The word “ethics” is derived from the Greek ethos which originally meant “dwelling” or “stall” and came to mean security and stability. In Latin translation the word for ethos is mos from which our word “morality” is derived.
Today in common usage, ethics refers to good and bad behavior. And as an intellectual discipline, it represents systematic reasoning about right and wrong, and the principles of behavior.
We are interested in Christian ethics, which is a form of theological ethics. There are theological ethics which are not Christian. For example, the ethics of Islam, Judaism and Hinduism are non- Christian, theological ethics.
And then there are non-theological approaches such as practical morality and moral philosophy. Practical morality is behavior according to custom. And moral philosophy consists of the reflections of secular philosophers about ethics.
Christian ethics, as a theological discipline, is the reflection on the question, what am I, as a believer in Jesus to do? We evangelical Christians base those reflections on the biblical revelation. And of course that requires biblical interpretation. However, Christian ethics is not precisely the same as biblical ethics, or even New Testament ethics. They certainly are closely related; but they are not identical.
The ethical situations in biblical times were not the same as ours. Therefore as Paul Lehmann says, there has to be “a kind of running conversation between the New Testament, on the one hand, and our situation, as heirs of the New Testament on the other” (p. 29). Thus biblical ethics provides the basis for Christian ethics.
Historically speaking, reflection on Christian ethics is a late development. In the early centuries of the church, ethics was not treated systematically. The apostles simply responded to ethical questions as they arose, depending for direction upon the Holy Spirit. And they did arise!
The first letter to the Corinthians is an outstanding New Testament illustration of an apostle’s dealing with specific, concrete ethical problems that had risen in a young, Christian community.
As we know from that letter, the Corinthian Christians were expected to break away from certain kinds of behavior that were quite acceptable in the society at large. Christians were to be different.
This expected difference in behavior is found not only in the New Testament, but also to the sub apostolic literature. Indeed, the conviction that Christians should be different has been a constant in Christian ethical reflection (Paul Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context, New York: (Harper & Row), 1963, p. 33).
Christian ethical literature remained relatively unsystematic through the Middle Ages, when it became somewhat more elaborate. Then the Reformation broke fresh ground. John Calvin, in the third book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion made a thoroughly systematic presentation. Since that time Christian thinkers have been refining and clarifying the issues identified by the medieval and Reformation thinkers.
Now then, turning again specifically to the Bible, which we have seen is the primary basis for Christian ethical reflection, I want to share with you several conclusions about the ethical content of the Bible. (See T.B. Maston, Biblical Ethics: A Survey. New York: World, 1967, pp. 281-288.)
First, ethics has a very important place in both the Old and New Testaments. The ethical has a significant place in nearly every biblical book and is a central theme in several. It is clearly evident that ethics is an important part of the biblical revelation (p. 281).
Second, biblical ethics is just as relevant today as in biblical times. This does not mean that the Bible contains a rule to cover every situation. But Scripture does contain many concrete injunctions respecting Christian behavior; and where that is lacking, there are basic principles expressed that enable us to know how to respond to a given situation (p. 287).
Third, God is as central to biblical ethics, as he is to its theology. In other words, God is interested in the marketplace as well as the sanctuary. That is to say, God is interested in the individual, the nation and the world; and he has a will for each. He has definite standards of behavior that he wishes us to fulfill, and these standards are revealed in the Bible (p. 282).
Fourth, the dominant ethical appeal of the New Testament is for God’s people to be like Him. Indeed this is the nearest thing we have in biblical ethics to one unifying theme or motif. It means that the nature and content of the biblical ethic flows out of the nature of God (p. 282).
This is extremely important. God does not simply arbitrarily make up rules of conduct, and then say, “Do this, or don’t do that, because I said so.” Rather God’s ethical expectations are based on his nature. He demands holiness in his people because he himself is holy; he demands justice, because he is just, mercy because he is merciful; love because he is love.
Fifth, biblical ethics demands right relations to God and other people. Frequently, there is a tendency to concentrate on one’s faith relationship to God by worshipping often, by having private devotions, etc., while ignoring one’s Christian duty to others.
The New Testament always keeps these relationships balanced. It is true that salvation comes through faith and faith alone. But the purpose of that salvation is good works, a life of goodness (Eph. 2:8-10; cf. Matt. 5:14-16; John 15:16).
And the proof of saving faith is the quality of life that is lived (Matt. 7:15-23; Rom. 6:1-4; James 2:14-16; I John 2:3-6) (p. 282). Thus it is clear that the Christian must be in right relation with his fellowmen in order to be in right relation to God (p. 283).
