From the March/April 2015 issue of Discern Magazine

Are Good Morals Good Enough?

What kind of person does immoral things with impunity? Who decides what is immoral? Is there a way to know with certainty what is right and wrong in life?

There it was in my inbox for the second time in a week: “I am … an aging widow suffering from cancer. I have some funds I am willing to donate through you to non-profit charitable organization amounting £8.3 Million pounds. … 50% of the total sum should be transferred to any orphanage home. You can help your community with the remaining 50% and for your services to carry out this last wish for me.”

What kind of person does immoral things without guilt?

As I hit the delete button, I wondered what kind of person would fall for such a scam. The numbers must be small, but evidently there are a few who are fooled. The criminals behind the scams then steal their savings and leave some innocent and often elderly people destitute. 

And what kind of person is able to lie, cheat and steal with such impunity? How do such people live with themselves? Most people would be wracked with guilt if they committed a crime like this.

Our decisions about what is right and wrong in life

How do you make decisions about right and wrong in your life? Philosophers often proclaim that truth is relative and there are no moral absolutes, so how can we know if the choices we make are right or wrong? How do we know we’re any better than the criminals trying to dupe the unsuspecting and naïve with bogus schemes?

As we become adults and acquire the power to make bigger and more significant decisions, each of us is faced with the challenge of determining what standards will shape those decisions. Judgments must always be based upon some standard, so what standards will guide us as we make the decisions that affect our lives and our relationships?

For a lot of people today, those moral standards are founded upon human reason alone. If human reason is the highest source of knowledge available, then human concepts of morality should be supreme.

The weakness of moral reasoning

But experience shows us that humans don’t all reason in the same way. What one person values can be very different from what another person values. The supporters of the ISIS-led insurgency in the Middle East believed it is moral to torture and brutally murder those who oppose their goals, while the rest of the world was repulsed by their savagery. 

If terrorists consider themselves morally upright while the rest of civilization considers them immoral in the extreme, isn’t it obvious that human assessments of morality are inherently inadequate? 

But, wait! I’m human too. Does that mean my assessments of morality may also be inadequate?

What’s missing in understanding what is immoral?

Everyone sees the importance of good morals, but there is a vital concept missing. Without it humans stumble about in spiritual darkness, bruised and battered by spiritual realities they cannot perceive.

The missing concept is embodied in one simple, three-letter word—sin. Some think sin is an antiquated concept with little relevance for the modern world.

Unlike moral relativism, sin is not determined by human reason or by the fluctuations of human society. Sin is determined by an eternal God whose standards transcend the barriers of time and place. What He defined as sin yesterday is still sin today and will be sin tomorrow, and no one will ever be exempt from His standards. 

And there is one more aspect of sin that sets it apart from morals. There is a death penalty for committing sin (Romans 6:23), and no one will ever be exempt from that either. 

The good news is that the God who defines sin also “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4).

How can we know what is right and wrong in life?

“But,” some will say, “different people worship different gods, and those gods have different standards. How can we know which one is right?” Believe it or not, the true God thought that was a fair question, and He didn’t leave us in the dark with no answer.

God claims that He has the right to tell you and me how we should live our lives and what our moral standards should be. 

But I have a mind and the ability to reason. What right does He have to tell me what I should and should not do?

God gives His credentials

When giving a formal presentation, a speaker often begins by telling the audience why they should listen. 

Have you ever considered the beginning of the Bible from that perspective? Many look at Genesis 1 hoping to find scientific or historical evidence of the beginnings of our world. Some of that information is there, but there’s more.

Are we overlooking God’s enduring introduction of Himself and His credentials in this passage? Consider in summary what is actually shown.

When we are introduced to the scene, God commanded and stars and planets and light came into existence. Then in verse 3 He simply said, “Let there be light,” and this amazing form of energy that scientists still struggle to understand drove out the darkness that had enshrouded everything an instant before.

As the account moves forward, this great being took inert matter and gave it life and the ability to reproduce consistently according to unique patterns, and plant life grew. He next used more inert matter and created animals with brains and instinct and all of their wonderful and intricate behaviors. 

And then He brought into existence human beings and gifted them with the unique ability to think and reason and make moral choices. And He made it clear that these beings—both male and female—were made like Him—in His image and likeness as no other creatures were.

And as a final act in that creative week, He set apart and blessed a unique period of time in the weekly cycle so that it would be different from regular time.

God laid all of this evidence before His audience and proclaimed that everything He had created was “very good.” Anyone examining this evidence would properly be in awe of a being who is capable of these things. Man is clearly incapable of any of these feats. 

Human moral choices

After establishing His right to instruct them, God revealed good and evil, right and wrong to the first man and woman. Sadly, they chose to give more value to their own human reasoning (buying into Satan’s worldview) than to God’s revealed knowledge, and the results were tragic.

They undoubtedly felt justified in making the moral choices they made. But by God’s definition, they were sinful, and the history that followed showed that God was right and they were wrong.

