By / Aug 16

A few years ago, I was introduced to the Dutch Reformed theologian and ethicist, Herman Bavinck. His works began to revolutionize the way that I thought about the rich relationship of theology and ethics. Throughout my life, I have always (and rightfully) heard how the church must see the study of theology as central to our pursuit of God because that’s how we learn the fundamental elements of the Christian faith. God reveals himself to us through Scripture. The structure of church theological training and discipleship programs, especially within wider evangelicalism, demonstrates this emphasis on theology. They are saturated with doctrinal studies including a heavy emphasis on systematic theology, biblical studies, historical theology, biblical theology, and more. But studying Bavinck’s work helped me to see that we often fail to similarly prioritize the study and centrality of ethics in our pulpits, classrooms, and programs — missing out on a crucial component of Christian discipleship.

Bavinck saw the two fields of theology and ethics as inextricably related to one another. For him, dogmatics (or theology) is most closely related to ethics than other fields like philosophy. Even though theology and ethics are “not materially different,” they are nevertheless “formally distinct.”1Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003). 1:57. He argues that while it is not wrong per se to treat theology and ethics separately, this separation has the effect of “depriving ethics of its theological and Christian character.”2RD, 1:57-58. He describes this integral relationship between dogmatics and ethics as “related members of a singular organism.”3RD, 1:58. Bavinck beautifully illustrates their interrelated and dependent relationship in the first volume of Reformed Dogmatics by stating,

Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of the faith are treated; in ethics the precepts of the Decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God.4RD, 1:58.

In a similar passage in Reformed Ethics, Bavinck states that “our ethics proceeds from God, is through God, and is for God. Also, in our ethics it is God who reveals to use the truth about sin, regeneration, sanctification, how we are to live in the state, and so forth.”5Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, trans. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019). §4:26. An important element of Bavinck’s scriptural vision for both dogmatics and ethics is tied to the role of revelation. He states, “ethics is as closely related to and fully dependent on Holy Scripture as is dogmatics,” thus speaking to the needed emphasis and study of these two disciplines.6RE, §4:26.

Bavinck here is picking up on the work of the German theologian Christoph Ernst Luthardt, who states, “God first loved us is the summary of Christian doctrine. We love Him is the summary of Christian morality.”7Christoph Ernst Luthardt, Apologetic Lectures on the Moral Truths of Christianity, trans. Sophia Taylor, Second (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1876). 26. Luthardt also influenced the famed evangelical theologian and ethicist Carl F.H. Henry, who wrote, “love for another is the whole sum of Christian ethics.”8Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979). 486. Thus, Christian doctrine cannot be separated from ethics — even if they can and in some instances should be studied as distinct disciplines according to Bavinck. A fully formed Christian ethic must be tied to the realities that God has not only created the entire universe with a particular end, but also spoken to his people about how they are to live in light of his lordship.

I was reminded of this beautiful relationship of theology and ethics this past week when my friend Bart Barber shared, “Systematic theology divorced from biblical theology and historical theology is an unaccountable despot.” Barber is exactly right, and that same logic applies to the study of theology when it is divorced from the study of ethics. It is dangerous and deleterious to our witness to emphasize one aspect of the Christian life to the near total neglect of the other. I think we do this because we tend to think of ethics merely as the application of theological doctrine, rather than the study of how we live in light of those truths. While this does not mean that we should neglect to study God’s Word through a theological lens, it does mean that we must emphasize the rightful place of Christian ethics in our study and pursuit of Christ — not just in the academy, but from our pulpits and discipleship strategies in the local church.

  • 1
    Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003). 1:57.
  • 2
    RD, 1:57-58.
  • 3
    RD, 1:58.
  • 4
    RD, 1:58.
  • 5
    Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, trans. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019). §4:26.
  • 6
    RE, §4:26.
  • 7
    Christoph Ernst Luthardt, Apologetic Lectures on the Moral Truths of Christianity, trans. Sophia Taylor, Second (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1876). 26.
  • 8
    Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979). 486.
By / Jul 19

One of the values of Christian history is learning from past role models for the sake of present-day faithfulness. Baptist history is filled with such role models. Though none of them is perfect — who is except King Jesus? — they nevertheless offer a wealth of wisdom for those who are willing to learn from our history.

In recent days, I’ve become convinced that John Leland (1754–1841) is among the most important role models from Baptist history. Leland was a native of Massachusetts, though he spent many of his most fruitful years of ministry in Virginia. He became one of the most important Baptist leaders of his era, a time that coincided with the emergence of Baptists from their persecuted sectarian roots into a national denomination.

Three reasons to look to Leland

There are three reasons I believe contemporary Southern Baptists should look to John Leland as a key role model. 

Religious liberty: First, and most famously, Leland was unwavering in his commitment to what Baptists have often called the “First Freedom” of religious liberty for all people. This principle is a cherished Baptist distinctive that is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In God’s providence, Leland played a significant role in that signal moment in American history.

In 1788, James Madison of Virginia was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Madison met with Leland in the hopes of garnering support from the Baptists in his district. The two men came to an agreement. Leland would encourage Baptists to vote for Madison. In return, Madison would advocate for full religious freedom. Madison won the election and subsequently authored the First Amendment that guaranteed religious freedom for all by rejecting the idea of an established state church. Leland was also a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson, in part because of the latter’s commitment to church-state separation. In 1801, Leland famously gifted President Jefferson with a 1235-pound block of cheese from Massachusetts Baptists. In response, Jefferson invited Leland to preach at a Sunday worship service in the House of Representatives. Jefferson attended the service.