Sixth, there is unity and diversity in the ethical content of the Bible (p. 283). This is characteristic of the Bible as a whole. For example, we have four very different Gospels in the New Testament. That is diversity. But there is a strong unity underlying those four divergent accounts of the ministry of Jesus (p. 283).
Another kind of example is the difference in emphases between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament emphasizes law, and the New Testament emphasizes grace. But both elements are in each.
Seventh, the ethical content of the Bible has a progressive nature. That is to say, the ethical content of God’s revelation progresses as the understanding of God’s people progresses. We can say this of the biblical revelation generally. Theologians speak of “progressive revelation” to describe the fact that God revealed himself to human beings progressively, as they were able to receive it.
Returning specifically to biblical ethics, in the Old Testament ethical development begins slowly and climaxes in the ministry and message of the great eighth-century prophets. But the most significant movement or progression, takes place when one goes from the Old to the New Testament, in which the climax of the entire biblical revelation, including the ethical, takes place in Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s final and complete word to man (p. 284). But when we say that, we do not mean to limit the revelation to Jesus’ teachings. The ethical portions of the other New Testament literature are included because they are an outgrowth of the author’s union with the resurrected Christ (p. 285).
Eighth, this means, then, that ethical matters in the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the more complete revelation of the New Testament. This is a standard interpretive principle. It does not mean that the Old Testament is to be rejected or ignored. It merely means that Old Testament data must be interpreted in light of the more complete revelation (p. 284).
Finally, ninth, it should be mentioned that in the Bible, ethics is closely related to the Bible’s teachings about the end-times. We will be studying the doctrine of the end-times, called “eschatology,” later. But we need to mention it here.
Biblical eschatology represents a particular view of history, a linear view that says that God is in ultimate control of history. The Bible teaches that God is going to bring an end someday to the injustice and evil of this world by instituting his own rule.
This view has powerful ethical implications. This is clearly seen in the fact that the biblical authors use teaching about the end-times to motivate Christians to live now according to the precepts and principles of the Gospel of Christ. (p. 286).
Alright, we have defined Christian ethics. We have looked a bit at the history of ethics in the Church. And we have looked at nine elements of biblical ethics, which is the basis of Christian ethics. Now I want to do a very brief survey of personal and social Christian ethics.
Christian personal ethics did not just suddenly appear in a world that had no idea about right and wrong. There were several forerunners of Christian ethics. Foremost, of course, was the ethics revealed under the Old Covenant, in the Old Testament.
In addition, Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle had reflected considerably in the area of ethics. Moreover God built into us what we conscience. God gave us a conscience, because he wanted us to use it to help us rightly relate to him. It works like this. As we relate to God, we do so by means of the will. Thus if we get our will in harmony with God’s, and keep it there, we will not sin. The discernment between right and wrong coming from the conscience helps us to walk that path.
The conscience works really well, when we have trained it to be sensitive to the will of God, because it can be both corrected and regulated by Scripture and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Indeed if the conscience is not guided by the Holy Spirit and enlightened by God’s Word, it will not be a safe guide to our moral choices.
Obviously the Scripture is the key element, because it is God’s revealed Word. And in it, personal Christian ethics is revealed to the receptive will. Normally the Christian finds great enjoyment doing the will of God. Happiness may or may not be present, because happiness depends on happenstance. But joy always is present, because the Christian’s joy comes from a relationship with Jesus.
The Christian also has a strong sense of duty. But the sense of duty is focused specifically on God’s revealed will. That is, Christians see their duty to be to do the will of God.
Immanuel Kant proposed an ethical system based on duty. But he suggested that humanity could formulate its own principles as a basis for moral action (a kind of government from within us). Bible believing Christians would say that God has provided the principles in his Word (a kind of government from outside us). And that separates us from Kant.
Finally, we must mention the fact that we Christians are not dependent on our own power to do the will of God. Christian ethics are backed by divine power. The Holy Spirit dwells in each individual Christian; and he provides spiritual power to be what God wants us to be, and do what God wants us to do.
Now then, we are ready to move away from personal ethics to social ethics. Social ethics has to do with the responsibility of the Christian to others, to society. Under personal ethics I spoke about the conscience. I said that our conscience must be guided by the Holy Spirit and enlightened by God’s Word to be a safe guide to us in moral matters. That is just as true of our social responsibilities.
Indeed social groups need a collective conscience, just as individuals need a conscience. That is, conscience operates not only on the level of the individual, but also in our larger society.
Groups relate to one another, and to God, just as individuals do. And they need an ethical basis for those interrelationships. Of course from the Christian perspective, the best group ethics is a Christian group ethics that will enable the groups to relate to one another in love.
For Christian groups, that should mean taking the gospel to the poor and oppressed by feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, etc. In other words the supreme social virtues of Christian groups are the same as for individuals: love, service, and self-sacrifice.