Reformed Believers Publishing: Sword and Shield

FAITH AND LIFE

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.—Romans 12:1

ETHICS AND THE GOSPEL

 Ethics in the broadest sense is a science of distinction in conduct and behavior, distinguishing between behavior that is ethical and that is unethical. Ethics is part of the vocabulary of any society and culture. Ethics is an essential ingredient in society. The very notion of a society demands a shared set of behaviors and practices that are considered to be normal to the members of the society. According to this consideration, behaviors and practices that fall short of this norm are judged wrong by the society. The more flagrant and constant the falling short, the more likely the violator is to be cast out of that society altogether. Especially societies of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and scientists, are careful to maintain and enforce their own systems of ethics. Even corporations have boards and consultants that specialize in ethics. Ethical violations are often grounds for dismissal from practice and for revocation of licenses to practice. Secular colleges and universities have professors of ethics and courses in ethics, and award degrees in the subject of ethics. Most people know that ethical behavior is good, while unethical behavior is bad.

In the secular realm there are many who are fascinated with the source of ethics. To a worldview that is strictly atheistic and materialistic, ethics is a very strange phenomenon. How does a society MVAcome to have such a strong sense of ethics? How is this ethical sense so strong that members who before held such a firm place in a society so suddenly become outcasts because of scandal? How is it that a society can so readily agree together on distinctions between good and bad? Some answer that ethics arises out of a group identity that uses patterns of behavior to distinguish between those within and without, to distinguish the friends of a society from those who are its enemies. Others answer that it arises out of the understanding that some behaviors are beneficial to the group, that is, “good,” while other behaviors are detrimental, that is, “bad.” Still others of a more radical sort will answer that all ethics are remnants of religious elements of primitive man. Those remains inhibit the development of man to greater heights of progress. They keep him from advancing in his evolutionary progress. Therefore, the sooner all ethical notions are cast off, the better off the human race will be.
 It may be helpful to give examples of the latter. Ethics involves approved notions of love, mercy, and compassion. Ethics determines faithful commitment in marriage and family. Proper ethics approves helping unreservedly the poor, needy, and handicapped. But these ethics are criticized. They are declared detrimental to true progress. The human race and human society are better off without the weak. They are a waste of significant resources. Their presence threatens the progressive purification of the gene pool. The aged and infirm should be euthanized. The depressed should have access to assisted suicide. Especially the impoverished ghettos should have both access to abortion and abortion promoted there. Though Adolf Hitler’s eugenic program was thoroughly reviled in Europe and America, it has been revived and welcomed through the labor of Margaret Sanger, that labor bearing its abominable fruit in the government-sponsored Planned Parenthood with its euphemistic “family planning.”

In the above abomination there is a glaring weakness that demands attention, a weakness that must greatly assist us in understanding what must be an essential element of Reformed ethics. This weakness, which is found in every secular notion of ethics, is that it is man-centered. Ethics is the study of man, and it can therefore rise no higher than man and human society.

This weakness is that ultimately all study of ethics is always relative and always shifting and changing. Think of an ethical study of England during the Victorian Era. There is plenty of literature written during that time from which one might derive a pattern of behavior and conduct, approved and disapproved, to come to an accurate ethical study of that time. We might think of all the ethical questions treated in the works of Charles Dickens. Compare such a study on ethics with a study of ethics done among the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. What a difference between the two! In the present culture one might well decide that a secular study of ethics is nearly impossible, drawing the conclusion that ethics is all but dead.

The glaring weakness is that ethics must be descriptive. It can only analyze. It can never demand. It might try to give guidance or offer advice. But every secular system is ironically at the mercy of the society that practices it. Another great fault of such ethical understanding is that it is always relative and fluctuating. Ultimately it leaves man alone, entirely in charge of his own ethics. Good and evil is simply up to him. If he likes, he is free to call evil good and good evil, and change back if he so likes. Thus any ethical framework of man must collapse upon itself, simply because man is a creature of change.

At the same time there is something notable about secular ethics that serves the cause of Reformed ethics. The Canons of Dordt mention secular ethics in heads 3 and 4, article 4: “There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” This sentence from the Canons is a further explanation of the same truth confessed in the Belgic Confession, article 14, which speaks of “a few remains” of “[man’s] excellent gifts which he had received from God.” We also note that these remains are declared by both confessions to leave man without excuse.

Worthy of note in this connection is that the same “few remains,” declared by the Reformed confessions to leave man without excuse, are extolled and celebrated as a ground for common grace by those claiming allegiance to the same Reformed confessions.

The fact of secular ethics is in the light of scripture a demonstration of the creation and fall of man. That unregenerate man is both without excuse and under the wrath of God is because he is an ethical creature and knows that he is an ethical creature. His use of ethics is in the service of sin. He uses the label good to pervert evil, to twist and turn it into his so-called good. He uses ethics as a means to cohere and maintain his society in its antichristian revolt against God and his Christ, as identified by Psalm 2. Fallen man uses his ethics to be “Good without God,” a slogan developed by atheists for propaganda during a Christmas season not long ago.

There are reasons that we have spent this much space laying out in detail secular ethics and secular ethics under the wrath of God. The first reason is that a proper fear of God must give a strong warning against the notion that having an ethical system or thinking ethically is itself a virtue. It is not. We might think of the first three chapters of the book of James. There is no value in being merely a hearer of the law. Neither is there any value in being merely a judge or a speaker of judgment. As it is observed in Romans 2:14–15 of the Gentiles under God’s wrath, their approval or disapproval of others’ behavior only shows the work of the law written on their hearts. It does not justify them before God but only condemns them.

