Dad, I found this essay I wrote a while ago about ethics. If you want to read it, it’s not very long.
Any religion, belief system, or otherwise can roughly be divided into and understood in three heads: “what is true,” that is metaphysics; “how does one know what is true or where does truth come from,” that is epistemology, and “how does one behave in light of that truth,” that is ethics. Ethics would seem to come at the logical end of this chain. Once one understands where and how to discern truth and forms it into a coherent system then it informs his actions. In essence, the best litmus test for what one believes is observing his behavior. Indeed, we are all familiar with the maxim “actions speak louder than words” because it is one thing to say”I believe,” it is another to say “I believe and will do thusly.” It is one thing to say it is right to love thy neighbor, it is another to actually love thy neighbor, especially when thy neighbor is unlovable. It is one thing to say it is honorable to die for one’s country, but when the time comes, the sacrifice proves the words true. This is why James says faith without works is dead. This is why so much effort goes into constructing ethical frameworks.
Through the centuries hundreds of these frameworks have been constructed with the best of intentions which begs the question which one is right or at the very least which work best? Kant’s deontology has been influential, utilitarianism has a certain naive appeal, the Bhuddists teach their asceticism, the Jews have their Law, but it is a simple matter of watching the evening news to see that civilization has not achieved an especially high ethical standard. Is this due to incomplete adherence to a uniform ethic or is there a more complete framework to be discovered? It is the apex of naivety to believe that a more complete ethical framework must be found as if moral progress were in fact real. Only considering Western civilization, we have had 2500 years to study ethics. If a fully complete framework were to be found, another 2500 years wont do. Thus, if correct knowledge of truth causes correct ethics to follow as a matter of course, it stands to reason that civilization has not found and will not find truth on its own. If action and behavior naturally reflect beliefs, the ceaseless history of conflict and war proves a lack of ability on humanity’s part to understand truth correctly and completely, as long as it can be agreed upon that continuous conflict is not a desirable state,
If humans are unable to reason their way to truth on their own, only two realities remain: truth is either unknowable in its complete form or it must be given or revealed by a source that stands outside and above humanity. If it is unknowable, there is no reason to continue reading, but if it must be revealed, it should be sought after. Revelation as an epistemology, although a damnable offense to the secularist, tracing his heritage to the Enlightenment, is a viable and seemingly the only viable method for finding truth. The secularist has had four centuries since the Enlightenment to develop and refine reason as an epistemology and have done so, to their credit, with extreme scientific precision. However, from an ontological position, the reality of human behavior seems to have had no tangible benefit.
Authoritative and revelational epistemologies lend themselves easily to the religious perspective, especially the Abrahamic religions. It seems reasonable to judge a system of belief by the behavior it induces in its adherents. Rather than individually analyzing each world religion, whose ethical frameworks incidentally all generally follow a similar scheme, it seems best to focus on a single peculiarity of Christianity that sets its framework apart from every other in the world, secularism and its many forms included.
An ethical framework can be organized into a series of systematic statements on which kinds of action are right and which kinds are wrong. The Old Testament Law is the obvious example, notwithstanding which statements do and do not “apply” to the New Testament believer. The New Testament has its share of commands as well, the familiar love thy neighbor foremost among them. However, the peculiarity is this: that for the amount of ink devoted to defining the ethical framework, there is an equal amount of ink, if not more so, devoted to informing the reader that he is not able to conform to that standard.
It is clear that Christianity is supremely interested in ethical behavior. Numerous exhortations to avoid sexual impurity, drunkenness, debauchery and the like are found in passages such as Galatians 5:13-26, Ephesians 4:17-32, and 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. These passages are not difficult to find and are littered frequently throughout the Gospels and Epistles. Although these exhortations are frequent and written in emphatic terms, what does one make of Romans 3:23 or Colossians 2:23 which says “such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom… but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Paul speaking of men who ostensibly heed the warnings to abstain from all impurity accuses these legalists of having an unspiritual mind with false humility. Again, Paul in Romans 3 quotes the Psalms saying “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” It seems strange that the same man who holds ethical behavior in high regard simultaneously, and with equal fervor, expounds on humanity’s inability to attain it. After informing the Colossians of the uselessness of human regulations, Paul commands them to put sexual impurity, evil desires, greed, anger, rage malice, slander and filthy language to death.
It is possible to dismiss this as a defeatist attitude of the same kind of nihilism that an improperly superficial reading of Ecclesiastes would engender, but as Paul relates both the command and inability to obey, he writes one more statement and that is the solution. He tells the Colossians to put these behaviors to death simply by setting their hearts and minds on things above. He reminds them that their life is now hidden with Christ in God. In Romans 6:23, he says that eternal life is a gift from God. In Galatians 3:22 he says that the receiving of the promise is given through faith. Even Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham was considered righteous simply because he believed what God had told him.
