The heart of Christian ethics

Sermon by Rod Benson at Beverly Hills Chinese Baptist Church, Sydney, 3 Feb 2013.

Galatians 5:5-6

One of the temptations I face is that of reading fascinating blog posts, often work-related, at the expense of other important intellectual tasks.  Last year I limited my blog browsing, but one blog I continue to find very rewarding and challenging is by Scott Higgins, a fellow Baptist minister and Director of Community Relations for Baptist World Aid Australia.

In a post published on 7 January 2013, Scott quotes the lyrics of a song by Joel Madden, “Last Night,” a joyous anthem to fast living, the chorus of which goes:

Last night, can’t remember.  What happened?  Where’d we go?  I woke up this morning.  Where’s my car?  Where’s my keys?  Where’s my clothes?  I feel my head still spinning but I’m doing all right, cos I think I just had the best night of my life.  Last night, can’t remember.  What happened?  Did it happen?  Last night.

Scott says: “There was a time when events like those described in the song would have been met with a sense of shame, a feeling that I had let down myself and the woman in the song, that this wasn’t the person I want to be.

“But in the modern era there is no shame, for we are free to do as we please, free from the constraints of others, of religion, of society.  Freedom is to be able to do whatever takes my fancy.

“But is that really freedom?  In Atheist Delusions, David Hart points out that in classical thought freedom is not being able to do whatever one wants, but being able to live well.

It should not be forgotten that the concept of freedom that most of us take for granted, that is arguably modernity’s central “idea”, has a history. In the more classical understanding of the matter, whether pagan or Christian, true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper “essence” and so flourish as the kind of being one was.

This paints freedom in a very different light.

I’m an ethicist, and I want to talk this morning about what I believe lies at the heart of Christian ethics.  What is Christian ethics?

  • Is it a set of rules that deliver guilt, shame and punishment to bad people?
  • Is it about hard work, thrift, patriotism, and being polite to others?
  • Is it like a professional code of ethics with a religious dimension?
  • Is it about living by a basic moral principle such as the Golden Rule?
  • Is it about balancing self-interest and concern for the well-being of others?
  • Is it about opposing issues like abortion, euthanasia, gay sex and gambling?
  • Or is it about imitating, as best we can, the life and teachings of Jesus?

There is value in all of these approaches, but I want to suggest that the heart of Christian ethics lies in a short phrase used by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5, clarified by a parallel phrase in Galatians 6.

Paul wrote Galatians in response to a doctrinal problem that had developed among the churches in Galatia (in what is now western Turkey): teaching that rejected Paul’s gospel and insisted that personal salvation depended on physical acts of devotion, such as male circumcision and possibly specific dietary laws.  Those things were not intrinsically wrong, but it was wrong to add to the gospel by compelling people to follow rules in the hope of gaining something from God.

Paul knew all about that.  He had made it an art form in his early adult life.  Now he is concerned that the good Galatian Christians, like him, might grow so busy trying to keep useless rules and doing their religious duty that they forgot what was most important:

  • experiencing the unique grace of God that brings salvation;
  • enjoying the human freedom that only the Holy Spirit can provide;
  • expressing their Christian faith through acts of love toward others.

The letter to the Galatians is a reminder of what God has done through Jesus Christ, rather than what we can do for God.  The letter also highlights the importance of Christian freedom in contrast to various kinds of spiritual, intellectual and psychological slavery that trap us.  And the letter emphasises the link between Christian faith and Christian living, between what we believe and how we behave, between doctrine and ethics.

According to Paul, what ultimately matters is “faith expressing itself through love” (5:6) and “what counts is the new creation” (6:15).  In those two phrases lies the subjective and objective dimensions of Christian ethics: a commitment to personal sacrificial duty, and to a great social vision.  By faith we love the people around us, and by faith we long for what’s ahead.

In chapters 1-2, Paul argued from history, confirming the truth of his story.  In chapters 3-4, he argued from Scripture, establishing the falsehood of the new teaching.  In chapters 5-6, he argues from experience:

the appeal to the total inward moral change brought about by the ‘freedom’ of the gospel, combined with the gift of the Spirit, a change in character which all the restraints or ‘bondage’ of the Jewish law had utterly failed to produce.[1]

If the Christians in Galatia made the choice to rely on circumcision or other social customs, they falsely affirm that such external laws are necessary to salvation, and Paul describes them as “alienated from Christ.”  They have “fallen away from grace” (5:4).

But the true gospel, the salvation that comes by grace through faith, initiated and achieved by God alone, unites us with Christ, reconciles us to God, and enables us to participate in the grace of God.  And as we experience this salvation, we confidently await the fullness of the righteousness that Jesus gives to us.  It’s not through the flesh, but through the Spirit.  It’s not by observing the law, but by exercising faith (5:5).

Then in verse 6 Paul makes an astonishing claim.  Outward observances fade to nothing when we consider that what God desires for us, and from us, is “faith expressing itself through love.”  We learn how to love as we mature in our understanding of the faith into which we have been baptised, and as we progressively discover the nature, magnitude and counter-cultural qualities of the love which God possesses and expresses toward his human creation.  As 1 John 4:19 reminds us: “We love because he first loved us.”

This active faith cultivates the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23).  The faith that saves us is a faith that expresses itself in love, that is evident in concrete actions, that responds to real human needs.

Notice that Paul reiterates his circumcision argument, along with his conviction as to the only thing that counts, at the end of the letter (Gal 6:12-16).  The whole doctrinal controversy is worthless. The events of the cross and their meaning are more than enough.  Jews and Gentiles together share a new perspective: God has brought into being a new creation in Christ, a new kind of humanity, a new way of interpreting problems, temptations, challenges, and opportunities: a new way of living.

In 5:6, Paul does not appeal to faith active in pity, or faith active in sympathy, but faith active in love: altruistic action after the heart and mind of God.  And the heart of Christian ethics, I suggest, is to pursue this love-in-action, qualified and given profound significance by the teaching of Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus so that each of us together experience a freedom to be good, and to do right, and to join with God in bringing heaven to earth.

Which is why Paul speaks of ethical action in 5:16-26, contrasting selfish and unethical behaviour with Christian ethics which, when practised in view of the presence of the kingdom of God and the reality of the new creation, bring about actions resulting in justice, reconciliation, peace, and the transformative experience of mutual love.


Sermon 614 copyright © 2013 Rod Benson. Preached at Beverly Hills Chinese Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 5 February 2012. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[1] R. Alan Cole, Galatians (Downers Grove: IVP, 1989), p. 188.

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