Personal evangelism: The second reason we should look to Leland is because of his zeal for personal evangelism. While Leland is best remembered for his tireless advocacy for religious liberty, he would have identified himself first and foremost as an evangelist. Leland preached over 8,000 sermons and baptized approximately 2,000 converts during the course of his ministry. In fact, one of the reasons Leland was such a strong advocate for religious liberty is because he wanted every individual to have the freedom to believe the gospel without confusion or compulsion. For Leland, defending religious liberty was not about commending an Enlightenment principle but rather was about advancing the Great Commission.

Biblical justice: A final reason Leland is an important role model for contemporary Baptists is because of his advocacy of biblical justice, which he understood to be compatible with his commitment to personal evangelism. In Leland’s day, the greatest public injustice was the system of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. Leland was arguably the most famous Baptist to argue against human enslavement. In 1791, he chose to leave Virginia and return to Massachusetts following the controversy that resulted from a strongly worded anti-slavery sermon. Though his views on how best to end the evil of slavery legally evolved over time, Leland maintained his belief that slavery was incompatible with Christianity and that Christian slaveowners should emancipate their slaves.

Leaning in to Leland’s legacy

Though times have changed, our world is not so different from that of Leland. Religious liberty is under fire in our own day, not so much from the specter of state-imposed religion but rather primarily from the threat of state-imposed secularism and culturally endorsed revisionist morality. The religious freedom of Christian bakers and florists is denigrated as hateful bigotry. Churches are coerced into closing their doors because of government overreach during a pandemic. Roman Catholics are forced to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives or medical procedures that violate their religious convictions. The list could go on. Baptists must remain firmly committed to our historic principle of religious liberty for all people.

Leland lived during the period when the irreligious South was finally becoming the Bible Belt because of the influence of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Today, what was once the Bible Belt may well remain overchurched in some places but it is increasingly underreached. This is even more the case in other parts of our nation. Research shows that across the USA, the share of citizens who claim to be Christian is shrinking while the percentage of “nones” is increasing at a rapid rate. Leland stands out as an evangelistic role model at a time when Southern Baptists are recommitting ourselves to sharing the gospel with all people and planting churches where there is minimal gospel witness.

Finally, our own day is threatened by culturally sanctioned injustice. While race-based slavery is outlawed in the United States and most other nations, various forms of both personal and corporate racism persist. The modern slavery of human sex trafficking harms women all over the world, often in our own communities. Millions of unborn image-bearers are legally murdered because of the tragedy of abortion-on-demand. Too many women are abused by powerful men, far too often in religious contexts by those in positions of spiritual authority. Minority groups are the victims of state-sanctioned genocide in other nations. Countless children are exploited by pornographers. This is just scratching the surface. Leland reminds us that evangelistic proclamation and the advocacy of public justice are complementary ministries.

There is no better time than now for Baptists to become reacquainted with the life and legacy of John Leland. May his holistic commitment to defending religious liberty, spreading the gospel, and advocating for justice encourage us to do likewise.

By / Feb 16

In the final three articles in this series, we’re comparing and contrasting the most dominant ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the standard of biblical ethics. In the first article we defined biblical ethics as the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and considering moral events in terms of conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why). As we’ll see, the problem with each of these other approaches is not that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are incomplete. 

A concise, though admittedly simplistic formulation, would be that deontology is concerned with the “what,” virtue ethics with the “who,” and consequentialism with the “why.” Because all three of these elements—the what, who, and why—are essential to biblical ethics, we can learn from each of these ethical systems. But while they have much to offer, we should always keep in mind that on their own they are incomplete.

What is consequentialism?

Consequentialism is a general approach to moral reasoning which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act for the person involved and/or all those directly affected by the act. If we ask, “Why should we choose a particular moral act or behavior?” the consequentialist would answer, “Because what is moral is what results in the best moral consequences.”

All ethical theories, of course, are concerned about moral consequences, and most have as their teleological emphasis (i.e., end goal) a moral outcome. But advocates of consequentialism would say that certain normative properties depend only on consequences. For them, it doesn’t matter if you are a moral person (as in virtue ethics) or followed moral rules (as in deontology), if an act has an outcome that is morally worse than an available alternative, then the action itself was immoral. Under this view, sometimes known as act consequentialism, an act is morally right when that act maximizes the good, that is, when the total amount of good-for-all minus the total amount of bad-for-all is greater than this net amount compared to the available alternatives.

Who decides whether the consequences were good or bad? Historically, consequentialists have measured the outcome based on a standard of hedonism, which holds that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. If the consequences are narrow and limited in who they affect, then it is the individual who determines the moral calculus based on their own self-interests. If the consequences are broader and can affect a larger number of individuals, then some collective group, such as society (or at least those within society who wield power) determines whether the act was moral.

The most famous form of consequentialism is classic utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism, wrote in 1789 that,

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. . . .

Bentham even proposed a mathematical model for ranking 14 pleasures and 12 pains, weighing pains by various factors to calculate the “happiness factor.” His disciple, John Stuart Mill, later refined this into “preference satisfaction,” in which what was good was having one’s desires fulfilled and what was bad was to have one’s desire frustrated.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of consequentialism?

There are many reasons consequentialism has maintained a broad appeal for the past three hundred years. A primary reason is that it is intuitively simple. It seems rather obvious that if given a choice between acts, we should choose the one that seems to provide the most moral outcome. We also do not need to rely on such metaphysical speculations as whether a divine being actually handed down rules that all humans must follow. Instead, we can rely on our own internal guidance system that tells us to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. What works for individuals must also work for society, so consequentialism promotes equality and liberty. Consequentialism is thus particularly appealing to liberal democracies, such as the United States.

