What Makes Christian Ethics Truly “Christian”? A Seminary Prof Answers

Image of a craggy rock of rock signifying teaching on Christian ethics

Christians do not have unique possession of the ethical, of what is good and right. The Greeks wrote of the good life; today many different guilds work carefully to police the professional ethics of their respective fields. And plenty of other ancient or contemporary settings witness to the seemingly global concern for knowing the good, doing the good, and even for being good. That being so, we do well to seriously ask what Christians have to say that is unique, which is singular, and that warrants the modifier Christian ethics.

This question may seem incapable of a singular or coherent answer. Christians vary regarding their ethical commitments and even their theoretical understandings of the good life. To be sure, Roman Catholics frequently do disagree with charismatics or with Lutherans here. It’s also important to say, however, that there are disagreements between virtue ethicists and those committed to divine command ethics, categories which cut across rather than run alongside denominational fault lines. Indeed, Christian disagreement regarding ethics may only seem to compound as we add new methodological approaches to the historical pedigree of our still-proliferating church traditions. In the face of these divisions among Christians, can we give a coherent answer regarding what makes for Christian ethics?

And yet Christian ethics does offer some common concerns that set it apart from other approaches and that provide it a noteworthy sense of coherence. Much catholic unity can be perceived in this arena of theology.

In the following, we’ll seek to appreciate the myriad ways that Christian ethics distinguishes itself among various ethical approaches: in other words, we’ll discover what makes Christian ethics Christian. In so doing, we’ll consider the definition of the good, the knowledge of the good, the good person, the process of becoming good, what sort of goods are involved, how virtue and command relate to the good life, and finally, to what end the good is done.

Related article: Setting Your Mind on Things Above in a Things Below World

What is the good?

Christian ethics finds fullest expression in the works of Jesus and the preaching of his commissioned apostles, and yet it is rooted in the prophetic witness of the law and prophets of Israel. In other words, both the Old and the New Testaments speak into Christian ethics.

The language of “the good” does not appear very often in Scripture, though confession of divine goodness appears often (as in Ps 145). But paired terms do appear in telling ways. The Bible, in both testaments, speaks of the “right” or “righteous,” which can be rendered as the “just.” (English splits language of justice and righteousness, but the biblical languages did not have this divide.) Psalm 11:7 says,

The Lord is righteous. He loves righteous deeds.
The upright will behold his face.

The register may be that of judicial rectitude rather than goodness, but the conceptual logic remains telling. “God is this, and therefore God loves this—and therefore those marked by this are the ones who will see God most intimately.” Divine character defines godly will, which then gives shape to the nature of rightness here and goodness elsewhere.

Goodness or the good is not a mere whim. It is not an arbitrary nominalist choice. It is not the sum total of aggregated social mores. The good marks God’s own being and character, which then defines the character of those who will be with him. Herein Christian ethics offers a robustly theological rooting to the nature of the good.

How is the good known?

If the good is defined by God’s own character, then the question arises: How on earth might one know what is, in fact, good? God’s own character is not a simple thing; it is not available at one’s whim or caprice. And it is, therefore, no easy reference point for us to plot the good. God is spirit; he is elusive, transcendent. God is fire, wind, spirit. To know the good as knowing the moral implication of this one is to know mystery itself. Katherine Sonderegger has insisted on just this point.

Divine mystery is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success. It is because we know truly and properly—because we obey in faith the First Commandment—that God is mystery. His metaphysical predicate of Oneness, when known, yields mystery.1

Sonderegger presses home repeatedly that mystery is an intellectual achievement flowing from divine presence, not a limit owing to divine absence.2 The mysterious God is known—and, with him, so is the incomprehensible character of goodness. God reveals goodness—the ethical—by his powerful mercy. And how do we know it now? We turn to God’s holy word, wherein divine instruction has been granted.

The whole counsel of God’s word conveys the totality of the good. Here the sufficiency of God’s word relates to the wisdom needed to live ethically. We see this especially in one of the most well-known passages attesting the nature of Holy Scripture. Second Timothy 3:16–17 not only attests the word of God to be “breathed out by God” or “inspired by God” (3:16), but also to be useful to equip and teach “so that the man or woman of God might be equipped for every good deed” (3:17). The logic of this passage is this: all Scripture forms one for all good works. This implies a threat: if we tend to anything less than the totality of Scripture, we ought to expect to be readied for only some good works.

