shows us that God’s law serves as a guide for human behavior. Early in the poem, the psalmist asks, “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word” (verse 9).
Toward the middle, he asserts the value of God’s commands: “You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me” (verse 98). He also declares that God’s word is a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (verse 105).
Later, he writes, “Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble” (verse 165) and “all Your commandments are righteousness” (verse 172).
These words plainly show that God’s law is not a compilation of stuffy, restrictive commands from which we need to be freed. Rather, they are shown to be the foundation of a life lived in harmony with God and His children. That is the very definition of a code of ethics!
Christian ethics for sinners
As mentioned earlier, we as humans are incapable of perfectly obeying God’s law. All of us “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). How, then, can we as sinners follow a code of Christian ethics?
God understood this weakness from the beginning. Immediately after Moses presented the 10 Commandments to the gathered tribes of Israel, God lamented this lack in His chosen people: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
But God is not unreasonable. He had also planned from the very beginning to provide the power to His children at the right time, as Jeremiah prophesied:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
Notice that God’s law is in both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant, but God’s law is part of both. Professing Christians who dismiss God’s law as part of the New Covenant either somehow miss this passage (which is quoted in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16) or, worse, ignore it.
It is God’s Holy Spirit that empowers His children with a heart of obedience, and it is only through His Holy Spirit that obedience from the heart is possible. As Christ told the Samaritan woman at the well, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
More righteous than the Pharisees
Christian ethics are more than the law itself. Christ explained this in His Sermon on the Mount.
After declaring that He had not come “to destroy the Law” (Matthew 5:17), He made a statement that would have shocked His listeners: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20).
The scribes and Pharisees were very concerned with living righteous lives, but in many ways these religious leaders were actually at odds with God’s law. That’s because, over the centuries, they had developed many “traditions” in their interpretation of the law, and they gave this oral law priority over Scripture (Matthew 15:3, 6; Mark 7:8-9).
After making this shocking assertion about the scribes and Pharisees, Christ went on to explain how His followers could live more righteous lives (Matthew 5:21-48). In each example that He offered, Jesus demonstrated that His disciples must go beyond obeying the letter of the law to obeying the spirit (or intent) of the law. This, of course, requires the indwelling and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
What this means is that the Holy Spirit gives us more than simply power to obey the letter of the law. It does give us that power, but at the same time, it gives us discernment to see and understand the spiritual intent of God’s law.
Merely refraining from murder, for example, does not fulfill the spiritual intent of this law (verses 21-22). God’s law is a reflection of His love, a love we are to emulate. We must go beyond refraining from murder and deal with the anger and selfishness behind that sin. We are to love our enemies (verse 44).
Christian ethics in your life
So, contrary to what many of my classmates believed, we can point to God’s law as the basis, or foundation, of Christian ethics. But we need God’s Holy Spirit to obey fully. Furthermore, we need His Spirit even to understand fully how to obey!
The first step in establishing a code of Christian ethics is to come to know, understand and appreciate God’s law for what it truly is—an expression of God’s love. The 10 Commandments are the core of that law. (See our article “What Are the 10 Commandments?”)
The next step is to see how members of the early Church applied God’s law to their circumstances. Many New Testament writers provide us wonderful lists of practical applications. Here are a few such biblical lists:
- Fruit of the Spirit versus works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-26).
- Wisdom from above (James 3:17-18).
- Qualities to “add to your faith” (2 Peter 1:5-9).
- Qualities of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
- Qualifications for bishops (ministers) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
- Qualifications for elders (Titus 1:5-9).