The appeal of consequentialism for Americans is especially strong since we are pragmatic people who favor individual autonomy. We have a bias toward “whatever works” which emphasizes the consequences over the process. We also believe that individuals should determine for themselves what constitutes human flourishing, and so we believe we should be free to maximize our pleasures and minimize our pains.

The biggest weakness, at least for Christians, is that of the three theories under consideration, consequentialism is the least compatible with biblical ethics. In Romans 3:8, Paul clearly condemns the idea that Christians can “do evil that good may result.” Yet consequentialism proposes that we can commit any number of evil and unbiblical actions if the result leads to what we would consider a moral consequence.

Consequentialism has also resulted in the reduction of what counts as moral conduct. All sexual ethics, for instance, are reduced to consent, since anything else is determined by individual preference. When the individual becomes the primary decider of whether the consequence are justified, then we must allow for such choices as abortion or euthanasia since those may maximize the “pleasure” of the individual. It can even lead to the diminishment of the human person.

An example of an influential consequentialist is Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Singer has served as editor for prestigious philosophy journals, appeared on numerous television programs, and even penned the entry on “Ethics” for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He has argued, based on utilitarian grounds, that we have no reason not to experiment on babies or the mentaly disabled—“human infants—orphans perhaps—or retarded human beings” rather than animals since that is a form of “specieism.” (Singer has also compared the animal liberation movement to the “underground railroad” that freed human slaves in America.) He has also endorsed interspecies sex and the right of parents to kill their child not only within the womb but also up to the age of two years old.

The result of following the consequentialist logic of Singer is that it reduces the inherent dignity of human life. Rather than leading to a more moral society, pure consequentialism leads to the dystopia of an era when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) because of the lack of a coherent and transcendent foundation for ethical decision making.

In the last article in this series, we’ll consider virtue ethics, and compare and contrast it to the biblical standard.

By / Feb 2

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. The first article and future articles can be found here.

In this series, we’re looking at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), considering their strengths and weaknesses, and comparing them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” The first article explained what biblical ethics is and how we know an action is moral. The second article examined moral decision-making, including how we know which biblical rules or principles apply to a given situation and what we do when moral acts conflict. This article wraps up our focus on biblical ethics by considering the role of conscience.

What is the role of conscience in moral decision making?

The general concept of conscience can be found in almost every human culture, but it has a unique and distinctive meaning for Christians. The Greek term for conscience, suneidesis, occurs more than two dozen times, and serves an important concept, particularly in the Pauline epistles. If we examine the way Scripture talks about conscience, we uncover five general themes

1. Conscience is an internal rational capacity that bears witness to our value system. — A few decades ago, a common trope in movies and cartoons was the shoulder angel/devil. A person’s inner turmoil was personified by having an angel, representing conscience, on the right shoulder and a devil, representing temptation, on the left shoulder. This type of folklore imagery gave people the false impression that the conscience was like an inner listening room in which a person could hear the voice of God (a “good conscience”) or the devil (a “bad conscience).

A more biblical view is to consider the shoulder angel/devil as representing witnesses to our inner value system. Our conscience is a part of our God-given internal faculties, a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize when determining right or wrong. Conscience does not serve as a judge or a legislator; that is a modern take on the concept. Instead, in the biblical sense, conscience serves as a witness to what we already know (Romans 2:15, 9:1).

Conscience may induce an inner dialogue to tell us what we already know, but more often it merely makes its presence known through our emotions. When we conform to the values of our conscience, we feel a sense of pleasure or relief. But when we violate the values of our conscience, it induces anguish or guilt.

2. Conscience is a trustworthy guide only when it is informed and ruled by God. — A few days before he became a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama sat down with religion reporter Cathleen Falsani to talk about his faith. When Falsani asked, “What is sin?” Obama replied, “Being out of alignment with my values.” While there is a lot wrong, theologically speaking, with that answer, it does contain a kernel of truth. What Obama was describing as “being out of alignment with my values” is what we could call “violating our conscience.”

To violate one’s conscience is indeed a sin (as we’ll discuss in a moment). But what makes something a sin is not merely “being out of alignment with our values” but in choosing our own will over the will of God. Our conscience is therefore only trustworthy when it does not lead us to choose our will over God’s will. As the late theologian R.C. Sproul explained,

[W]e have to remember that acting according to conscience may sometimes be sin as well. If the conscience is misinformed, then we seek the reasons for this misinformation. Is it misinformed because the person has been negligent in studying the Word of God?

A prime example of the way our conscience may lead both Christians and non-Christians to sin is when we violate, or advocate for the violation, of creation ordinances. Among the creation ordinances are the clear injunctions to preserve the sanctity of the marriage bond between one man and one woman and the necessity and propriety of godly labor (Genesis 2:1-3, 15). Our conscience bears witness to the reality and truth of these ordinances, and we are guilty of sin when we deny or break them

3. Conscience is to be subordinated to, and informed by, the revealed Word of God. —Conscience cannot be our final ethical authority because it is, unlike God’s revealed Word, changeable and fallible. Too often, though, Christians reverse the order and attempt to use their conscience in order to judge God and his Word. Some Christians claim, for example, “I could not worship a God who would say [a clear statement from the Bible]” or “I couldn’t believe in a God who would do [something the Bible claims God clearly told someone to do].” In making such statements they may be appealing to their conscience. But in such cases, their consciences are being informed by Satan—not by God.

