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July 1973 · Vol. 2 No. 3 · pp. 66–70 

The Unique Character of Christian Ethics

David Ewert

The Bible witnesses to an ongoing revelation. This is not to be confused with the evolution of religious ideas in the history of religions. What is meant is that the Bible is a record of God’s self-disclosure in history. This happened in stages, and found its climax in Jesus Christ. Such an understanding has important implications for Christian ethics.

If all the books of the OT and NT are viewed as standing on one plane, as if there had been no ‘progressive revelation,’ then the OT ethical problems are almost impossible to solve, in the light of what the NT teaches. Bible readers should not take ethical injunctions from anywhere in the Bible indiscriminately and make them normative for Christian behavior. God spoke his final word in Christ.

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Moreover, we should guard against he notion that the Bible is a book of divine law. This is not true of the OT and certainly not of the New. And yet even the NT is looked upon by some as being largely a compendium of commands and prohibitions—albeit, a nova lex. This approach reflects a legalistic attitude toward the Christian faith and leads to a misunderstanding of the Bible’s basic message.

We are not suggesting that all ethical teachings of the OT are abrogated by Christ’s teaching. Quite to the contrary. He rehearsed many of them and deepened them. There are, after all, moral absolutes which do not change. And yet there are unique features about NT ethics. In this paper, then, I should like to point to several of these unique features of Christian ethics.

I. CHRISTIAN ETHICS ARE CHRISTOLOGICAL IN INCENTIVE.

In contrast to a religion in which the devotees aspire to a certain kind of behavior in the hope of receiving the commendation of the deity, Christian ethics grow out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship is based on the forgiveness of sins and on an implicit trust in the mercy and grace of Christ. Having acknowledged him as our Lord and Savior, we seek to follow him in this way. Joachim Jeremias makes the observation that before every demand that Jesus makes in the Sermon of the Mount, we must supply the protasis “your sins are forgiven.” It is because our sins are forgiven that we are exhorted to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, and so forth (cf. J. Jeremias, Sermon on the Mount, p. 30.).

When an individual accepts the grace of God and becomes a member of Christ’s kingdom, he commits himself to the Jesus-way, to a new lifestyle. This change of life-style is not understood as the price the disciple of Jesus has to pay in order to get to heaven, but it is rather the ‘easy yoke’ which he joyfully embraces because the one who calls the “burdened and heavy-laden” has given him rest (Matt. 11:28f.).{67}

It makes a big difference when children are admonished by the apostle Paul to obey their parents, when he can add “For this is well-pleasing to the Lord” (Col. 3:20); and when parents are admonished to bring them up in the fear and admonition “of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4)when wives are exhorted to be submissive “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18); when husbands are asked to love their wives “as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:26); when slaves are encouraged to work faithfully for their earthly master as if they were serving Christ (Eph. 6:5), and Christian masters are warned not to treat them badly for their Lord is in heaven watching them (Eph. 6:9).

The holy life of the believer flows out of a vital relationship with the living Christ. It might have sounded a bit cynical for people in very difficult circumstances to be told by an apostle: “Rejoice at all times”. How could they? But when Paul tells his readers to “rejoice in the Lord at all times” (Phil. 4:4), that turns mockery into reality. In fellowship with the living Lord the believer experiences even in the midst of the troubles of life a foretaste of that glory and wonder of the age to come.

II. CHRISTIAN ETHICS ARE MIMETIC IN PRACTICE.

Some founders of non-Christian religions did not lead a very noble life, and their followers of later generations have been profoundly embarrassed by this fact. Christianity in this respect is totally unique. The founder of the Christian church was fully human, but he was a man who lived a perfect life while on earth—the only person ever to do so. We know this on good evidence. Those closest to him were persuaded of his perfection. And even his enemies stood in dumb silence when challenged to point to one sin in his life.

