What’s the relationship between ethics and evangelism?

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 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24