A person’s conscience may cause them to question a particular interpretation of Scripture, but our conscience can never legitimately judge a holy God or his holy Word. When we find ourselves thinking “Did God really say?” when Scripture clearly says he did, then we know it is the serpent and not the Savior speaking (Genesis 3:1)

4. To willfully act against conscience is always a sin. — As theologian Sam Storms says, “The conscience of the Christian is obligated and bound only by what the Bible either commands or forbids, or by what may be legitimately deduced from an explicit biblical principle.”

Our conscience should always be informed by what God has said. But what if we are mistaken about what the Bible commands or forbids? What if, for example, I believe that the Bible forbids any form of dancing—and yet I go square dancing ever Saturday night. Is that a sin? In that case, it would be a sin for me to go square dancing since I would be choosing to act in a way in which I think is sinful.

To violate one’s conscience is indeed a sin. But what makes something a sin is not merely “being out of alignment with our values” but in choosing our own will over the will of God.

Imagine if I were at a neighbor’s house and see a wallet lying on the floor. Thinking it’s my neighbor’s wallet I quickly take the cash from it. Later I realize that it wasn’t my neighbor’s wallet at all—it was my wallet, which had fallen out of my pocket. Would I still be guilty of theft, even though it was my own money I took? Yes, I would be since I had intended to do wrong. I had intended to steal – intended to violate God’s commands—even though I was mistaken about the object of my theft.

As Paul says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).” Sproul expands on that verse by saying: “If we do something that we think is sin, even if we are misinformed, we are guilty of sin. We are guilty of doing something we believe to be wrong. We act against our consciences. That is a very important principle. [Martin] Luther was correct in saying, ‘It is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.’”

Sproul adds that the “conscience can excuse when it ought to accusing, and it also can accuse when it should be excusing.” While we should challenge misperceptions of what the Bible commands and forbids, we should be careful about encouraging people who are not yet mature in the faith or are underdeveloped in knowledge of Scripture from acting in ways that will violate their unformed or immature conscience.

5. Conscience can be suppressed by sin. — If we desire to develop a positive habit, we need to perform an action repeatedly, over time, until it becomes an automatic reflex. The same process occurs when we fall into sin. When we sin, we reject God’s authority. If we repeat our sin, over time, the rejection of God’s authority becomes an automatic reflex.

Even unbelievers, who innately know God’s general revelation, such as his invisible attributes, the creation ordinances, and the Noahide Laws (the laws given to Noah, such as the prohibition against murder), begin to deny such knowledge because of sin. Paul says that by our unrighteousness we suppress the truth. They think they are wise, but their sin makes them foolish. Eventually, God gives them over to their debased minds (Romans 1:24).

Christians are also in danger of falling into this destructive pattern. Sometimes our sin leads us to doubt the very reality of God. When we deny God’s authority, we begin to doubt his existence so that we can quiet what our conscience is trying to tell us about his judgment. (Not all doubt is caused by sin, but sin almost always leads to doubts.) Sin can cause our conscience to become “seared” and “corrupted” and wholly unreliable (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15).

This is why to protect our conscience and keep it in working order we must preach the gospel to ourselves daily. We must call on the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, lead us to righteousness, and remind us of the judgment that we are spared by our union with Christ Jesus. Only then can our conscience serve its intended purpose of helping us conform to the values of our Creator.

In the next article in this series, we’ll begin comparing and contrasting other ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the biblical standard.

 For further reading

By / Jan 26

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. The first article and future articles can be found here.

In this series, we’re looking at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), considering their strengths and weaknesses, and comparing them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” The first article explained what biblical ethics is and how we know an action is moral. In this article we’ll examine moral decision-making, including how we know which biblical rules or principles apply to a given situation and what we do when moral acts conflict.

How do we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation?

As pertains to moral decision-making, the Bible should be understood as a revelation of God’s commands, principles, and virtues. God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed in Christian virtues and examples (particularly in the example of Jesus). We should therefore prioritize commands because they help us to most clearly understand God’s standards for our conduct. They also help us determine how principles and virtues are to be applied.

Within Scripture we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts.

Narrow or specific commands relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8, which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above) there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning would be to consider the question of whether abortion is immoral. Our first step would be to ask, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this situation?” For this question, the answer is rather straightforward since the Bible has a clear command that prohibits the taking of innocent life.

The command was given by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments on two separate occasions (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). In the New Testament, we also find the commandment reconfirmed by Jesus (Matthew 5:21), and reiterated by his apostle, Paul (Romans 13:9). As pastor-theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, the sixth commandment prohibits much more than just cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed, by direct action or inaction, any legally innocent human.

An elective abortion (as opposed to a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the killing of an innocent human being. Based on scientific knowledge of human development, we know a human embryo/fetus is an actual human being and that human life begins at fertilization/conception. Several passages in the Bible also strongly suggest that human life begins at conception (cf. Job 31:13-15; Psalms 51:5; 139:13-16; Matthew 1:20). Because elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, abortion is prohibited by God under the sixth commandment.

What do we do when moral acts conflict?

There may be times when we may find that two or more moral commands or principles appear to be in conflict. An oft-used example is the “Nazi at the door” problem:

Imagine that you are living in World War II Germany and are hiding a family of Jews in your basement. A Nazi SS soldier comes to your door and asks if there are any Jews in your home. On the one hand, you know it is morally wrong to lie. On the other hand, you also know it would be morally wrong to answer in a way that would get the family killed. What should you do?

There are three ways to resolve this issue. The first is to determine whether there is an actual moral conflict. The second is to conclude that true ethical conflicts cannot exist. The third is to determine the hierarchy of commands.

Many Christians—including me—would say that in this particular situation there is no moral conflict because there is no lie being told. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. I’m convinced there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The Nazi at the door has forfeited his right to know the truth about whether you have Jews in your home because he has a nefarious intent. It would be similar to the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh when he wanted to kill all newborn male babies (Exodus 1:17–21).

