Christian Ethics in the Wake of Hypocritical Relativists, Imperious Pharisees, Irrational Postmoderns, and Squishy Emergents

Based on a talk delivered to the annual conference of the Center for Cultural Leadership in San Francisco, California, November 7, 2009


Scripture is God’s scepter … the instrument of his government.

J. I. Packer[1]

We read in Psalm 119:105 that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, but today’s church apparently prefers stumbling in the dark, because we have either extinguished the lamp or chosen to ignore the light that the lamp is casting.

To switch metaphors: every Christian paying attention knows that ethics is a front-burner issue in Western culture and in the church, perhaps more than at any time in the recent past,[2] but there’s no consensus on what to do about it.  Today I intend to identify what’s burning at the front of the cultural and ecclesial stove and then tell us what do about it.

Ethics is a prominent philosophical field, but I’m addressing it from a purely theological and pastoral viewpoint.  This is no time for speculation; it’s a time for godly contemplation, repentance and obedience — traits in short supply among professional ethicists.

I’ll first define ethics.  Next, I’ll disclose the only valid source of ethics.  Then, I’ll specify our current ethical conundrum.  Finally, I’ll offer some marching orders to get out of the conundrum.

What is Ethics?

First, we need to know what ethics means. Ethics is a system of moral principles.  Other disciplines like physics or Latin or African history tell us what is.  Ethics tells us what should be — more accurately, how we as humans should act.  Ethics presupposes a principled view, or at least explanation, of behavior and conduct.  Ethics (as a science) assumes that behavior and conduct are worth thinking about.

Ethics considers not just that we should do what’s right but that we should step back and contemplate what’s right, and it ponders how we arrive at the conclusion of what’s right.   Ethics assumes that right and wrong are appropriate topics of investigation.[3]

What Is the Source of Ethics?

But where do ethics come from?  Ask five ethicists and you’ll likely get seven answers.  Is the source of ethics the state?  Is the source of ethics the greatest good for the greatest number?  Is the source of ethics legal precedent or tradition? Is the source of ethics society’s most enlightened legal philosophers?  There’s no majority report, and the resultant cacophony is deafening.  This is the price we pay when we abandon God.  For God is the source of ethics, period.  When I say God, I mean the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I realize that this answer is scandalous in a pluralistic age: “Many gods, many laws, many moralities.”  How dare someone claim that his God is the one God to whose ethics we all must bow!  Isn’t this an example of “ethical imperialism”?  It is, and that’s precisely what the Bible implicitly professes to be.  God says, “My ethical standard is the right one, and all others are wrong” (Is. 8:19–20).

In the end, there are only three possible sources of ethics: man, a false god or gods, or the true God.

Islam features an ethics disclosed in the Koran, but Islam’s God is a false God.  It is not the God of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Islamic ethics is, therefore, the ethics of (false) religion.

Modern Western legal theory situates ethics in human history, human reason, human experience, human institutions, or human intuition.  Modern Western ethics is the ethics of man.

Christian ethics, by contrast, is God-centered like everything else Christian is — or should be.  There’s a radical antithesis between Christian and all non-Christian ethics.[4]  This doesn’t mean that other ethical systems never reflect features of the Christian ethical system (for instance, that murder and theft are wrong).  It means that Christian ethics starts from an entirely different premise from other ethics and pushes toward consistently different conclusions.  An objective of consistent Christian ethics, therefore, is not to find commonality with other ethical systems, but to supplant them.  God’s ethics is designed to supplant all competitors;[5] Christian ethics is inherently exclusionary.  God says, “My way is the right way, and all other ways are wrong.”

How is this ethics mediated to us?  How do we know God’s ethical standards?  There’s only one answer — God’s revelation.[6]  If God (alone) is the source of ethics, then he must reveal them to us if we’re to know them.  If God doesn’t tell us what’s right and wrong, we simply won’t know.  We’ll be left to guess and feel our way along in (un)ethical darkness.  This means that man’s reason or history or intuition is of no ethical value part from God’s revelation.  It also means that all attempts to deny or cloud man’s knowability of God and/or his revelation undermine ethics.[7]  It’s not enough to say that God is the source of ethics.  We also have to say that man can discover that ethics in God’s revelation.  We can know what’s right and wrong.

So, what is God’s revelation?  There are three modes of God’s revelation: first, creation (“nature”); second, Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son; and finally the Scriptures, God’s written Word.

