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What’s the relationship between ethics and evangelism?

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March 2, 2020

Recently in an ethics class I teach, a student raised their hand and asked me, “What’s the relationship between ethics and evangelism?”

That’s a good question. I had never formally explored their direct relationship. It turns out that ethics is inseparable from how we understand the task of evangelism. How so? Because wrongdoing, or sinning, is what establishes the ground of our need for redemption from God. To discuss what sin is, then, is to immediately begin a discussion about right conduct and wrong conduct. What is a sin? It’s a violation of a divine standard that human beings are obligated to obey (1 John 3:4). To put it another way, a sin is anything for which Christ needed to die to redeem a person.

Were each of us in a state of perfection in our day-to-day obedience, we would have no need of redemption. Considering that we’re not, this means that ethics—the task of how we go about living our lives in accordance with God’s holy nature—is not only relevant, but absolutely necessary to our understanding of evangelism. Understanding wrongdoing and what sin is, is essential to understanding our accountability before a holy God, our deserved judgment for sinning against God, and how the sinlessness of Jesus can atone for our rebellion.

Evangelism is about more than ethics, but never less, especially if ethics means calling people to repentance for their sin against a holy God. In effect, it’s our ethics that condemn us to hell, and it is Jesus’ ethics that makes possible our salvation. Let’s unpack all of this by using an example.

Ethics and our redemption 

I recently watched the documentary One Child Nation, which exposes in brutal and graphic detail the horrific policy of the Chinese government allowing only one child per household. This was done in order to protect against the concerns of overpopulation, like starvation. To pursue this policy, the Chinese government oversaw a campaign of forced sterilization and abortion. It’s worth writing a whole article just on this documentary alone, but that’s not the purpose of this article. 

Rather, in the interview, the producer interviews a family-planning official who delivered children, sterilized women, and aborted children. The number of children this official said she killed was upward of 40,000-50,000, if my memory serves correctly. That’s a staggering number that words fail to accurately comprehend. How could one person live with so much death and guilt at their hands? 

The woman being interviewed was deeply conflicted with an agonized conscience. She knew what she had done in killing so many babies was wrong, but it’s what her job and the officials above her required. She has since made a pact with an impersonal force in the universe to try to act charitably and mercifully to all women and children in the aftermath, hoping that her good actions outweigh her bad actions.

Understanding wrongdoing and what sin is, is essential to understanding our accountability before a holy God, our deserved judgment for sinning against God, and how the sinlessness of Jesus can atone for our rebellion.

In essence, this woman is trying to atone for her sins by looking to herself for this redemption. She is trying to save herself, which is the tendency of every self-justifying yet condemned person. In the movie, there is no gospel, there is no offer of Christ who she can look to for atonement, redemption, and forgiveness. Rather, she is left to herself and her conscience and the fear besetting an individual who knows they are guilty and feels judged by some cosmic standard, even if she does not quite grasp that cosmic standard to be a personal God, YHWH. It’s a vain pursuit of self-reckoning that will only bring further condemnation. I so badly wanted to yell at the television, “But there’s Christ, look to Christ!”

What was apparent from the documentary was that it was this woman’s corrupt actions, her ethics, that have led her to this place of unremitting despair. This means, in turn, that the message of the gospel comes to her by contrasting her sinfulness with the sinlessness of Christ, the one who was qualified to obtain our salvation by his perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21). Such are the similar circumstances of a situation we all know well: Jesus’ interactions with the woman at the well (John 4). Saying of Jesus, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did,” Jesus named her actions for what they truly were—sin—and the woman was awakened to the reality of her sin and her need for redemption, which she immediately recognized was available in Christ (John 4:29).

In sharing the good news and love of Christ, we must understand that people come to know Christ through the judgment they know they deserve and the redemption they know they cannot find in or by themselves. This means evangelism absolutely requires telling people that their sin is wrong, and is worthy of judgment because of God’s holiness, but that Christ offers the promise of forgiveness because his life is what saves us. 

To love our neighbor as God intends means to see them truly for how God sees them: As condemned, but never outside Christ’s reach. His arm is not too short to save anyone. To love our neighbor is to proclaim to them the moral obligations owed to God, and in turn, the moral duties that their nature is ordered toward and fulfilled by. It is to tell them of forewarned judgment and doom.

There are likely two realities that follow from engaging the topic of ethics in relationship to evangelism. One possibility is the person who hears of their rebellion and need for repentance and will respond with scoffing dismissal, even rage. For this person, the awakening of their conscience to divine accountability brings anger. This is because at their conscience level, they know they stand condemned before God, and their reflex is to entrench themselves in further self-justification. Even still, the reality of moral law stands, and we await in patience, hoping that God’s kindness will bring them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). 

The other possibility is that the person who hears of their sin responds with enthusiastic joy; that their rebellion can be atoned for and forgiven at no cost to themselves, but to Christ who died for them. For this person, the call of Christ means casting their burdens onto him, whose yoke is light and whose offer of redemption brings rest to their souls (Matt. 11:28-30).

To say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) is to proclaim to people that they have sinned. They have failed to live for God’s glory. They have rebelled. The good news of the gospel comes through recognizing the bad news of our sin. The good news, though, is not self-earned. The next verse in Romans reminds us how we obtain the atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation our souls are thirsting after: “justified by his grace as a gift, through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Salvation requires repentance of our sin. Conversion requires a turning away of our sin. It’s clear, then, that the interior logic of the gospel is inseparable from a strong foundation in ethics and the pursuit of evangelism.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. He is also a research fellow with the ERLC.  Read More by this Author