If there was an actual moral conflict (because you believe failing to acknowledge the Jews hidden in your home would be lying to the Nazi), then we have to apply the second or third approaches. The second approach is called “non-conflicting absolutism.” It denies that a true ethical conflict can even exist and claims that any perceived conflict is a result of human misinterpretation. Under this view, if we have a perfect view of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ any illusion of conflict is dispelled. The problem, of course, is that we have no perfect view and so it is not clear how we would know what decision to make under this perspective. This is why the non-conflicting absolutism is rarely held by Christian ethicists.

The third approach is called “hierarchicalism” (or graded absolutism). This view holds that moral conflict can exist and that when ethical laws are in conflict a “right” choice is available through a hierarchy of principles found in Scripture. Under hierarchicalism, if one duty clearly has priority, we must choose that duty. Even if we believed that we would be lying to the Nazi and that it would be morally wrong, the duty to protect the lives of the Jewish family would take priority. According to hierarchicalism, as long as we follow the higher moral law, we are not held responsible for failing to keep the lower-level command.  Also, under hierarchicalism, if both duties appear to have equal priority, we are free to obey either duty (though we need to be certain they are indeed of equal priority).

Hierarchicalism has solid biblical support, as even Jesus prioritized some rules and commands when they appear to come into conflict (see, for example, Matthew 12:9-13). It’s important to remember that hierarchicalism is about selecting the better of two goods, not choosing the “lesser of two evils.” We are not called to choose any evil—even a lesser one. We are not called to choose an evil that good may come.

What is the process for moral decision-making?

We can put all of this together to devise a seven-step process for making moral decisions:

  • Pray for divine guidance — Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate the process and to help you act in a way that glorifies God.
  • Clarify the ethical issues or problems — Make sure you understand the relevant factors (e.g., context, facts) that help clarify or define the ethical issue or problem.
  • Gather the scriptural data on the issue — Determine what commands, principle(s), and examples are most relevant to the issue.
  • Determine how to apply the biblical instruction — Once the applicable rules are understood, decide how they should be applied.
  • Determine the hierarchy — If necessary, determine the hierarchy of commands that would need to be applied.
  • Consult the community of the faithful — There are few situations you will face in this life that are entirely novel. Consult with mature believers and those with expertise on the issue (such as Christian ethicists) about what you should do.
  • Formulate a Christian ethical position — With prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit and the community of faithful believers, make a determination about what moral position is most glorifying to God. 

This may initially seem like a labor-intensive process, and too burdensome for use in real life. But once we develop a solid grasp of God’s commands and the relevant fact patterns, the process often becomes rather straight-forward.

In the next article in this series, we’ll wrap up our focus on biblical ethics by considering the role of conscience. The remaining articles in this series will then compare and contrast other ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the biblical standard.

By / Jan 19

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. This and future articles can be found here.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side,” said the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “one which we preach but do not practice, and the other which we practice but seldom preach.” Russell was an atheist, but his aphorism is all too applicable to many Christians. Too often we preach a type of moral theory that not only differs radically from that which we practice, but with which we would not want to be associated. For example, we would rightfully reject—at least in what we “preach”—that “the end justifies the means.” But in practice we do tend to justify the unjustifiable if it leads to an outcome that we desired. To bring our preaching more in line with our practice, we need to develop a clearer idea of ethical systems and how they are connected to the Christian faith.

Ethics is the study and application of moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or conduct. The sub-branch that focuses on what action a person should take is normative ethics. In this series, we’ll look at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), consider their strengths and weaknesses, and compare them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” By developing a clearer understanding of ethical systems, we can better understand how to apply them in our own lives—or whether they should be rejected entirely.

What is Christian ethics?

This application of ethics in our everyday lives primarily involves the process of moral decision-making, a process which requires us to primarily answer two questions: “What should we do?” and “What should we be?” For a Christian, the answer to those questions should ultimately be: “What God has commanded me to do—to obey him” and “What Jesus wants me to be—to be more like him.”

In John 14:15, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” That’s not a suggestion—Jesus framed it as an imperative. Those who love Jesus will keep his commandments. The corollary is that those who do not keep his commandments do not truly love Jesus. Loving Jesus is the minimal standard for identifying as a Christian. If you do not truly love Jesus—if you do not even attempt to keep his commandments—you should not call yourself a Christian.

The central paradigm for Christian ethics is thus union with and conformity to Jesus, primarily through the Spirit-driven process of obeying all that Jesus has commanded of us. As the Christian ethicist John Murray said, “If ethics is concerned with manner of life and behavior, biblical ethics is concerned with the manner of life and behavior which the Bible requires and which the faith of the Bible produces.”

Because Christian ethics should be rooted in Scripture, all Christian ethics should be biblical ethics. But because that is not always the case, we’ll use the term biblical ethics to refer to a specific form of biblically based Christians ethics.

What exactly is biblical ethics?

Biblical ethics, as defined by Murray, is the study and application of the morals prescribed in God’s Word that pertain to the kind of conduct, character, and goals required of one who professes to be in a redemptive relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Biblical ethics is bibliocentric (Scripture-centered), theocentric (God-centered), and Christocentric (Jesus-centered). As David W. Jones explains in An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, this means our approach to biblical ethics should:

  • Not only describe what the Bible says but treat what it says as authoritative, inerrant, relevant, and necessary;
  • Not only accept biblical teaching as a good way of doing things but as applying eternal, divine, moral laws to everyday life; and
  • Not only embrace a theistic worldview but affirms the uniqueness of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life—not only for Christians but for everyone everywhere.