The second reason is that Reformed ethics must be on its constant guard against being merely descriptive, and being merely descriptive of behavior and judgment in the church. Reformed ethics cannot be determined by survey or analysis of the members of the church, even the holiest members of the church. Reformed ethics must be based entirely on scripture and scripture alone. The “sola scriptura” of the Protestant Reformation must carry its blessed force to Reformed ethics. Here the church of Christ faces two fronts. Worldliness is always seeping into the church. We can think especially of entertainment, especially drama, which at present has moved far beyond situational ethics to introduce and preach a constantly conflicted ethics. But there is another front that is just as dangerous and requires perhaps even more vigilance. A church with high walls and gates barred against the world can develop its own ethical system to justify itself. The danger is that the church becomes lax in its walk rather than pursuing perfection in the hope of eternal life. An even greater danger is that the church uses its own ethical system to justify itself both over against the world and over against the righteousness of God in Christ, and thus loses the heart of the gospel.

The study of Reformed ethics has two additional benefits. The first great benefit is that at the same time Reformed ethics will talk about the law of God, it must have proper respect to its boundary. The law of God, the source of Reformed ethics, will be kept within its proper boundaries as a teacher or a guide. To be sure, in the language of the Heidelberg Catechism in its third section, the law will require, and the Christian is required to obey. But it cannot become a requirement to fulfill one’s righteousness before God, or its observance a ground or way of obtaining anything from God. Neither can it become any kind of power for obedience. The approach of Reformed ethics must always be first through the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law for everyone who believes. He is the one who “renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings” (Lord’s Day 32). Justification by faith alone without works, one of the principles of the Reformation, maintains the law as the proper guide for the Christian’s walk of gratitude.

The second great benefit of Reformed ethics is along the same lines. We are able through the gospel to come to the law as “the perfect law of liberty.” We are able to look Across nationalities and languages, believers and their seed walk the same walk in the service of the same God of their salvation. at the perfection of the law, to see the proper keeping of that perfect law of liberty. This is the entire key to looking properly at Psalm 119 as glorious praise of the law of God. Anything short of the gospel of complete salvation in Christ must make the law into its very opposite: a burdensome, impossible system that can only bring about bleak despair or shameless rebellion.

This truth we must observe through our entire study of Reformed ethics, but it is especially important at the very beginning. It is also an important safeguard against a merit-based system of legalism that is rooted in pride. There is also the pride of our flesh that desires such a legalistic system, in rebellion against the righteousness of Christ. A merit-based, legalistic approach to ethics will ultimately prevent us from seeing and appreciating the perfection of God’s law as an ethical standard. A legalistic approach must ultimately wage war against the biblical ethic, just as the Pharisees taught for doctrines the commandments of men (Mark 7:7).

 Keeping the above in mind, we consider then the biblical and thus Reformed doctrine of ethics.

 Scripture uses the word “ethics.” The same Greek word that is used to form the word ethics, ethos, has its closest reference to ethics in the apostolic warning of 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” “Manners” is the proper translation here of the word ethos. In most of the places where the Bible uses it, the word is translated according to the context as “customs,” as in Acts 6:14 and 26:3.

Although the appearance of this Greek word is not at all frequent in the New Testament, the thought cannot be entertained that scripture is so little concerned with ethics. To the contrary, the Bible speaks frequently of ethics. Ethics is an important and prominent part of scripture, as well as of the believer’s life based on it. Three words found throughout scripture address the same topic. Very graphic, descriptive, and active words that comprehend ethics are “way” and “walk,” found in both the Old and New Testaments. “Conversation” is another word that is often used in the New Testament, not referring to dialogue between two, but to manner of behavior.

It is helpful to our understanding to see various scriptural passages that indicate the importance of ethics according to the above words as they appear in the Bible. Surveying these passages will also make clear several points of relationship between ethics and other aspects of the believer’s salvation and life in the world.

“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word” (Ps.119:9). “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12). “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ…that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). “Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk; for I lift up my soul unto thee” (143:8). “That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).

The above passages teach a number of truths about biblical, Reformed ethics. First, ethics is the knowledge of God’s holy law applied to all aspects of the lives of the redeemed people of God. The source of true ethics is God’s revelation of his law. Ethics also implies the deliberate, conscious effort of the believer to take his heart and his mind, as well as his lips, his eyes, his hands, and his feet, and direct them so that they conform to God’s revelation. This involves such a struggle against the flesh that God’s grace is necessary at every point.

Second, biblical ethics is thoroughly comprehensive. It comprehends the believer’s inner life and outer life. It comprehends him as an individual with his own thoughts and desires. It comprehends him as a member of his nation and society, as a member of his church and of his family. It applies to him in his eating and drinking, his labor and rest, his recreation and his entertainment. It applies to him as a little child and as an aged saint. His walk is to be one—one according to the law of God and one in the love of God.

Third, biblical ethics is transcendent, standing above all the changes of earthly history. Kingdoms rise and fall. Trends come and go. Fashions and designs become obsolete. Approval turns to disapproval and back to approval. But scripture provides an ethical standard for God’s people in all ages, a standard by which parents might raise their children, with the desire that their children will raise their children to walk in the same way and to carry on in the same conversation, all to the glory of their covenant God. In this same ethical pattern the whole church of Jesus Christ is able to walk together, old and young. Across nationalities and languages, believers and their seed walk the same walk in the service of the same God of their salvation.

Fourth, because biblical, Reformed ethics is from the revelation of God’s word, it is a pattern of conduct and behavior by which God is pleased to bring honor and glory to his name in the holiness that he works in his people through the Spirit of his Son. As believers strive to walk in this way, then, they can be conscious that in and through their efforts they are showing the glorious grace of their God, who both justifies and sanctifies them by faith alone through grace alone. —MVW

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“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,” Titus 2:11
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