I. The "Problem" in Christian Ethics
Many believers are being deceived by various attempts to formulate a Christian ethic that is not rooted in Christ's redemptive work. Preachers lift their voices in support of imposing the Ten Commandments on secular society with no concern for the fact that it was a moral code specifically connected to an exodus out of Egypt that set Israel apart from all other nations. In The Management Methods of Jesus: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business,1 Bob Briner lifts Jesus out of his historical setting as the Redeemer so he can be an example for corporate executives. Similarly, in The Ten Commandments: God's Rules for Living,2 Stuart Briscoe assumes that there is nowhere else to go as a springboard for ethical guidance except Exodus 20. What is missing in the majority of Christian ethical teaching is this simple, yet absolutely critical truth: the cross of Christ that saves us also commands us how to live. Douglas Webster writes,
For Paul, ethics and theology were not divorced. Understanding the nature of Christ coincides with living out the ethics of Jesus . . . The Christian ethic is exclusively dependent upon Christian redemption . . . Jesus' cross is planted squarely at the center of the believer's existence, providing both the means of salvation and the challenge of a new life-style.3
Christian ethics has captured my attention for years. Sadly, I have reached the conclusion that traditional teaching on godly living is based far more on the words of Moses than on the words of Christ. There is a tragic insensitivity to the movement of redemptive history from a reign of law to a reign of grace (John 1:17). It is as though nothing ethically significant occurred with the coming of the "prophet" Moses foretold and commanded us to hear (Deut. 18:15-18). Most writers on Christian ethics tend to focus on the Ten Commandments with little, if any, attention to Jesus' "New Commandment" of love as set forth in John 13:34.
This problem has a number of historical roots. The change that took place in 323 AD when Constantine ascended to power over the Roman Empire is especially important. From then on, visible Christianity took on an increasingly Old Covenant cast - an orientation that continued unabated through the Reformation and that greatly influenced Puritanism. From 1520 through 1660 many books on Christian behavior (ethics) appeared. Whether from Roman Catholic or Protestant writers, the outlook was essentially theocratic and the teaching was invariably couched in Old rather than New Testament perspectives. The basic tendency for Christian ethics to take on a Mosaic flavor with an insensitivity to the flow of redemptive history is illustrated in the following remarks by Puritan Samuel Bolton:
While you are in the wilderness of this world, you must walk under the conduct of Moses . . . The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified.4
Jesus Christ is not functionally central in this approach to ethics. In the final analysis, Christ ends up serving the law.5
Our Ethical Starting Point is of Critical Importance
Traditional Christian witness has indeed asserted that Christ alone provides salvation, but it has virtually passed him by when it comes to ethics. It teaches that he alone can save us from our sins, but sends us back to the law to learn how to live. It is a gospel that looks to Christ for justification but then relies on Moses for sanctification. It speaks of the New Covenant sealed with Christ's own blood, but has nothing to say about the "New Commandment" ethics that flow out of Calvary's remarkable redemptive event.
This study will show that the New Testament will not support such a dual allegiance approach to the gospel. It will establish exegetically that the Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the only source of salvation, but that he is also the principal source of ethical instruction for those who believe - a significant point in light of the wide spread Old Covenant orientation of current Christian thought. It will encourage a complete re-thinking of our ethical paradigms, looking to Christ rather than to Moses, and to the New Covenant rather than to the Old for instruction in practical righteousness. It will call believers to reject the "flat Bible" perspective that essentially negates the radical changes introduced with Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection. It is an important call for change, because our ethical starting point will inevitably color our entire view of the important subject of sanctification.
To that end we will first confirm the centrality of Christ in Christian obedience through an examination of relevant biblical texts. We will next evaluate the historical and traditional approach to ethics in light of the biblical evidence we have presented. Finally, we will look at some of the practical implications of adopting a Christ-centered view of ethics.
A Few Important Definitions
Most of the words and expressions used in this study are not technical and should be defined sufficiently by their context. There are a few terms, however, that are not always understood by everyone in the same way. For our purposes, these few biblical or historical terms should be understood as follows:
Law - Whole books have been written on how this word is used in the Bible. It can refer to the entire Old Testament (Rom. 3:19), to the making and maintaining of the Old Covenant (Gal. 3:17), or to the idea of "principle" (Rom. 3:27). In this study, the word "law" usually refers to that covenantal administration which lasted from the Mt. Sinai law-giving until the coming of Christ (Rom. 5:13-14; Gal. 3:17). When "law" is considered as that which is binding, it must be linked concretely to the covenant that is in force.
Covenant - Covenant is not an abstract term, but refers to some solemn transaction "cut" in history that can be remembered and celebrated. Covenants can be unilateral or bilateral. The former is promissory and depends on God to fulfill the conditions necessary for blessing; the latter is conditional and depends upon the obedience of the subjects.
Redemptive History - Sometimes called "salvation history," this refers to that special history announced in Gen. 3:15 and culminating in the appearance of Christ "in the fullness of time." Redemptive history takes place within the framework of general human history, but is differentiated from it because it is related to God's revelatory purpose in Christ.
Constantinianism - Around 325 AD, Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire. This action set in motion the mistaken practice of identifying Christ's kingdom with a territory (paralleling Israel's special place among the nations). This gave rise to the idea of a monolithic state religion. Thus began the institutionalization of a "Christianity" informed more by the Old Covenant than the New.
1. Thomas Nelson, 1996.
2. Harold & Shaw, 1995.
3. A Passion For Christ: An Evangelical Christology, Zondervan, 1987, pp. 52,149,153.
4. Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, London: Banner of Truth, 1964, pp. 76, 71.
5. Werner Elert, Law and Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), p. 8, 47.
This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 1-3.