There are at least five distinctives of biblical ethics, says Jones, that make it different than other ethical systems:

  • Biblical ethics is built on an objective, theistic worldview. In other words, biblical ethics assumes the presence of a fixed moral order in the world that proceeds from God. Therefore, advocates of biblical ethics affirm the existence of universal, moral absolutes.
  • Biblical ethics is not a means of earning favor with God but rather is the natural result of righteousness already imputed by God.
  • Biblical ethics seeks to recognize and to participate in God’s moral order already present within the created order and in special revelation.
    Biblical ethics affirms that immorality stems from human depravity, and not primarily from man’s ignorance of ethics or from socioeconomic conditions.
  • Biblical ethics is the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and incorporates conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why) of individuals involved in moral events.

All three of these last three elements—conduct, character, and goals—are interrelated and can be visualized in this moral events triangle, says Jones.

The first corner of the moral events triangle corresponds to conduct, that is, the “practice” of moral events. Moral conduct is based on an ethical rule or principle and focuses on external acts and behavior. Conduct is typically an orientation of person-to-person.

The second corner of the triangle stands for character, that is, the “person” of moral events, and focuses on motives and internal disposition. Character deals with the things inside each person—that is, a person’s self-relations. Character is an orientation of person-to-self.

The third corner of the triangle represents goals or the “purpose” of moral events, which is oriented toward a purpose and focuses on design or intended end. In biblical ethics goals deal with relations between man and God. Goals are an orientation of person-to-God.

Our character and our conduct are ultimately oriented toward the end goal of biblical ethics—the glorification of God. In John 14:21 Jesus taught his disciples, “The one who has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” And in Matthew 5:16, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his listeners, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Therefore, a primary way Christians love and glorify God is to keep his commands and perform the good works that flow from godly character and actions.

How do we know when an action is moral?

In determining whether an action is moral, we first start at the top of the moral events triangle with conduct, the “practice” of moral events. When faced with a moral scenario, the first question that should be asked is, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this particular situation?” We must know and understand the rules/principles as well as the relevant facts and context about the situation, what we’ll call the “fact pattern.”

Once the applicable moral norms are identified we then move to the next point on the triangle, which concerns character—the “person” of moral events. In the process of making a moral decision, believers ought to consider their motives and ask the question, “Am I acting out of love for God and love for neighbor?”

Finally, we get to the last step in the process of moral decision making. As we noted earlier, the end goal of biblical ethics is the glorification of God, so we need to answer the question, “What path, choice, or answer would bring the most glory to God?”

A primary way Christians love and glorify God is to keep his commands and perform the good works that flow from godly character and actions.

The right path is to keep the moral law out of a love for God and neighbor with the intent of bringing glory to God. We also need to make sure we have the proper order and connection between love of God and love of neighbor: Love of God comes first, and love of God leads to love of neighbor.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at moral decision-making, including how we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation, what we do when moral acts conflict, and the role of conscience.

For further reading

By / Aug 14

Topics include (but are not limited to): Dr. Moore’s own youth ministry testimony, thinking ethically, technology, and teaching students to have gospel-formed consciousnesses.

Listen to the podcast here.

By / Dec 18

For this special two part series, we bring you ERLC president Dr. Russell Moore teaching on Christian ethics. These lectures were recorded live in Washington, D.C.. at the ERLC Academy on the Hill events earlier in 2018. In part one, which aired last week and is linked below, Dr. Russell Moore gives an introduction to Christian ethics. And in part two this week, Dr. Moore teaches about the role of conscience in battling temptation.

Resources from the Conversation

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By / Dec 12

For this special two part series, we bring you ERLC president Dr. Russell Moore teaching on Christian ethics. These lectures were recorded live in Washington, D.C., at the ERLC Academy on the Hill events earlier in 2018. In part one, Dr. Moore gives an introduction to Christian ethics. And in part two, he teaches about the role of conscience in battling temptation.

Resources from the Conversation

iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher | Tune in

By / Apr 29

The following article is an adapted version of an evangelistic talk given at a Campus Outreach event given at Georgetown University.

My goal here is to consider the meaning of sex from a Christian perspective, a perspective that has historically united Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Obviously the first thing many people might think of when it comes to a Christian view of sex are the boundaries or rules: sex is reserved exclusively for marriage; marriage is for a man and a woman; and so forth. These boundaries come to mind because they are increasingly out of sync with our culture and sometimes our desires.

Yet my purpose is not to discuss the boundaries, but what’s inside the boundaries. Don’t get me wrong. I affirm these boundaries entirely. Consider me a bona fide fundamentalist if you like. Yet I became a Christian in my mid-twenties. I’ve seen both sides of this topic. And I think it’s worth stopping and considering the heart of the matter. Maybe you’ll understand why Christians believe the boundaries are where they are. Even more, you just might catch a glimpse of the beauty and glory of the Christian vision of sex, as well as something central to Christianity itself.

FOUR EXISTENTIAL OBSERVATIONS

Let me start with four existential observations about sex:

Sex is personally powerful. The yearning is intense. And the intensity involves the physical, the emotional, the spiritual, even your sense of identity. In the book of the Bible called the Song of Songs, there’s a line that says, “Many rivers cannot wash away love.” Sex is powerful. It makes people do all sorts of crazy things, or devote massive amounts of time courting it. People even define their lives by it. If you’ve been in a sexual relationship that’s now broken, you know the hurt of that tear.

Sex is socially powerful. The beautiful woman possesses a kind of power. And the powerful man is attractive. In Greek mythology, the face of Helen was said to have launched a thousand ships after Paris drew her away. Companies today spent billions of dollars every year on advertisements with beautiful people because they know sex sells.