The totality of Scripture is custom-designed to conform us, to prepare us, for all the challenges and temptations ahead. We see that principle in play when Jesus himself faced temptation. The threats were varied: food for survival, authority to summon the divine, riches galore. Jesus could have simply rebuked the tempter. He was divine, after all. But in each instance, he modeled the way that holy Scripture formatively prepares one for every good deed in that he responded to each inviting offer with a scriptural quotation drawn from the Old Testament.

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Who does the good?

Christian ethics also distinguishes itself in its characterization of the agent of the good life. Good persons do good things. Agere sequitur esse or “action follows being.” Metaphysics form morals, for good or ill. So Christian ethics refuses to jump past the subject of the good life simply to consider the good or evil action. We must always begin with description of the subject of the ethical life.

Christianity redescribes the nature of the human. Humans are good, created by God himself. They are “very good” by his design and play a uniquely charted role in his cosmic order. Humans are evil, fallen into sin in Adam. They are contemptible and accursed, having let loose death and corruption since that primal sin in the garden. Christian thought conveys a textured picture, then, of humans as moral agents marked by great privilege and responsibility on the one hand, and yet marked by tragedy and limitation on the other.

In light of that picture of humanity, Christian ethics cannot merely concern itself with knowing the right or good thing to do, it must first attend to being or—more starkly—becoming the right or good sort of being, the kind of being who might then do good things. Grace, redemption, and salvation are elemental to Christian distinctiveness. That the good life might be a vision for the sinful enemy of God attests a remarkable break from Greco-Roman ways, where gifts were granted to those innately apt to put them to good use. Yet Paul sings the praise of a God who justifies the ungodly and even dies for his own enemies (Rom 5:3–10).

How do they become good?

Sinful humans become good through the generosity of the God who is himself the good. Otherwise put, God who has all goodness in and of himself chooses to share that goodness with us in Christ by his Spirit.

The Father demonstrates his goodness in that he longs to share his divine life with us. In the face of our sin and treachery, he does not turn his back or close in on himself. He bestows still greater mercy by insisting that he will be a God of grace and mercy even in the face of both primal and persistent sins. The Father elects and determines that what is his—God’s own life—will be shared with many sons and daughters in and through Jesus Christ, the true and greater Adam, and will be wrought in the midst of human corruption by the Lord and giver of life, the Holy Spirit.

Christ shares goodness with his own. The saving work of Christ involves his bearing our sin, sharing his fullness with us, and, through that rich and intimate union, his transforming us by his Spirit. Being united to Jesus is elemental. All blessings are found in him (2 Cor 1:20). Yet he does bring a rich and varied array of blessings, and his salvation is not frugal or miserly. He saves sinners not to divine indifference but to inheritance and favor and blessing. He makes us heirs with Christ, joint-heirs in the Son (Rom 8:17). In his saving work, evil is addressed by his bearing the curse of sin and by his extending the grace and favor of one who is himself all goodness, both divine and human.

The Holy Spirit makes good those who belong to God. The Spirit actually works renewal within, so that the grace and favor of the Lord Jesus Christ do not go unreceived. Unlike other ethical approaches, Christianity does not merely describe what ought to be the case. In conveying the generosity of God in the gospel, Christian ethics leans upon the divine provision that ought will become is, that the divine offer will be received, that promises shall be met with faith. The Spirit works regeneration and resurrection in the hearts and lives of the people of God, thereby shedding abroad the goodness of God in their very being.

While the language here accents divine action, the human agent really does become good. Further, the human agent, the Christian, really does actually do good. There is admittedly a passivity to the way that Christian ethics will describe human action. It always follows divine salvation and provision, but it follows in such a way that it really brings vivid and vital human action.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)

What sort of good do these Christians go on to do?

What action follows this gracious intervention? Love of God and neighbor define Christian ethical objectives. Here there remains a priority: seek God first, and other good things follow. The great commandment—a summation of the whole law of God’s moral design—is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Jesus plainly answers first with this God-ward word. But he follows immediately and, we see, integrally: “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:35–40).

Love here does not float above the surface. Love will be characterized by Jesus, not only in his words of teaching but in his deeds of moral exemplarity. He shows what it is to love, even to the uttermost. The example of Jesus and others, however, does not float free of specific textual guidelines. Love will be sourced ultimately from the Ten Commandments. Jesus’s answer about the greatest commandment is a reply, after all, to a query about which portion of that law is of utmost importance. Further, love will be described in some detail in passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:4–11, where love is sketched with particularities and limitations.