Even so, biblical history shows that mankind still doubted God’s authority to determine right and wrong. Perhaps one of the more famous accounts occurred when God sent two elderly men—Moses and Aaron—to give His message to one of the most powerful men on earth—the Pharaoh of Egypt (Exodus 5:1). 

They had to understand that it is God, and not man, who establishes right and wrong—who determines what is sin and what is not.

Many Egyptians considered the pharaohs to be divine, and history tells us that the ancient Egyptians worshipped hundreds of gods. But Israel’s God was not among their pantheon. The ancient world believed there were countless gods and goddesses who ruled over different places, peoples and powers. 

This ancient ruler probably considered Israel’s God to be weak and powerless since He was unable to deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian overlords.

Questioning God

In essence, Pharaoh’s prideful response to God’s message was, Who is this God of the Hebrew slaves that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I don’t even know who this God of yours is! (See Exodus 5:2.) 

In a short time this ruler and his mighty nation crumbled into chaos, and all the gods they worshipped were shown to be powerless before this God of the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 12:12). No longer did anyone wonder who this God was and why He should be obeyed.

Though Pharaoh had given voice to the question, he wasn’t the only one who needed to know the answer. The Israelites themselves needed to know who this God was who had brought them out of slavery and was leading them to the land promised over four centuries earlier to their ancestor Abraham. 

Before these freed slaves could enter the Promised Land, they had to understand that it is God, and not man, who establishes right and wrong—who determines what is sin and what is not.

At the foot of Mount Sinai

As they stood, trembling in awe at the foot of the mountain, God began by telling them why they should obey His voice: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). 

He then laid before them the 10 Commandments, 10 timeless principles defining good and evil—principles that for all time transcend any human ideas of morality. 

Just before they were ready to enter that Promised Land, He instructed Moses to remind them that these principles were not arbitrary regulations; they were given in love for the good of those who would treasure them as the most important values in life (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

The problem of sin and its solution

Like those Israelites of old, many of us have overlooked, ignored and neglected these eternal principles. In doing so, we have brought suffering and heartache upon ourselves and our loved ones, as well as a death penalty upon ourselves.

But God doesn’t want to see His children die (Ezekiel 33:11), so He offers us a way for the penalty to be paid so we can set our lives on the right course. 

That course—a course that leads to forgiveness, joy and ultimately salvation—is revealed in an annual series of sacred observances, beginning with the same Passover that Jesus Himself observed. 

Asking why we should allow this God to establish the morals, ethics and values by which we live our lives today—and to give us the vital information about sin—is perfectly reasonable. Ignoring or setting aside His unmistakable answer is not. 

Still the most important decision

Deciding who will establish the standards by which we will shape our lives is still the most important decision we will ever make, and it’s not a decision we can delay or ignore. Being a moral person is a noble goal, but without the knowledge of God, it will never be enough. 

Though the arrogance of Pharaoh cost him dearly, it’s still important that each of us humbly ask the same question: Who is this God that I should obey Him?

When you know the answer, you’ll want to know more about what He wants you to do. These biblically based booklets can help:


Rescue From Sin

God rescued the Israelite slaves from the arrogant Pharaoh in two steps, commemorated by two often-neglected biblical festivals. These offer poignant reminders of how God saves us from sin today.

Passover: rescue from death

First God saved the Israelites from death. He used 10 plagues—the last one bringing the death of the firstborn children and animals in Egypt (Exodus 11:4-5)—to finally convince the stubborn Pharaoh to let His people go. God told each Israelite family to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their home. The blood of a lamb marked the families that would be protected—passed over.

This annual Passover festival remains the key commemoration of Jesus Christ’s role in saving us. The lambs foreshadowed “Christ, our Passover, [who] was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). When Jesus and His disciples observed the Passover the evening before He died, He gave new symbols for the New Testament Passover.

Jesus, “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29), told His followers to take wine as a symbol of His blood “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Jesus said, “Whoever [figuratively] eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).

Without that forgiveness of sins, we would all die forever, because the “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). Passover today reminds us that Jesus paid the death penalty for those who have repented.

How should we respond?

Unleavened Bread: rescue from slavery

After the Passover, God led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. Their rushed exodus was remembered by the flat bread they ate. They left so quickly, they didn’t have time to allow bread to become leavened and rise.

God designed the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread to teach us lessons about coming out of slavery to sin. For this week, yeast and other leavening agents represent the subtle and pervasive corruption of sin. Removing the leaven and eating only foods that are unleavened helps us focus on, as the apostle Paul explained, removing “the leaven of malice and wickedness” and replacing it with “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).

Christians who celebrate these biblical festivals today grow in their appreciation of God’s offer to save us from the death penalty of our sins and to rescue us from slavery to sin. They respond to God’s love by humbly accepting His standards of right and wrong and seeking His help in their daily struggle to overcome sin.

Read more about the lessons of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in our booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.

About the Author

David Johnson

David Johnson is a minister for Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and instructor at Foundation Institute.

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