Sex is profoundly deep and a component part of our personhood. Consider, for instance, how we conceive of ourselves in gendered categories. Or consider how the romantic love of another person, which is consummated in sex, is a kind of self-justifying need: I need it to feel complete. Or consider the phenomenon of rape: Why is it that rape so profoundly affects a person? Suppose a stranger accosts me on the street and violently shakes my hand or even shoves his finger in my mouth. It would be troubling, scary, a little angering. But unlike rape, it probably wouldn’t provoke a profound sense of violation, shame, and rage. Why does rape cut so deeply inside? Because sex is a profoundly deep and component part of our personhood.

Sex not only unites, it divides. It’s divisive interpersonally. Affairs destroy marriages in a way other marital transgressions don’t. And it’s divisive politically. A lawyer friend, while at Harvard Law school, observed that his fellow classmates would disagree over any number of policy areas, whether environmentalism or government bailouts on Wall Street. But those issues that always provoked the most fire in the classroom were those pertaining to sexuality, like abortion or same-sex marriage.

Sex is a powerful, powerful thing.

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF SEX IN THE BIBLE?

I’d like to make six statements about the Christian understanding of sex. And as I do, I want you to compare it in your minds with a prevailing cultural understanding of sex, namely, sex as self-expression, self-discovery, self-realization, and self-gratification. Think of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” or Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way.”

1. Sex is pleasure-filled.

You can understand why Madonna and Lady Gaga and so many others make such a big deal of it. It is a pleasure-filling experience, and this is true in the biblical vision of sex. We get this most clearly in the love poem Song of Songs. “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sit in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem…that you do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.”

And he says to her, “Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue….A garden locked is my bride; a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choices fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and alloes, with all choice spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing stream. Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow.”

He says cinnamon and spices. You know he’s not just talking about cinnamon and spices!

The picture is one of ecstacy and delight. The couple is enraptured with one physically. The biblical vision of sex is a fruit-filled, spice-scented taste of heaven.

2. Sex seals a marriage and affirms us as relational beings.

When Adam first views Eve in Genesis 2, he exclaims, “This at least is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.” Then the narrator says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

Now if we had read all of Genesis 1 and 2, we would have discovered that “man” and “woman” belongs to a whole line of complementary pairings. There had been of heaven and earth, evening and morning, and day and night. Finally there is male and female or man and woman. In the biblical Hebrew the words build on one another: eash and easha. So in English: man and wo-man. There’s continuity and discontinuity even in the words, which makes them complementary.

Their heaven and earth-like complementary pairing roots in how the woman was created. God doesn’t use the flesh of one of the beasts to create her, but man’s flesh. She’s taken out of him. She is part of him. She is made for him, and he is complete again only in her.

Sure enough, Adam celebrates, “This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” The narrator then tells us they shall become one flesh. Lest there be any doubt that the text is talking about sex, a later biblical author, Paul, in forbidding sex with a prostitute says, “Do you knot know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”

What happens in sexual intercourse? Two bodies graphically become one, as one goes inside another. This both seals the marriage, and it affirms us as relational beings. We were created to be in relationship with another in the most intimate way. Througout the Old Testament, what actually seals the marriage is their act of sexual union. For instance: “Then Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.”

Are you beginning to see why sex is so profound and glorious in the Christian vision? It involves us at some primal level of our persons, such that it there is a hard-to-articulate kind of completedness to us in it.

This is why masturbation offers such a skewed picture of sex. It’s all about self-gratification. The biblical portrait presents a picture of two people giving themselves to one another and becoming something greater.

3. Sex constitutes a family.

Another way of making my second point is this a third point: sex constitutes a family. I’m not talking about procreations and kids here. I’m talking about the couple themselves. Remember how Adam responds to the woman: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This was a Hebrew idiom for saying, “This is my family. This is a person to whom I am, as it were, biologically united.” So a man leaves the biological family of his birth, and holds fast or cleaves to a “new creation” biological family.

People sometimes say, “Blood is thicker than water,” to communicate the idea that family ties are more important than ties among friends. And in many places of life, that’s true. But here is one place in life where a covenantal choice should be stronger than even biology. This covenantal choice of a marriage partner uses the language of biology (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh), and it symbolizes a biological union through the sexual act, in order to create a new biology, a new family. Something profoundly human—a choice—is placed alongside of biology. We are not only our biology. We are also our choices.

Remember how I spoke of the power of sex, and of how it impacts us at such a deep level. Why is that? Because it constitutes a family. It creates family ties. What happens when you mix flour, water, and yeast, and then heat it? You get bread. What happens when you mix sex and a public commitment? You get a family: a kind of new blood relation.

Think about what happens, then, when we misuse ingredients. Suppose I tried to make bread with just flour and water. I’d get a mushy mess. Or suppose I tried to use flour, water, and yeast for something other than making bread, like cleaning the kitchen floor. Again, a mess.

What happens when I take sex, and I divorce it from life-long public commitment? Maybe I place it in a pre-marital relationship, or I take it outside of my marriage? If I do this, I will make a mess. Why? Because I’m using the ingredients for a family and so making all kinds of indescribable connections and bonds. I’m drawing in my vulnerabilities and my inner-self and handing them to you, and asking you to be trustworthy with them, and I’m doing the same for you.

What hurt, brokenness, and loss we bring into our lives by bringing sex outside the boundaries that God has created for it. It’s not that those boundaries are arbitrary. It’s that sex is so powerful. It creates bonds. It creates family. It relies upon exposure, vulnerability, and trust. It seeks a protected space so that is can fully flower. The biological act of sex transcends biology.