God reveals some of the basics of right and wrong in his creation.  Romans 1 tells us that sinful man knows God from creation (vv. 19–20).  This is sometimes termed “natural revelation.”[8]  From creation we can know the greatness of God and ethical standards like the sanctity of human life, parental respect, love, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and even heterosexuality (vv. 21–32).  God reveals ethics in creation.

Then, there is Jesus Christ, God’s supreme revelation (Heb. 1:1–3).  He came to bear witness to the light (Jn. 1:7–8).  He laid down God’s ethical requirements for his followers (Mt. 5–7).  The supreme embodiment of God’s ethics is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  If you want to see God’s ethical standards implemented flawlessly in humanity, look only at Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:21).

But since Jesus the Messiah has returned to his Father, we can know about him infallibly only from the Bible.  The Bible, therefore, is the most significant form of God’s revelation in today’s world.[9]  It’s more significant than creation.  Why?  For one thing, it’s propositional; that is, it communicates (unlike creation) in rational words and sentences.[10]  This means that it’s clearer than creation and more difficult to misinterpret.  Second, it’s redemptive.  Creation tells us what’s right and wrong, but it doesn’t tell us how we can be redeemed from our sins.  Only Bible can tell us that.  Although Jesus is more important than the Bible, we can’t know of Jesus and of how to be saved by him apart from the Bible.  Third, Biblical ethics is more extensive than creation’s revelation — it can (and does) address more topics.

There’s a long history in Christianity of framing ethics by recourse only to creation.  This is called “natural law.”[11]  And make no mistake about it: all of creation testifies to God’s glory and reveals his character.  Blazing to us from the outside — everywhere we look — is God’s revelation, and that revelation communicates God’s law.  But that natural revelation resides within man too — man’s conscience, since man was made in God’s image.  Conscience is a great gift from God.  It pricks us internally when we disobey God’s law.  Therefore, God’s (natural) revelation is everywhere — both surrounding us and inside us.  We can’t escape it.

But natural revelation was never meant to operate in isolation from special (redemptive) revelation — including God’s speaking.  What we today term “natural law” began with the ancient Greeks like Plato and largely ended in the 19th century without God.  In between, Christians like Thomas Aquinas adapted natural law.  They didn’t abandon the Bible, but they sometimes tended to isolate the Bible from creation so as to give the impression that the Bible is necessary only for grace or redemption or salvation. Over time, people began to assume that nature’s law was a law to itself, and slowly God dropped out of the picture altogether.  Nature became autonomous. [12]

If you want to know what’s right and wrong in an extensive way, you need to go to the Bible and find God’s law.  When Paul preached to pagans (as opposed to the Jews), he appealed to natural revelation (Acts 17:22f.), but he didn’t invite them to fashion a natural revelation apart from special revelation.  He preached to them about God’s greatest special revelation — the resurrected Lord (vv. 18, 31)!  Likewise, when Paul gave an account of himself before the King Agrippa, he appealed to the Old Testament (Acts 26:22–23, 27), not just history (vv. 6–18).  God’s revelation in Jesus, in creation and in the Bible were never meant to stand alone, apart from the others.[13]

As Christians, we dare not shy away from the stark, ethical implications of these truths about God’s revelation.  In our secular age, we’ll be tempted to compromise these truths.

The supreme ethical convictions of our age spring from pluralism and relativism.  Pluralism is the view that no single god or ethics or morality is absolute but that all may and should coexist peacefully.[14]  The Achilles heel of pluralism is that it doesn’t know what to do with the conflicts between these religions and ethics and moralities.  This is why pluralism demands religious and ethical timidity: pluralism only works when people don’t hold their religion and ethics too tenaciously.  When they do hold them tenaciously, those beliefs threaten pluralism.  We cannot say that Islamic ethics (sharia law) and Hindu ethics and New Age ethics and Satanist ethics may peacefully co-exist with Christian ethics, at least not if their respective believers take their ethical standards seriously.  Under Sharia law, thousands of women are killed annually in “honor killings” to satisfy disputes between families.[15]  Should the proper response of Christian ethicists be, “We dare not impose our ethics on Muslims.  Let the killings continue”?  This is absurd — and unethical.

The dilemma posed by this pluralism leads to relativism: matters of right and wrong are not absolute, but are dependent on one’s historical situation.[16]  Adultery and murder (for example) may be justified some cases.  This was once called (controversially) “situation ethics.”  Today, it’s a routine plank in postmodernism,[17] and even many evangelical Christians buy into it — “I believe that homosexuality is wrong, but that’s just my opinion.”  Or,  “Everybody has a perspective that has to be respected; I can’t impose my ethics on anybody else.”  Of course, if you think about it, ethical relativism is self-defeating.  If all ethical standards are relative, isn’t the standard that “all ethical standards are relative” itself relative?  And if so, why hold this standard rather than another?

