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What it takes to act with justice

A sermon on Ephesians 5:1-2

I have a problem.  I’d like to believe in God, and do what is right, but I’m uneasy.  What if we can be good without God?  And how do we know what is good and what is bad?

Fortunately, I’m not the first to ask such questions.  The New Atheist movement is bursting at the seams with highly intelligent and profoundly moral people who argue that it’s possible to be good without God, and who live what appear to be exemplary lives of courage, compassion, humility and generosity.  And then there’s Richard Dawkins.

And for thousands of years people have wondered whether a good action is approved by God because it is good, or whether it is good simply because God approves it.[1]  Or, to put it in Christian terms, does God will something because it is good and just, or is something good and just because God wills it?  In other words, are justice and goodness necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, or are they merely arbitrary values?  Let me know when you’ve come up with the solution.

The title of my sermon tonight is: “What it takes to act with justice.”  It matters what you accept as a foundation for justice:

  • mutually agreed pursuit of rational self-interest (after Ayn Rand)
  • mutually agreed pursuit of fairness and equality (after John Rawls)
  • a system of rewards and punishments to control human nature
  • whatever God commands (divine command theory)
  • what would Jesus do? (applying the teaching and example of Jesus)
  • something else?

A Christian emphasis

The baptist ethicist James McClendon has suggested that a comprehensive ethical vision should incorporate three “strands” or “spheres.”  In his words, we are:

(1)   part of the natural order, organic beings … God’s natural creation; but also

(2)   part of a social world that is constituted first by the corporate nature of Christian existence, the church, and thereby by our share in human society, God’s social creation, as well; and

(3)   part of an eschatological realm, the kingdom of God, the ‘new world’ established by God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.[2]

McClendon calls these three strands respectively the body, the social, and the resurrection strands of Christian ethics.

He implies that people generally take for granted the bodily and social aspects of ethics, but are hungry for a greater story that overcomes our persistent self-deceit, redeems our common life, and provides a way for us to be a distinctive community without subtracting from the significance of others’ peoplehood, stories and lives.  He says Christian morality involves us in the story of God.

And the best place to hear the story of God is in the Bible.  And if we’re searching for a “resurrection strand,” we’re interested in the story of Jesus.  And so to Ephesians 5:1-2.

 Follow God’s example

Chapters 1-3 of Ephesians outline key aspects of the new community brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by the faith of those called to participate in it.  Chapters 4-6 outline the new standards of conduct expected of those who follow Jesus and necessarily participate in this new community.

In 4:1-16, Paul talks about the need to cultivate unity while respecting godly diversity.  It’s not about consensus or sentiment, but a unity grounded in the person of Jesus, and shaped by obedience to biblical truth.

Then in 4:17-24, Paul contrasts the pagan lifestyle with the Christian ideal.  Wrong thinking and a subjective approach to ethics leads to bad behaviour, while right thinking, inspired by an encounter with objective truth, personified by Jesus, leads to right attitudes and right actions (vv 20-24).  God gives us a new self-understanding, and through his Spirit empowers us “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (v 24).  Wow!

Then in 4:25-32, Paul shows how this works out in our relationships, concluding with a call to model the kind of love and grace we have received from God.

And then, in 5:1-2, Paul says, “Follow God’s example” (literally, “imitate God!”).  Elsewhere, there is encouragement to “be holy, as God is holy” (e.g. Lev 19:2), or to “follow the Lord wholeheartedly” (Num 14:24).  Paul uses the language of imitation to urge Christians to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 4:16; 10:31-11:1; Php 3:17; 1 Th 1:6; 2 Th 3:7,9).  But this is the only time in the Bible where the people of God are commanded to imitate God.

How is it possible to do this?

  • by discovering more about the character and actions of God
  • by devoting ourselves to Jesus and to his vision for our world
  • by inviting the Spirit of God to change, shape, inspire and guide us

What will that look like?  Those who seek to imitate God will be:

  • investing serious time and energy in spiritual disciplines
  • valuing and contributing to radical Christian community
  • engaging in costly, sacrificial acts of love
  • going places, and doing amazing things, we wouldn’t dream of
  • becoming different from secular role models and memes
  • feeling the heartbeat of God throb in your life and actions

If you take one thing away with you tonight, let it be this:

  • you were created to be like God (4:24)
  • God wants you to imitate him (5:1)

Ephesians 5:2 is a succinct summary of all the ethical teaching of ch. 4-6: “Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Transform your world

If God is who he says he is, and acts consistently in accordance with his character, and loves you more than a million words could ever express, and created you to be like him, and now invites you to imitate him,      what a fool you’d be not to accept the invitation!

God is righteous, he loves justice. God cares deeply about personal morality, but God also cares deeply about the proper structure of relationships between people, and the just distribution of goods, and fair retribution for evil. God never plays favourites.  God is not interested in what we have, or in what we’ve done to attract his attention. God looks at our heart motivations, our attitudes, our character.

And the presence of godly character, however small or humble, indicates that the life of God is at work within you, and the love of God is transforming you, and the justice and mercy and grace of God is flowing through you to a world of people who desperately need it.

You want to know what it takes to act with justice?

You want to know if it’s possible to be good without God?

You want to know how to choose the good from a range of options?

I’m not here with sophisticated philosophical arguments.

I’m not here with the latest Christian self-help manual.

I’m not here with a creed, or a slogan, or a statement of values.

But I’ll point you to what worked for Paul, and what has worked for millions of people both small and great through the centuries:

  • Discover the difference Jesus makes!
  • Become an imitator of God!
  • Walk in the way of love!

And so transform your world.

Sermon 607 copyright © 2012 Rod Benson.  Preached at Thornleigh Community Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 29 April 2011. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] This is the Euthyphro dilemma, found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, where Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma

[2] James W. McClendon, Systematic Theology: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 66.

Categories: Uncategorized

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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