It was this kind of Christ that called men and women to follow him. And whereas akolouthein (to follow) had a rather literal meaning to begin with (his disciples actually went ‘after’ him, in typical oriental fashion), all those who seek to pattern their life after the exemplary life of Jesus, are his followers—people of ‘the Way’.

The apostle Paul had not been a follower of Jesus when our Lord was on earth, but he could exhort his converts: “Become imitators of me (mimetai—mimickers), just as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He describes the initiation of the Thessalonians into the Christian life with the words: “And you became imitators (mimetai) of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6). This certainly did not mean that they mimicked the idiosyncrasies of the apostles in such matters as speech, gait, dress, and manners, but they learned from the apostles what it meant to follow Jesus.

Frequently when giving ethical instructions the apostles refer to Jesus as their model. The Corinthians are encouraged to give, because our Lord, who was rich, became poor for our sake so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). The Philippians are exhorted to live humbly, for Christ, who was the eternal God, emptied himself and took on the form of a slave (Phil. 2:6f.). Christian slaves are comforted in their sufferings under cruel masters, with the words “for Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). (Interestingly, the word for ‘example’ here—hypogrammon—is found only here in the NT and was used of model letters which school boys traced or copied.)

Although Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, may oversimplify the matter {68} (and may even be humanistic in its orientation), it does point to this important mimetic aspect of Christian ethics.

III. CHRISTIAN ETHICS ARE PNEUMATIC IN DYNAMIC

The ladder of moralism—in which the will is strengthened, the ladder of mysticism—in which the soul is trained, the ladder of speculation—in which the understanding is deepened, have all been tried as ways of perfection (Cf. A. Koeberle, The Quest for Holiness, p. 2). But these quests always lead to a sense of frustration, or they lack that virtue-making power. Ethical philosophers can set out before us a map of a perfect life, a diagram of the ideal world. But it is as James Stewart has it in one of his sermons: “What is the use of a map to a man in a dungeon as deep as the grave? What is the good of knowing the road if we have not got the power or the vitality to walk? The moralist can fashion an ethic or promulgate a creed. But confront him with Ezekiel’s problem of the dry bones in the valley of death, and he is helpless: he cannot regiment them into a marching army, nor breathe into their deadness the breath of life” (p. 63, The Strong Name).

What makes Christian ethics so unique is that the imperatives are all based on indicatives. God does not demand where he does not first supply. That ‘givenness’ on which Christian ethics are based is the work of Christ. And it is by the Holy Spirit that the work of Christ is made real in a believer’s life. So we might say that the Holy Spirit is the dynamic in Christian ethics. We cannot evade the imperatives with which God addresses us in his Word. But he has also supplied the power to carry them out. “If we live by the Spirit,” says Paul, “’let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). That very power by which we came to have the new life in Christ is the power that enables us to live the new life. Paul Althaus states the matter succinctly: “Die Erlösung wird misverstanden, wean sie nicht als Begründung von Imperative, als Ermächtigung zur sittlichen Tat erkannt wird” (p. 55, Der Brief an die Römer).

The NT nowhere teaches that the believer will ever become sinless or morally perfect in this life. “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). However, it is possible for the believer to live a victorious life through the power of the Spirit. After confronting his Thessalonian readers with some rather sturdy imperatives (1 Thess. 4:1-7), Paul adds a postscript:—and that makes all the difference in the world—God “keeps on giving us his holy Spirit” (v. 8). The Spirit is the divine dynamic that makes the carrying out of the commandments possible.

IV. CHRISTIAN ETHICS HAVE AN ECCLESIOLOGICAL CONTEXT.

Although we become related to Christ alone (by personal commitment) we cannot be in Christ alone. We are with other members of his Body as part of that Body. To be born of God means to be born into the family of God, this new covenant people. And the most stringent demands placed upon us by Christ and his apostles are exactly in the area of our relationships with our brothers and sisters. The commandment to love one another, to be forgiving and kind, to bear each other’s loads, to be patient with the weak, to esteem others higher than ourselves (and {69} many more), are staggering in the light of our selfish and sinful propensities. But these are the qualities that make community possible.