More importantly, ethical relativism creates dangerous precedents.  If ethics are relative, how can we condemn the racism of South Africans, the slave taking of the Sudanese, and the genocide of the Turks and Nazis?  If you’re an ethical relativist, you can’t respond, “Everybody knows that racism and slavery and genocide are wrong.”  The whole point of relativism is that ethics is not universal.

But Christians oppose relativism not mainly on the grounds that it is self-defeating and dangerous but simply that it’s wrong: if the Bible is true, Christians may not be either ethical pluralists or relativists.

In the end, there are only two options: God’s ethics or man’s ethics.  This sets Christians against the prevailing cultural climate, and we may not tone down this antithesis.

What is Our Current Ethical Conundrum?

That leads to the third issue: what about the ethical situation here in the West, especially North America?

First, if legitimate ethics is God’s ethics disclosed in revelation, the ethical state of the union is dire.  When we abandon God, we are left with the ethical confusion, chaos, and depravity of man.  That pretty much describes our present ethical climate. We all know about the ethical decline since the 60’s: the rising divorce rate, the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, the explosion of Internet pornography, the redefinition of marriage, unscrupulous lending and avaricious borrowing, war crimes, drug abuse, genetic engineering, human egg harvesting, and on and on.  The ethical violations in the wider culture are legion and growing.

But I want to laser in on ethical malpractices within the Christian church, or at least within many churches.  Judgment, Peter says, must begin first at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17).

First I’ll talk about alleged Christians who’ve just plain given up on Biblical ethics.  Then, I’ll address Christians who supplement Biblical ethics with extra- Biblical ethics.  Finally, I’ll get into us Christians who profess Biblical ethics but whose behavior belies our profession.

What’s the data from which to assess the ethical state of Christianity in North America?  One approach would be to cite statistics.  In 2000, for example, Gorge Barna almost brought the evangelical house down when he released “a national study show[ing] that members of nondenominational churches divorce 34 percent of the time in contrast to 25 percent for the general population.”[18]

That’s an ominous assertion, but statistics and polls often reveal less than they promise.  For what criterion did Barna use when defining “nondenominational,” and how did he select his respondents?  If we answer these questions accurately, it may turn out that the statistics are slightly less dire than they first appear.

So, let’s turn to more reliable information: what professed Christians are actually, documentably saying, and perhaps more pointedly, what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears.

First, consider the explicit repudiation of Biblical ethics by professed Christians.  How can people who claim to be Christian explicitly disown Biblical ethics?  One way is simply to abandon the authority of the Bible, and that’s just what’s happening.  Of course, the Protestant liberals, who deny Biblical authority, are still around, and their warped theology shapes their twisted ethics.  John W. Riggs, for example, United Church of Christ theologian, argues that ethics are structured by individuals’ creative self-realization, which God himself experiences and which he assimilates into his own life.[19]  Therefore, “the scriptural texts on sex give us little guidance, other than to understand how our attitudes have developed.”[20] For this reason, homosexuality for Christians is perfectly permissible, and churches that oppose it on Biblical grounds should repent of their sin.[21]  When the source of ethics is robbed from the Bible and resituated in the human experience, man becomes the final ethical arbiter.  This ethical chaos is the legacy of liberal Christianity.

Closer to the evangelical home, consider Phyllis Tickle, the unofficial sociologist of the Emergent Movement (EM).  She writes that sola scriptura (Scripture alone) was good for Luther’s day and for the Protestant Reformation but has simply outlived its usefulness and is “seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient.”[22]

Tony Jones is another acknowledged leader in the EM and was long-time coordinator of Emergent Village.  The EM, according to Jones and his colleague Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, is “at its most basic level” all about friendship: “friendship with God, with one another, and with the world.”[23]  Nobody, I suppose, opposes friendship, but a movement that survives on friendship stands on shaky ground.  So, Pagitt goes on to state that for the EM, friendship is not an addition to faith but a necessity of it. He seems to be saying that we form our faith within our friendships.  He then says that these friendships are a pilgrimage, always changing.[24]  One might ask how it’s possible to have a faith once for all delivered (Jude 3) if it is shaped by changing friendships.  Friendships are a great blessing from God, but they are mighty poor substitute for the revealed Word of God.