Think again of why rape destroys so deeply and is so wicked. It’s an act of thievery, a kidnapping even, of those precious things deep inside that are meant to unite you to another person—to constitute family or blood ties. Indeed, that’s why a pregnancy born of rape has an extra tragedy to it.

On the other hand, have you seen the surveys that indicate that the most sexually gratified women are married Christian women? According to a 2009 study conducted by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists entitled “The National Survey on Christian Female Sexuality,” evangelical Christian women have sex more frequently and experience orgasms more often than American women in general. There’s reason why this is true. Their sex occurs in a protected, commited, love-affirming space.

4. Sex shadows something greater. 

At one point in his ministry, Jesus observes that “when people rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” It seems there is no marriage or sex in heaven. What?! Why not?

The apostle Paul gives us a hint when he commands husbands to “love your wives as Christ love the church, and gave himself up for her.” Christian theologians have long understood this text to be telling us that Christ’s love for the church is the ultimate reality, which husbands are to imitate in their love for their wives. In other words, marriage and sex are not the ultimate reality to which Christ’s love for the church points. It’s the other way around: marriage and sex are just the symbol, the road sign, the shadow.

Think about that. What is a shadow? It is a two-dimensional wispy reality, pointing to a three-dimensional substance. And if sex is the two-dimensional shadow, what must Christ’s loving embrace of the church be like! Does this diminish marriage or sex? No, sex is the pleasure-producing, powerful force that I’ve said it is. I’m just saying that Christ’s love for his people is that much greater.

Jesus and Paul were single. They never married or had sex. Yet they were surely complete persons. You don’t finally need sex to be a complete person, because, for as powerful and as deep into our soul as sex goes, it doesn’t go all the way down. It simply points to a deeper, greater union and completion. Which brings us to a fifth point…

5. Sex anticipates the pleasure of heaven and the intimate knowledge of God. It provides a language for understanding union with Christ.

A Bible scholar named D. A. Carson writes, “It is as if the only pleasure and intimacy in this life that comes close to anticipating the pleasure of the church and her Lord being perfectly united on the last day is the sexual union of a good marriage” (Love in Hard Places, 191). A pastor-scholar named similar John Piper writes, “God created us with sexual passion so that there would be language to describe what it means to cleave to him in love and what it means to turn away from him to others”; and again, “God made us powerfully sexual so that he would be more deeply knowable. We were given the power to know each other sexually so that we might have some hint of what it will be like to know Christ supremely” (Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, 28, 30).

Or to quote that great and famous theologian Russell Brand, in his critique of pornography, “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little.” Do you see what he means? We fall down and worship the idol of sex, thinking that we will bend whatever rules we can to get it, thinking it will satisfy us. But in fact, that’s about as effective of trying to grab a shadow. The purpose of the shadow is to enjoy it, yes, but ultimately to point toward the substance.

Friends, why do you think Christians are always talking about Jesus, and the love of Christ? Do you think they are just brainwashed? Really? Could it be that they’ve actually begun to experience a love better than anything in this world? Could it be that they’ve begun to experience a truth so deep and an embrace so profound that they are even willing to let it define their sexuality?

That brings us to our last point.

6. A Christian view of sex embodies an ethic and heart of forgiveness amidst brokenness and shame, just like the reality to which it points. 

Let’s go back to Genesis 1: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Why weren’t Adam and Eve ashamed? Is it because they were beautiful and had perfect bodies? They may have been beautiful, but even if you’re beautiful, you’re not safe from the criticisms of the scoffer, the selfish, the angry. No, they were unashamed because there was no sin in the world. Genesis 3 confirms this: they disobeyed God’s Word, and then they saw that they were naked, and they try to hide behind trees and with covering of leaves.

There’s a very real sense in which we can say we spend our entire lives trying to cover our nakedness and our shame. I mean that both literally and symbolically. How do you feel about the idea of standing physically naked before another person?

More than that, how do you feel about standing before all humanity and God himself on the day of Judgment—completely undressed emotionally and spiritually, with all your deeds and desires and ambitions completely exposed? We try to cover ourselves with fashion, with intelligence, with hard work, with good deeds, with boasts of sexual prowess and size and working out so that we have good bodies. In all this we’re looking to cover our shame and justify ourselves. But nothing finally works. It’s a hamster wheel.

Sex, I said, is a shadow. The substance is Christ’s loving embrace. It’s also true that nakedness is only a shadow. The substance is sin and the shame that follows sin. How do you cover your sin and shame?

That’s why Jesus came to die on the cross: to pay the penalty we deserve and to cover over our sin and shame. If we turn away from our sin and accept his covering, we can come out from behind the tree, take off the leaves, and say, “Here I am world. I’m a sinner. Say what you will about me. Christ has loved me. Christ has forgiven me, and embraced me. My satisfaction, my justification, my worth, is in that.”

So now, there’s a sense in which my own Christian marriage pictures this. My wife, I assure you, does not behold a perfect body when she’s looking at me. And with every passing year it fades. And yet, she embraces me completely, and there is no shame. Neither of us has to justify ourselves, or prove ourselves. Instead, our forgiving, overlooking love deepens and grows with every passing year, even as our physically bodies fade.

Friend, do you know yourself to be a sinner before God? Stop trying to hide behind the silly leaves of your hard work, your A’s, your church attendance, your political views, your good deeds. Trust instead the covering that only Christ can give, both so that your sex has hope for attaining to its real meaning, but far far far more than that, so that you might prepare yourself for the true heavenly embrace to which sex merely points—the embrace of God in Christ.