In high school, during the summers, I volunteered as a camp counselor for the YMCA. Back then, part of the training materials they gave me was a book called The ‘C’ in YMCA. (YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association). It was a book explaining some of the history and purpose behind the Christian aspects of the YMCA.
The ‘E’ in ERLC (Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) can also perhaps be a bit obscure to some. What exactly is “ethics”? And how does it connect with the Church’s mission to advance the gospel?
What is ethics?
Ethics is also commonly called moral philosophy. Encyclopedia Britannica defines ethics as “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles.” Put more simply, ethics are what people might commonly call “values” or “morality.”
But why should Christians care about ethics? Why is it such a big part of the ERLC’s work? The short answer is because ethics is deeply connected to the gospel and the Christian life. Every day, we make decisions which are ethical in nature. Any given situation could invoke the question, “Is this the right thing to do?” That is the essence of an ethical/moral decision.
As Christians, we must let our ethics be shaped by the gospel. Let’s explore why this is the case.
The gospel and repentance
People can often have a truncated view of the gospel that limits it to only the knowledge or acknowledgment that Jesus Christ died for our sins and salvation is found in him. But the gospel requires more than mere mental assent (or agreement) to these propositions. The gospel also requires us to repent of our sins.
I was reminded of this when listening to Russell Moore’s recent interview of former Klansman Thomas A. Tarrants on his Signposts podcast. Tarrants grew up going to church and even made a confession of faith in Christ during his early teenage years, but he noted that this didn’t change his heart or stop him from giving into a life of hatred and racism that was prevalent in his culture. He was just afraid of going to hell. Genuine repentance and transformation did not come until much later when he had been thrown in prison for an attempted bombing.
By understanding the moral demands of the gospel (ethics), we can learn what is means to follow Jesus faithfully and in such a way that displays the beauty of the gospel and the glory of our Lord and Savior.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus likewise taught of the indispensable nature of repentance to salvation (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32, 13:1-5, 24:47). Peter, when giving testimony of Jesus at Solomon’s portico, told the audience, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,” (Acts 3:19). The gospel is never less than the good news of the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus Christ, but if we are not preaching a gospel that calls sinners to repentance, then we are not preaching the whole gospel.
Note, this is not salvation by works, for salvation only comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and his work (Eph. 2:8-10). Rather, this is an acknowledgment that the gospel requires more than just mental assent to the facts about Jesus. The gospel requires repentance, a change in heart, a submission of our very being—our very wills—to Christ as Lord.
So while we can see the necessity of repentance to the gospel, how does ethics tie in?
Repentance and ethics
Repentance, in its essence, means to turn away or turn back from something. Ethics, on the other hand, is the framework which helps you decide what to turn away from (sin) and who to turn to (Jesus). So, when we call someone to repentance and to receive the forgiveness of sins offered through Jesus, we are also calling them to forsake the sins associated with their “old self” and to make new ethical choices in accordance with their “new self” (Eph. 4:22-24). Thus, ethics and our ethical choices are influenced directly by the gospel. We are called to be Christ-like, which means that we are called to adopt Christ’s ethics.
This is most clearly seen in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Thess. 4:3-8; 2 Thess. 2:13). The Spirit is constantly at work within us, bringing about a transformation of our hearts and minds. When we submit to the Spirit through obedience to the Word, over time he molds our character and desires to be in accordance with the Lord’s will. And when we submit to the Lordship of Christ, this inevitably affects our moral decision-making (i.e., our ethics).
Ethics is not the entirety of what the gospel is, for salvation cannot be gained through ethics or obedience to God’s law (Rom. 3:28). On the other hand, ethics, which encompasses not only our character but our decision-making, is ultimately born from our decision to repent, believe, and follow Jesus, which is the core of the gospel.
This is what the ERLC seeks to foster. Our mission statement states that we exist “to assist the churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.” By understanding the moral demands of the gospel (ethics), we can learn what is means to follow Jesus faithfully and in such a way that displays the beauty of the gospel and the glory of our Lord and Savior.