We should not be surprised that, then, that while Tickle abandons sola scriptura, Pagitt doesn’t want to identify the Bible as God’s words or a guide to truth.[25]  He suggests that for Paul, the Bible “held authority because it was a living, breathing symbol of God’s communal activity.”[26]  The Bible is God’s Big Storybook of what he has done and will do in his community and “[w]e are characters in the stories we choose and the stories we hear.”  He writes that “[t]his is how it [biblical authority] works.”[27]  Oh, really?  Apparently Pagitt missed Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9–10, where he invokes the Old Testament to prove a doctrine, not to show that “[w]e are characters in the stories we choose and the stories we hear.”  Paul, unlike Pagitt, cites the Bible as God’s words and a guide to truth.

There are ethical implications of this loose view of the Bible.  Tony Jones, for instance, now affirms that homosexuals can be good Christians.[28]  But even more staggering, he throws down this challenge:

If you are one who thinks that homosexual sex is sinful, can you please explain to me WHY a gay or lesbian person who is in a long-term, monogamous relationship would not be able to wholeheartedly follow Christ?

My only stipulation is this: You may not quote one of the six verses in scripture that mentions homosexuality.  Instead, you must use theological and/or philosophical arguments to attempt to convince me that when you have genital contact with someone of your own gender, it somehow inhibits your relationship with Christ.[29]

Think about this. Here’s a leader in the Christian church who invites readers to respond to his controversial proposal but prohibits them from quoting the Bible.  There’s an obvious reason for this prohibition: the Bible’s not on his side.   Worse, the Bible is so far on the other side that he needs to get rid of the Bible to give his side credibility.  News flash: if you need to get rid of Bible-quoting to pave the way for your ethics, you’re getting rid of Christianity to pave the way for another religion.  Can you imagine Moses or Jeremiah or Paul or Peter or John — or Jesus — saying, “You may not quote . . . [S]cripture” in supporting your ethics?  You cannot imagine it, and nobody before the modern church could have imagined it.  But more significantly, nobody before recent times could imagine a leader in the Christian church arguing to get rid of Bible-quoting in fashioning an ethics.

How can professed Christians so blatantly abandon Biblical ethics?  It’s an egregious example of caving in to the world spirit, as Francis Schaeffer used to say.[30]  In short, it’s flat-out compromise with the world.  Homosexuality, in case you haven’t noticed, has been energetically mainstreamed, and some of the Emergents don’t want to get “left behind” opposing what the depraved culture now approves of.  So they reinvent the ethics of Christianity to enfranchise Christians who are practicing homosexuals.

I earlier mentioned relativism and pluralism, but there’s an even more fundamental error at the root of the apostasy as it confronts us in the church — a deep and stubborn subjectivism.  It’s resistance to objective and external standards in favor of individual, private expression.  This idea goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant, but it gained traction in the 19th century with the existentialism of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  Kierkegaard tried to reconcile his subjectivism with Christianity, but Nietzsche wanted nothing of the God of the Bible.  He taught that since God was no longer a part of the ethical calculation, man must devise his own ethics.  This is “The Will to Power.”  Man establishes his own ethical standards.  There are no objective standards to guide him.  People today in the West who never heard of Nietzsche spout the Nietzschean line when they say, “Everybody must make up his/her own mind about right and wrong,” or, “I can’t impose my view of right and wrong on everybody else,” or, “I know in my heart what’s right for me, and that’s all that matters.”

This subjectivism gets imported into the Christian church. Years ago the theological liberal Gary Comstock wrote in his book Gay Theology Without Apology that he finally figured out that the Bible isn’t on his side. [31]  He decided that his source of ethics was his own internal feelings and desires.  Of course: if the Bible’s no longer your source of ethics, what are you left with?

What’s changed in the intervening years isn’t the source of such blatantly anti-Biblical ethics but where they are located — this view today is held not only by the old theological liberals but also by the young evangelicals.[32]  In Schaeffer’s language: “Accommodation leads to accommodation — which leads to accommodation . . . .”[33]  The accommodation junkies have bequeathed to us a toothless, irrelevant church that not even the depraved world can grudgingly respect.  Warren Cole Smith recently uttered these telling words:

“One of the ironies we’re beginning to see is that … even the world wants the church to be the church.  It is the church that doesn’t want to be the church.  That is the core problem.”[34]

You’d better believe it’s the core problem!

To these professed Christians who’ve thrown Biblical ethics overboard, let me say: lightening the boat in this way won’t keep the ship afloat.  You can’t have Christianity without Biblical ethics.  You can’t claim to follow Jesus in his love and compassion and “relationalism” if you turn your back on his teachings.  And Jesus taught that the Scripture (all of the Scripture) must govern our lives.  Jesus said that we’re his friends if we obey what he teaches (Jn. 15:14).  If we turn our back on Biblical ethics, we’re turning our back on Jesus.  It’s as simple and profound as that.