In this regard, Christian ethics involves both what might be called divine command ethics and virtue ethics. First, the fact that the double love command sums up the Decalogue and, by extension, the whole Mosaic law speaks to its focal use of law or command. The Psalms revel in law, nowhere more so than in Psalm 119 where the psalmist recounts delight in God’s law, instruction, stipulations, ordinances, and commands.

Second, 1 Corinthians 13 orients Christian ethics to the significance of virtue. Love does not do these here. Love is or is not various things. Love is patient, though love is not arrogant. In these ways, love’s character surely manifests in a host of actions—and inactions. Love accents or flavors various actions in appropriate ways. Love talks patiently. Love waits patiently. Love serves or sacrifices patiently. Patience is not a singular action, but it’s an adverbial manner in which love acts out a host of Christian actions.

Again, all of Scripture equips Christians for every good work (2 Tim 3:16–17), and doing follows being. Neither virtue ethics nor divine command theory offers a sufficient account of biblical moral teaching, though both are necessary pieces of the puzzle. God designs not only what we will do, but even the manner or way in which we shall do it. So he provides law to summon us to do, and he charts and characterizes the person of virtue so that we will do these things in the fitting way.

Related article: Holiness: A Short Guide to a Complicated Doctrine by Michael F. Bird

What are good commands and good virtues?

Are these truly distinctive elements? Don’t other philosophies and religions concern themselves with law here or virtue there? Yes, to be sure, Christians do not have a monopoly on these terms, and that’s not a new concession to be made. Others have always cared about virtue and about moral law.

Christian law does chart its own path in that its actual commands are distinctive. Its portrait of loving God and neighbor takes the form of doing so in ways that would be atypical or unique. Nothing so shows the uniqueness of Christian commands as the place of faith or trust across the testaments. We can easily miss the remarkable role played by this summons “to believe,” perhaps especially because REL 101: Introduction to Religious Studies often surveys various “faiths.” But that characterization is the result of an unhealthy colonialism of religious studies researchers. Other religions do not speak of themselves in terms of “a faith.” Christians are unique in doing so. Even Jews do not refer to the religion they practice as “a faith.” The summons to believe names something elemental and distinctive about Christian divine command theory.

Similarly, Christian virtue uses abstract terms that may parallel the Stoics or the Cynics. But Christian moral teaching on the virtuous life cuts sharply against the grain of those Greco-Roman movements. For instance, Christians see the virtue of humility as a glorious good, tied up with the beatitudes that the meek and the poor in spirit shall be happy (Matt 5:3). Humility, a sober analysis of oneself, is a befitting posture for a creature and even more so for a redeemed sinner dependent wholly on God’s grace. Whereas the Romans stuck their chest out and talked up their gloria, the early Christians sought to follow the lowly way of the Savior. That’s where, ultimately, the distinctiveness of Christian virtue is evident. The way of Jesus himself defines the pathway of human virtue and flourishing. Just as much as the cross is foolishness to Greeks, salvifically speaking, so is it also nonsense to them morally. Christians may sound like others in touting the value of virtue, but they chart their own course. More specifically, they follow the Messiah’s course by accenting specifically humble, Christian virtues.

Faith and humility illustrate these distinctive moral demands. Others could be highlighted as well. The crucial thing to see is that Christianity is distinctive not merely in abstract principle but also in stipulated specificities of lawful obedience or virtuous character.

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To what end do they do the good?

Finally, Christian ethics aims at divine glory. Other goods exist and warrant our concern: the good of the neighbor, the salvation of the nations, and the like. Moses and Jesus and all the prophets in between call us to mind the neighbor, the sojourner, the kin. But the glory of God is the ultimate aim of any truly good work. Indeed, no work can be called good in all integrity unless it not only emerges from good character, takes objectively good form, follows virtuously good manner, and also terminates upon the exaltation of God’s own name. In this way, Christian ethics insists on ending where it begins. As it is rooted in God’s goodness, so it resolves ultimately in God’s glory. But God’s glory is a reality that involves and includes others in its wake, such that God is glorified in his work to do good unto others (and even unto his enemies).

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  1. Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2015), 1:24.
  2. Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, 1:40, 42, 50, 87, 460.
Written by
Michael Allen

Michael Allen is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He has written many books and articles and recorded several Logos Mobile Ed courses. He is a Presbyterian teaching elder and theologian-in-residence at NewCity Orlando (PCA). For more regarding Christian ethics, see his Logos Mobile Ed lecture series, “ET101 Law and Gospel: The Basis of Christian Ethics.”

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Written by Michael Allen
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