This is the complete simplicity of the Gospel: that faith in Christ brings salvation. There is nothing more than that, no secret wisdom or rituals with esoteric incantations, only faith in one person. Someone once said that if you could not summarize the message of the Bible in one sentence, you did not understand it.
In Romans 10, Paul states that “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is not complicated. Salvation is not like the burden of the Law. It is straightforward and clear. Still in Romans 10, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30:11-14 condemning the notion of discovering and successfully practicing the Law individually. The author of Deuteronomy explains the folly inherent in “ethical self-discovery” but instead maintains the importance of its direct revelation saying that “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” It is stated here too, “Now what I am commanding you today is not beyond your reach.” Likewise Paul is explaining the folly of looking for Christ under one’s own power. 1 Corinthians 2:10 & 2:14 explain this impossibility. There is no need for spiritual pilgrimage or introspection and invention, but the faith is simple to understand and is here already given to us to believe in. If truth is so important, even to the point of eternal life and eternal death, why would God make it difficult to find and understand?
Repentance, biblically understood, means to change one’s mind, especially about Jesus. This is best seen in Peter’s address at Pentecost ending with a plea to those Jews who had rejected the Messiah to repent and accept him instead. Likewise the greek word ___ translated as confess simply means to “speak the same or agree.” It is the root word for the English homologue. In Acts 19:18 many people confessed their sins and rejected that kind of behavior by destroying their magic scrolls. When they confessed their sin, they recognized sin as sinful; They agreed with the word that was spoken to them. The kind of action the gospel calls for is to agree with what the Bible calls sin is in fact sin and to accept Jesus is who he says he is.
One cannot be saved if he thinks he has no need for it. He must firstly recognize the sin in his life and secondly admit that he cannot amend for it, with no excuses. This is to confess sin, that is to agree with what the Bible says is our true state apart from Christ. As we confess sin, the gospel calls us not into asceticism or even simple ascent to general ethical activity, but simply to a restored relationship with a person. This is why repentance focuses on a person rather than the activity.
It is important to note, however, that when the gospel is expounded in the Bible, it is never once presented as a means to an end, that is the gospel is not meant to merely produce ethical behavior as if it were a kind of self-improvement scheme. Rather, it is presented as being transformative (2 Cor. 5:17), Life-giving (John 10:10), and freeing (Gal. 5:1). It is presented as restoring a relationship (2 Cor. 5:20-21 and Heb. 10:19-22). There is always an eternal perspective. This is where confusion can enter. If one loses sight of the eternal nature of salvation, Christianity makes little sense. I am reminded of the saying “Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.”
If the primary focus of the Bible is not to directly produce ethical behavior, but to engender simple faith, how are exhortations to be interpreted? The accusation traditionally leveled against the notion of “grace-above-ethics” is that it encourages loose-living and even hedonism. If there is no more law to answer to, how will proper behavior be enforced? To be under grace and not under law is to allow any behavior of any kind to be permissible. Those who bring this claim prove by their own words they have failed to comprehend the surpassing power of this grace. Indeed, Paul, foreseeing this accusation, writes in Romans 6, “shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Earlier he said “Why not say, as some slanderously claim that we say, ‘let us do evil that good may result?’ Their condemnation is just!”
Simple faith produces a new person; it is completely transformative. This new creation has the Holy Spirit and knows what is ethical. The ethics come naturally (not necessarily instantaneously, but certainly naturally) because the nature of the man is free from sin. Freedom from the confusing entanglement of sin provides a free and clear path to walk in the Spirit and ethical behavior follows as a matter of course. Jeremiah prophesies concerning this saying, “I [God] will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Fruit, that grow naturally and effortlessly on a properly planted vine are a common symbol in the Bible for ethical behavior. It is important to understand that the ethical behavior is a natural product, not the goal of the faith. In fact, Peter writes that the goal of our faith is the salvation of our souls, that is being in eternal restored fellowship with the Lord. This salvation produces inexpressible and glorious joy and it is this happy relationship that motivates holy living as he says, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” Likewise John writes in his first epistle “everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” Paul tells the Romans that it is plainly reasonable to live our lives for God himself because we have experienced his mercy. If our hopes are set fully on the grace to be given us when Jesus Christ is revealed, according to Peter, then it is a natural desire to strive for holy living. The eternal perspective motivates ethical behavior. This is unique among all ethical frameworks that ethical behavior is not even the goal, but merely a by-product of a restored relationship.
The gospel is not complicated: salvation is given, not earned though good behavior as Ephesians 2:8-9 says. This grace naturally produces ethical behavior, as Paul tells Titus it “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”