To the Emergents and other professed Christians, then, who have thrown the Bible overboard, let me advise: you are gradually becoming apostate.  Jesus and everybody in the early church saw the Old Testament as the inspired and authoritative Word of God.[35]  They saw the ethics of the Bible (properly interpreted, of course) as binding on Christians. They didn’t see the Bible only or even chiefly as God’s Big Storybook but as a testimony to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of the world. [36]  They also and equally saw the Bible as God’s rulebook for his people.[37]  When you want to get rid of the Bible as God’s rulebook, you are flirting with apostasy, and if you continue down that path, you’ll abandon Christianity altogether.  You need an old-fashioned Come-to-Jesus meeting, because you can’t follow Jesus without following his Word.

Second, note the elevation of human codes to the level of conscience-binding ethics.  Years ago I favorably reviewed Jim West’s book Drinking With Calvin and Luther.  This short book marshals evidence that the Reformation tradition is filled with godly believers who enjoyed the moderate consumption of alcohol.  I got a letter from a lady protesting my review.  She wrote that she agreed that the Bible doesn’t prohibit moderate alcohol consumption, but, she wrote, “God holds us to a higher standard.”  Ruminate on that statement a moment.  A higher standard than the Bible?  What would that standard be?  If you think about it, you’ll have to conclude that this standard — whatever it turns out to be specifically — has its same source as the Bible-rejecters mentioned a minute ago: man’s subjective opinion.

This conclusion is counterintuitive, because we’d never question the motive of these sincere Christians.  In fact, we’d applaud that motive.  The lady who wrote me hated the evil consequences of alcohol abuse, and she should hate them.  Drunkenness is a tragic sin that stands under God’s judgment (1 Cor. 6:10).  But the solution to that problem isn’t to supplement Biblical ethics, for when we add to God’s revealed ethics, we’re really saying that his Word isn’t sufficient and that our subjective standards are.  John in the book of Revelation warns that if any add to his inspired words, God will unleash on him the plagues written in the book (Rev. 22:18). In Deuteronomy 4:2 Jehovah warns Israel not to take away from or add to his revealed Word — meaning the law, which is filled with ethical stipulations.  We might have pure motives in adding to God’s Word and his ethical requirements, but pure motives won’t spare us from God’s judgment if we add to his words and thus supplement his authority with ours.

If we really affirm the Bible’s authority,[38] and give it more than lip service, we might follow an operative dictum: whatever the Bible does not forbid, God permits.[39]  This is a theoretical way of saying that only God can define sin (1 Jn. 3:4). When somebody charges that drinking martinis or smoking tobacco or charging interest is ipso facto sin, he has replaced God’s law with man’s law. This is a mark of Pharisees (Mk. 7:1-16). Only God is entitled to define sin.

It’s true that there may be many good reasons not to smoke cigars, charge interest, grow huckleberries, listen to the Beatles, drink single-malt scotch, dance at weddings, drive a convertible, send your daughter to Ivy League colleges, sport Afros, invest in mutual funds, play slots in Las Vegas, watch R-rated movies, learn to whittle, or wear linen sport coats-— but none of those reasons has any inherent bearing on sin. If you cannot practice these things in good conscience, then don’t practice them (Rom. 14:23). Just don’t criticize Christians who do practice them.

The reason this issue is important, in fact, has nothing to do with cigar smoking and interest charging and U2 albums, and everything to do with the authority and integrity of the Bible.  God has laid out what he requires. Beyond what he requires, he grants freedom: we term this “Christian liberty.” We could use a revival of it today. Bible-toters and -quoters that forbid what the Bible does not address dilute the authority of the Bible, a serious matter indeed.

We have enough sin around today (homosexuality, slander, abortion, love-lessness, schism, drunkenness, covenant-breaking, unbelief, worry, statism) that we need not add to the list day trading, smoking, and full-bodied merlots.

The bottom line is: Only God gets to define sin.  We may not impinge on His sovereignty.[40]

There’s sometimes a seamy side to this supplement to Biblical ethics.  Jesus addressed it in Mark 7.  There we read that he reprimands the Pharisees for adding to the Old Testament law.  But he then discloses their motive: “[L]aying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (v. 8).  In other words, they were adding their own commandments in order to replace God’s commandments.  They did not want to obey God’s command to honor their parents, so they devised their own law by which they could avoid providing for their parents by saying they were giving that gift to God. That was a pious addition, but it was sinful, and it provoked God’s anger.

