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What is the basis for Christian ethics?

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new primer series on Christians ethics at Each Monday this fall, a respected leader and thinker will recommend and give a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. You can find the entire series here

Perhaps the moment was around a campfire. Maybe all that could be heard were the sounds of crickets in the woods around, along with the crackling of the flame and one voice talking. Jesus was telling his disciples of his impending arrest, and saying, it seemed irrationally, that they should not be troubled about what was to come. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” He said to them, And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that were I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going” (John 14:3-4).

This is when, I expect, that murmuring commenced, and one can easily see why. Thomas is wrongly caricatured as “doubting” in our age, but Thomas, it seems to me, displays a need for certainty lacking in, say, Simon Peter, who often believes he can debate or sword fight his way out of difficulty. Thomas probably realized how often this band of disciples misunderstood Jesus’ sayings and parables, not to mention how often they fell asleep while he was praying. Thomas probably wondered if Jesus had given directions for them to meet somewhere on a mountain, to recite a particular incantation, in order to be received into this heavenly reality about which he was talking. If so, no one seemed to know what these directions were. 

The basis of Christian ethics

“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas asked (John 14:5). And then Jesus spoke words his followers have memorized for the long centuries since: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In this, Jesus summed up the basis for the Christian gospel, and, flowing out of that gospel, the basis of Christian ethics. 

In this, Jesus spoke consistently with what he spoke elsewhere, in numerous other situations. When the religious leaders pondered the kingdom of God—as though the kingdom were an abstraction—Jesus said, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21), speaking, of course, of himself. When Jesus told a grieving Martha that her brother would live again, she responded that she knew that, that he would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). But Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection, and the life” (John 11:25). 

Jesus is not a means to an end. He is, himself, the End and the Means, the Alpha and the Omega. The mystery behind everything in reality is that God’s purpose is to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). To come to Christ is not to adopt a philosophy, but to be united—as a body to a head—with the very life of Christ himself (Col. 3:1-3). 

Ethics, then, is a way—and that way is a Person. We, like the first disciples, follow Jesus. He is the Way. We, like the first disciples, have our inclinations and expectations reshaped and re-formed by Jesus’ teaching. He is the Truth. And we, like the first disciples, find the power to carry out transformed lives because we are enlivened by the Spirit that raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11; Col. 2:19). 

The gospel points us to—and then joins us by faith—to this Jesus, crucified and resurrected. And this gospel, by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, calls us to offer up our lives as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1), as we are conformed to the life of Christ (Rom. 8:29). 

Christian ethics are the overflow of a way connected to the Way, of truths anchored in the Truth, of a life rooted in the Life.

Thus, a Christian ethic is not about the pursuit of already-agreed-upon abstract human virtues with Christian doctrine and practice as the way to best realize them. Christian ethics is instead applied Christology. When we seek out a Christian ethic, we are asking, “What does this universe around me—and the way I make in it—have to do with Christ and him crucified? How do I walk, by his power, where he is leading us?” 

Signposts and contradiction

Christian ethics include, then, both signpost and contradiction. God designed the cosmos by the Word (John 1:1-14), in wisdom and in righteousness. He embedded in every human psyche the criterion by which he would judge humanity on the last day (Rom. 2:15-16). It should not surprise us, then, when Christianity confirms some moral intuitions we can find in other places. Most people intuit that murder is wrong—at least until they find a murder they want to commit. Most people intuit that theft and fraud are wrong—except in the cases in which they want to steal and defraud. These moral intuitions are pointing beyond themselves, to the reality that morality is not defined by power or by will but by a holy and transcendent God. They are a signpost to the kingdom for which the creation was spoken into existence.

But Christian ethics is also a contradiction. After all, the creation is not the way it is supposed to be. Something primal—and inescapable on our own—has gone wrong. Even in the best of circumstances, we sense that we are exiles here, and, in our clearest moments of self-reflection, we can see that we do not live up even to the moral truths we acknowledge, much less those we downplay and ignore (Luke 10:25-37; Rom. 1:21-23; 2:17-24). In a fallen world red-in-tooth-and-claw, a fallen world in which the will-to-power and the glory of the self seem to be ultimate, the way of Christ can seem not like a superior way to achieve what humanity already wants, but as strange and irrational and even dangerous. 

The call to love not just one’s tribe or kin, but one’s enemy, hardly seems to achieve any biological purpose. The assertion that we are blessed when we are persecuted or reviled or impoverished—as Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount—seems hardly as obvious as, say, the virtues of the Stoic or the mindfulness of the Buddhist. The call to carry a cross, to save one’s life by losing it—none of that makes any sense if the universe is the way it seems to be. And that’s the point. The kingdom Jesus unveils and embodies is not helping us to “adapt” to the universe as it is, but instead is conforming us to the universe as it was created to be, and as it will be once more. 

That’s why Christian ethics confirms the morality written on the heart and, at the same time, interrupt us from the way that often seems “right” or “realistic” to us. Christian ethics are the overflow of a way connected to the Way, of truths anchored in the Truth, of a life rooted in the Life. Christian ethics can include complicated philosophical and existential reflections about the most complex of personal or social dilemmas. But, at its heart, Christian ethics is about hearing the voice of Jesus—maybe around a campfire—saying what he has said to us from the beginning, “Come, follow me.” 

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