10 Things You Should Know about Christian Ethics

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Christian ethics teaches us how to live.

Christian ethics asks what the whole Bible teaches us about which acts, attitudes, and personal character traits receive God’s approval and which ones do not.

This means that Christian ethics teaches us how to live. It is important to study Christian ethics so that we can better know God’s will, and so that each day we can “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:10).

2. The ultimate basis for Christian ethics is the moral character of God.

God delights in his own moral character, which is supremely good, unchanging, and eternal. His moral standards for human beings flow from his moral character, and therefore they apply to all people in all cultures for all of history (although the Bible also contains many temporary commands intended only for specific people at a specific time).

God is love, so he commands us to love (1 John 4:19). He is holy, and he commands us to be holy (1 Peter 1:15). He is merciful, and he commands us to be merciful (Luke 6:36). He is truthful, and he commands us not to bear false witness (Titus 1:2; Exodus 20:16). God’s moral character and the historical fact that he has given us moral commands provide the basis for a Christian answer to the question of how we can move from “is” statements to “ought” statements in ethics.

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3. Christian ethics is based on the Bible.

One of the purposes of the Bible is to teach us how to live a life that is pleasing to God (Col. 1:9–10; 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:17). Because it is the Word of God, the Bible is a higher authority in ethics than tradition, reason, experience, expected results, or subjective perceptions of guidance. While these other factors can never override the teaching of Scripture, they can still be helpful for us in making a wise decision.

4. Christian ethics is essential to the proclamation of the gospel.

Some Christian speakers today downplay or omit any call for unbelievers to repent of their sins, but evangelism in the New Testament clearly included a call to repentance. Just before he returned to heaven, Jesus told his disciples “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Similarly, Paul proclaimed the need for repentance to pagan Greek philosophers in Athens, warning them that the final judgment was coming: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31; see also Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; Hebrews 6:1). “Repentance” in the New Testament is not merely a “change of mind” but includes both sorrow for one’s sins and a sincere inward resolve to turn away from sin and to turn to Christ in faith (Hebrews 6:1; Acts 16:31).

But how can unbelievers repent of their sins if they do not even know what God’s moral standards are? I do not believe that widespread revival will come to any nation apart from widespread, heartfelt repentance for sin. Therefore gospel proclamation today must include an element of teaching about God’s moral standards, which means teaching about Christian ethics.

5. Christian ethics teaches us how to live for the glory of God.

The goal of ethics is to lead a life that glorifies God (“do all to the glory of God,” 1 Cor. 10:31). Such a life will have (1) a character that glorifies God (a Christ-like character), (2) results that glorify God (a life that bears abundant fruit for God’s kingdom), and (3) behavior that glorifies God (a life of obedience to God, lived in personal relationship with God).

Although we are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by works, extensive New Testament teachings about living the Christian life show that our day-by-day obedience as justified Christians is an important part of the Christian life. Understanding obedience correctly requires that we avoid the opposite errors of legalism and antinomianism.

Christian ethics asks what the whole Bible teaches us about which acts, attitudes, and personal character traits receive God’s approval and which ones do not.

6. Obeying God brings numerous blessings to our daily lives.

The New Testament teaches at least seventeen specific kinds of blessings that come to us in connection with living in obedience to God’s commands in Scripture. These blessings include the joy of deeper fellowship with God (John 15:10); the joy of pleasing God (2 Corinthians 5:9; Colossians 1:10); the joy of becoming a vessel for “honorable use” by God (2 Timothy 2:20-21); the joy of being an effective witness to unbelievers (1 Peter 2:12; 3:1); the joy of increased answers to our prayers (1 Peter 3:10-12; James 5:16; 1 John 3:21-22); the joy of closer fellowship with other Christians (1 John 1:7); the joy of a clear conscience (1 Timothy 1:5, 19); and several other blessings.

God intended that obedience to him would not be burdensome (1 John 5:3) but would bring us great joy. For this reason, when Christians are not “conformed to this world” we discover that following the will of God is a path of life that is for us “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

7. Willful sin brings several harmful consequences to our daily lives.

It is not too popular to talk about sin today, but it is a huge topic in the Bible. Searching for the English word “sin” (and other words with the same root such as “sins” or “sinner”) shows that it occurs 440 times in the New Testament alone. And my copy of the Bible in the English Standard Version (ESV) has 235 pages in the New Testament. This means that the topic of sin is mentioned in one way or another, on average, nearly two times per page through the entire New Testament. We would neglect such an important topic at our peril.

The New Testament mentions several harmful consequences that come from willful sin in the life of a Christian. These consequences include a disruption of our daily fellowship with God (Ephesians 4:30; 1 John 3:21), the awareness of God’s fatherly displeasure and the possible experience of his fatherly discipline (1 Cor. 11:30; Hebrews 12:5-11; see also Ephesians 4:30; Revelation 3:19), and a loss of fruitfulness in our ministries and in our Christian lives (John 15:4-5).

Christians should pray daily for forgiveness of sins (Matthew 6:12; 1 John 1:9), not to gain justification again and again, but to restore our personal fellowship with God that has been hindered by sin.

8. Christian ethics teaches us to consider four dimensions of any action, and nine possible sources of information.

Christian ethics is not concerned only with our right and wrong actions. We are complex people, and life itself is complex. Therefore, in studying Christian ethics, God wants us to consider not only (1) the action itself but also (2) a person’s attitudes about the action, (3) the person’s motives for doing the action, and (4) the results of the action.

In seeking to know God’s will, sometimes we must make a decision instantly, with no time to ponder the situation (see the story of Joseph in Genesis 39:12). But at other times, we are able to ponder a decision at some length. When we have more time to ponder a decision, we can consider as many as nine possible sources of information and guidance: (1) the Bible, (2) knowledge of the facts of the situation, (3) knowledge of ourselves, (4) advice from others, (5) changed circumstances, (6) our consciences, (7) our hearts, (8) our human spirits, and (9) guidance from the Holy Spirit. We need wisdom from God in order to evaluate these factors rightly in making a decision.

9. We should never think that God wants us to choose a “lesser sin.”

Although several evangelical ethics books claim that, from time to time, we face situations of “impossible moral conflict” where all our choices are sinful and we must simply choose to commit the “lesser sin,” this idea is not taught in Scripture. It is contradicted both by the life of Christ, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15), and by the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which says that God will always provide a “way of escape.”

The “impossible moral conflict” view easily becomes a slippery slope that in actual practice encourages Christians to sin more and more.

10. Using the Old Testament for ethical guidance requires an understanding of the history of redemption.

Many Christians have read the Old Testament and wondered how we should understand the detailed laws that God gave to the people of Israel under the leadership of Moses. This requires an understanding of the “history of redemption”—the overall progress of the main storyline of the Bible.

The Mosaic covenant, which began at Exodus 20, was terminated when Christ died. Christians are no longer directly subject to the laws of the Mosaic covenant but now live instead under the provisions of the new covenant. However, the Old Testament is still a valuable source of ethical wisdom when understood in accordance with the ways in which the New Testament authors use the Old Testament for ethical teaching, and in light of the changes brought about by the new covenant. The New Testament authors explicitly reaffirm all of the moral standards found in the Ten Commandments, except they do not reaffirm observance of the Sabbath as a requirement for new covenant Christians.

Understanding the progressive development of the Bible from the old covenant (under Moses) to the new covenant (inaugurated by Christ) is especially important when thinking about the Bible’s teaching regarding civil government today. It is important to remember that God’s wise laws about crimes and punishments that he gave to the civil government of Israel as a nation then are in many ways different from God’s wise purposes for the civil governments of secular nations now.

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