How frequently modern Pharisees add to the Word of God in order to get rid of that Word!  I’m reminded of the woman (true story) who criticized Christians who smoke tobacco while all the while committing fornication.  She devised her own standards to divert attention from her own violation of God’s standards.  I wonder if the same is true of political liberals.  They pharisaically pontificate about the “carbon footprint” while they support the butchery of unborn children.  Let us never underestimate the capacity of sinful man to rationalize his most depraved thoughts and acts.

We must face one fact squarely: when we add to the ethics of the Bible and bind the consciences of others, we are guilty of the same subjectivism as the Emergents.  The Emergents say that God’s standards are too much; the Pharisees say that God’s standards aren’t enough.  Both erect a subjective standard apart from the Bible by which to fashion ethics.  Both are sinful, and both invite God’s judgment.

To the modern Pharisees I say: trust the Word of God.  God knows what’s right and wrong, and you and I do not know what’s right and wrong apart from his revelation.  When we add to the Word, even with good motives, we dilute God’s standards and set up ourselves as the final ethical arbiter.  This is grim prospect, and in the end we are no less blameworthy than those who intentionally throw the Bible overboard in order to indulge our pet sins.

Third, ponder the dilution of Biblical ethics by the very people who profess them. We must be careful, as my friend Ron Gagosian likes to say, not to point the bony finger — at least not without recognizing our own sins and ethical lapses.

Paul asked Israel, in essence, “You Jews who have the law of Moses and pride yourselves in that law, do you break that law” (Rom. 2:17–24)?  The Jews as Paul’s contemporaries looked condescendingly toward the Gentiles.  One of the privileges of God’s covenant body was the possession of the “oracles [Word] of God” (Rom. 3:1–2).  Unlike the Gentiles, those benighted folk outside God’s covenant dealings, the Jews had access to the very words of God!  Those words were one of the chief factors distinguishing them from the pagans that surrounded them.  But Paul turned this privilege on its head.  What good does that law do if you consistently break it?  The covenant body had become antinomian, lawless — the very people whom God had called specifically to follow in the glorious path of gracious obedience.

Now the church has always been vulnerable to lawlessness, but it has become an epidemic in our own time.  We have read in the Bible the splendorous truth that salvation is by grace and not by works (Eph 2:8–9), but we have not read the rest of the Bible.  Yes, Paul assures us that our salvation is not by our works or merit or performance.  We are saved by what Jesus Christ did on the Cross and from the empty tomb.  Salvation is not a self-help program.  Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours by faith, not by works.

But neither is salvation lawless, and if it leads to lawlessness, it’s not genuine salvation.  Paul writes in Titus 2:11–12 that the grace of God “teach[es] us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.”  He goes on to say (v. 14), “Jesus Christ gave himself for us [on the Cross], that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”   Grace teaches us to live righteously, and Jesus died on the Cross create in us a zeal for righteousness.

But we have people today who worry about that if we stress obedience, we’ll pollute the grace of God.  David Bahnsen and I have been publicly lamenting this trend.  Heaven forbid that young people develop a zeal for godly obedience.  They may get to thinking that they’re earning their salvation.  What, pray tell, will happen if Christians become too obedient?  We can have none of that!

Their grace has become a disgrace.

Paul, the great Theologian of Grace, didn’t seem to have that problem.  He championed the grace of God like none before him and few after him, but he also and equally championed the necessity of good works — of obedience.  He writes that we are saved entirely by grace through faith and not of works.  Salvation is a gift of God, not a reward for human achievement.  But the very reason we are saved is to perform good works (Eph. 2:10).  The old adages apply: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.  No one will be saved by his works, yet no one will be saved without good works.[41]

Yet we have preachers today who say that if Christians don’t believe that Gospel preaching leads to sinfulness, we haven’t preached the Gospel.[42]  This is not what Paul meant,[43] and this is nearly a blasphemy of the Gospel.

We shouldn’t be concerned only with the lawlessness in the wider culture (true enough).  We should be equally concerned about the lawlessness in the church, where God’s judgment begins (1 Pet. 4:17).

And make no mistake.  We do have a lawless church.  The ministers seem to be under the impression that they can’t expect from their flock godly living in a godless age, but that’s precisely what Paul expected (Phil. 2:15).  Perhaps they’re afraid of losing the tithing members whose lives look more like the world than like Jesus Christ.  In any case, we have drifted from a Gospel that brings sinners to repentance and to following Jesus Christ.  But there simply is no other Gospel.

Let me speak more uncomfortably.

You don’t need any statistics or polls of any kind to verify the anecdotal evidence that premarital sex has quietly become acceptable in “Bible-believing churches.”  It’s not acceptable to God.  The tacit assumption seems to be that in our hyper-sexualized age, we simply can’t expect single Christian adults to remain chaste.  So we turn the other way when they employ birth control and fornicate.  But the Bible teaches that sex is a wonderful gift from God that’s designed exclusively for marriage (Heb. 13:4).  It also teaches that fornicators won’t inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9).  God’s words, not mine.  God gives the reason for this prohibition.  It creates a one-flesh relationship (vv. 16–20) — an emotional and spiritual union, not just a physical union — that must be reserved for a lifelong commitment we call marriage.  Our bodies belong to the Holy Spirit.  Should we unite the Holy Spirit to anybody and everybody?  To this requirement, the spirit of the age says, “It’s my body, and I can do with it what I want.”  But Paul declares the opposite: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (vv. 19b–20).  As long as churches play fast and loose with premarital sex, if we refuse to champion Biblical ethics here, on an issue festering in our midst, why should anybody listen to the church when it speaks on other ethical issues?

Then there’s the issue of rampant divorce in the church, statistics or no statistics.  The Bible doesn’t prohibit divorce in all cases, and sometimes it’s the best possible choice among several bad choices in a sinful world.  But covenant breaking — and marriage is a covenant (Mal. 2:14) — is a breezy trend in “Bible-believing” churches.  I have investigated the statististics for divorce rates among professed Christians, but it’s unclear how accurate these statistics are (what does “professed Christian” really mean these days?).  So, again, let’s trust our own eyes and ears and acknowledge how that many “Bible-believing” churches don’t stress fidelity to marriage vows, don’t work hard to preserve faltering marriages, and don’t have the expectation that marriages should be for a lifetime.  You get what you fish for, and many churches don’t fish for lifelong marriages.  I want to accent again that in some cases divorce isn’t just acceptable but is actually the only possible course of action.  And my intent isn’t to heap guilt on divorcees.  But any church that looks at divorce as a simple solution to marital problems has thrown Biblical ethics overboard and isn’t worthy of the name “Bible-believing.”  If you’re married, stay married unless you have an obviously Biblical reason for divorce.  Look to your church and your friends — only if your church and friends are committed to Biblical ethics — to help keep your marriage intact.  Spend time on your face in prayer before the God who established and sustains marriage.  Sound marriages, like all other sound enterprises in this world, require hard work.  It just so happens that we live in a morally lazy age, but if we intend to live up to our profession, we’ll need to work hard to maintain marriages.  And any church that doesn’t foster this hard work but treats marriage cavalierly isn’t worthy of the moniker “Bible-believing’ — and isn’t worthy of your support.

Advice to the faithful in Bible-believing churches: If we pride ourselves like the ancient Jews in holding the oracles of God, we had better be double-dog certain that we take its ethics — its law — with utmost seriousness.  And if we think that orthodox doctrine alone suffices, recall the words of Harold O. J. Brown: “We will not long be able to hold biblical doctrines if we drift far from biblical ethics.”[44] Biblical doctrine stands and falls with Biblical ethics.  If your ethics do wrong, your doctrine will soon go wrong.

God calls the church to stand under the Lordship — not just the Saviorhood — of his Son.  God didn’t simply forgive his people for Jesus’ sake; he also calls us to holiness, without which none of them will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).


 The depraved ethics of our surrounding culture offer great opportunities for Christians to preach and point the way to Jesus Christ and his Word as the only bulwark against moral collapse.  We have the answers.  But I fear that we’re forfeiting our unique calling to speak prophetically to our culture.  The church is not effective in influencing the depraved culture, but the depraved culture has been remarkably effective in influencing the church.  In its lust for success and popularity and numbers, the church has compromised Biblical truth and Biblical ethics (they stand and fall together) and is becoming unsavory salt fit only to trampled under foot.  The church is not called to ape the culture but to confront the culture.

I urge you to stand without compromise for the Lordship of Jesus.  I challenge you to stand for his imperial Gospel.  I plead with you to submit to his infallible word.  We won’t overcome our ethical darkness by hiding the only light that can dispel that darkness under the assumption that the light will offend our postmoderns.  Of course, it will offend them; light dispels darkness.  But that light is the only hope.  Let Biblical ethics shine — and leave the results to the God who promises to overwhelm the earth with his law (Mic. 4:2).

And if we do not; if we continue along merrily capitulating to worldly standards, the church will becoming an effete, worthless laughing-stock in our culture, and when it that happens, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.  If the church refuses to be the church, she gets everything she deserves.

[1] J. I. Packer, Beyond the Battle for the Bible (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1980), 41, emphasis in original.

[2] One reason for this heightened importance of ethics is the so-called “culture wars” sparked by the 1960’s and the rise of sexual permissiveness, the intensity of Communist and socialist influence, and the erosion of the family.

[3] For an introduction to Christian ethics, see John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).

[4] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 18–32.

[5] Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954), 297–307.

[6] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 147–166; cf. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984).

[7] In the modern world, Immanuel Kant first championed the unknowability of God.  See Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1991), 341–351.

[8] G. C. Berkouwer, “General and Special Divine Revelation,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 13–24.

[9] “[F]or Christians, biblical ethics is the reflection on human acts and conduct from the perspective given to us in the Holy Scripture from our Lord,” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., What Does the Lord Require? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 9.

[10] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1976–1983), 3:455–481.

[11] J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart (Dowers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1997).

[12] Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), 67–96.

[13] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, 16.

[14] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25–43.

[15] Lauren Vriens, “Islam: Governing Under Sharia,” http://www.cfr.org/publication/8034/, from Council on Foreign Relations online, accessed November 3, 2009,

[16] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 1:139.

[17] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1990), 39–65.

[18] Christine Wicker, “Dumbfounded by divorce: Survey inspires debate over why faith isn’t a bigger factor in marriage,” http://www.adherents.com/largecom/baptist_divorce.html, from Dallas Morning News online, accessed October 20, 2009.

[19] John W. Riggs, Postmodern Christianity (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 2003), 119.

[20] Ibid., 122.

[21] Ibid., 123.  Riggs also supports abortion rights, 123–131.

[22] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 150–151.

[23] Doug Pagitt, “Emergent — A Generative Friendship of Missional Christians,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, eds., Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt (Baker Books, 2007), 19. Tony Jones makes the same point on 11–15.

[24] Ibid., 19.

[25] Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 65.

[26] Ibid., 67.

[27] Ibid., 66.

[28] Tony Jones, “How I Went from There to Here: Same Sex Marriage Blogalogue,” http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2008/11/same-sex-marriage-blogalogue-h.html, accessed October 20, 2009.

[29] Tony Jones, “An Honest Question about Gays in the Church,” http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/08/an-honest-question-about-gays.html#preview, accessed October 20, 2009, emphases in original.

[30] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1984), 111–140.

[31] Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1993), 39–43, 92, 99–100, 108,

[32] The younger evangelical Dave Tomlinson wants to dissuade evangelicals from seeing the Bible as an authority that they must read and obey; rather, they should grasp that it’s simply given to “fund our deliberation” [!] on how we’re supposed to decide to act.  See his The Post Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 131.

[33] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, 146.

[34] Mark Galli, “An Evangelical Lament: A Seasoned Journalist Looks at the Movement and Sighs,” Christianity Today, October 2009, 65.

[35] John W. Wenham, Christ & the Bible (Dowers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1972).

[36] George Duncan Berry, The Inspiration and Authority of Holy Scripture (London: SPCK, 1919).

[37] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “The Church Fathers and Holy Scripture,” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 207.

[38] Arguably the most incisive restatement of the orthodox view of Biblical authority written in the last 100 years was Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation (Chicago: Moody, 1971). It has recently been eclipsed by John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, P & R Publishing, 2010),

[39] R. J. Rushdoony, “Inferences and Commandments,” Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, California: Ross House, 1991), 434–436.

[40] The next several paragraphs are based on my Dead Orthodoxy or Living Heresy? (LaGrange, California: Kerygma Press, 2008), 101–103.

[41] See John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 113–116, 130–131.

[42] W. Robert Godfrey, “Faith Formed by Love or Faith Alone: The Instrument of Justification,” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007), 280.

[43] Norman Shepherd, “Faith and Faithfulness,” in A Faith That Is Never Alone, ed. P. Andrew Sandlin (La Grange, California: Kerygma Press, 2007), 68–72.

[44] Harold O. J. Brown, “ in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 267.


One thought on “Christian Ethics in the Wake of Hypocritical Relativists, Imperious Pharisees, Irrational Postmoderns, and Squishy Emergents

  1. Pingback: P. Andrew Sandlin’s straightforward assessment of Tony Jones’ theology | Reassuring Quotes

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