We are not suggesting for a moment that the sphere of Christian ethics is limited to the Christian community (“Let us do good to all men, but most of all to those of the household of faith”, Gal. 6:10), but we should like to affirm that Christian ethics are not primarily individualistic but ecclesiological.

The Hindu sanyasin becomes a saint in isolation. This was also one of the weaknesses of the eremitic movement of the fourth century, and in the monastic movement. Even Pietism had a strong strain of this individualistic holiness in it. To be truly Christian, however, the spiritual ‘journey inward’ must always turn into a ‘journey outward’.

There is however another aspect of the ecclesiological context of Christian ethics, namely, that the individual brother receives support in carrying out his Christian duties from the Brotherhood. The command to love one another is demanding, but it is also strengthening. For the one who is commanded to give, also receives. The exhortation to bear one another’s burden comes to us as an imperative, but carries with it also the deep assurance that our brothers will not leave us in the lurch when we are in need. And the command that we admonish the Christian brother who sins (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 18), also offers us the corrective and restorative grace of the Brotherhood. Even the command to walk “as wise people” (Eph. 5:15) is greatly softened by the realization that there is counsel available within the Christian community.

The fact that in our highly individualistic society the individual saint often feels alone (and others want to be left alone), does not invalidate the NT ideal at this point.

V. CHRISTIAN ETHICS ARE ESCHATOLOGICAL IN ORIENTATION.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the sign that the last days had begun. It was also a sign that the end was not yet, for the Spirit represents the absent Lord who promised to come again. This is the reason why the Holy Spirit is called a downpayment (arrabon) on our inheritance which is still in the future (Eph. 1:14). We have already been delivered “from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), and have tasted “the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5). But the day of redemption still lies in the future, and the Holy Spirit is God’s seal on us for the day when he will redeem us (Eph. 4:30). So the believer lives in the day when he will redeem us (Eph. 4:30). So the believer lives in the tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.

This tension is reflected in the conflict between the Spirit and the flesh in our daily life. It gives to Christian ethics a dynamic that lies not in his own personality but in the other world. It cautions him also against any immodest claims about his perfection, for as long as he is in the body he is tempted and encumbered by sin. He is in constant need of forgiveness.

We have not yet attained, but we are on the way. And it’s because we have a goal that lies before us that we can say with Paul: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Christian ethics to use A. Schweitzer’s term (but {70} with a different meaning)—are ‘interim ethics’. They concern the life of pilgrim people in the interim between Pentecost and Parousia.

This orientation to the End is a great encouragement to God’s people to take their discipleship seriously. It encourages them to sacrifice, “for God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints” (Heb. 6:10)—in the end they will be rewarded. The disciple can share his earthly goods with the needy, for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:1-4). The Christian slave can serve his taskmaster with enthusiasm “knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again, whether he be slave or free” (Eph. 6:8).

There is also a wholesome warning in this eschatological outlook. “Everyone who has this hope purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Paul confesses, “whether we are at home or away we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. . .” (2 Cor. 5:9,10). The Galatians are encouraged in well-doing by the promise, “he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap eternal life”, but that is joined to a warning not to mock God by their niggardliness, “for he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:6-10). It is in the light of Christ’s appearing that Timothy is reminded to “keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach” (Tim. 6:14). It’s because the “night is far gone and the day is at hand” that the Roman readers are admonished to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” and to be done with drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy (Rom. 13:13-14).

These, then, I suggest, are several of the unique features of Christian ethics. They lift the ethical imperatives of the NT completely out of a legalistic context and make them a part of our total experience of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Against this background the commandments of Jesus and his apostles must be translated into concrete life situations in every age and every culture. In this way the ethical teachings of the NT remain permanently relevant.

Dr. David Ewert, formerly Professor of New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, is now on the faculty of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia.