From ethics to the gospel (01)

3 11 2008
Timeless and Universal?

Image by stephenccwu via Flickr

Is ethics part of the gospel? Is ethics contained within the gospel? (Or is it something extra; perhaps something to raise alongside the gospel, or perhaps something to address only after a person already believes the gospel?)

If you come at that question with the Law vs Gospel1 distinction in mind, you might answer “No!”.

But there are hidden costs to saying no…

If ethics isn’t contained in the gospel, then you’ve got two choices:

  1. Be consistently evangelical, and ignore ethics altogether (antinomianism)
  2. Be half-heartedly evangelical, and include ethics after all (legalism)

Neither of these are good. And the answer isn’t to find some halfway-house between them either. So what is the answer? Well, that’s what my next post will start to tackle.

In the meantime…

You can find a more fulsome exploration of all this in Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order. Here’s a taster:

The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it would not be Christian ethics. … [But if we separate faith and morality,] we become either moralists or antinomians. By ‘moralism’ we mean the holding of moral convictions unevangelically, so that they are no longer part of the Christian good news, and can, therefore, have the effect only of qualifying it … as a ‘ministry of condemnation,’ or as a rule which is supposed to govern an area of life which Christ has not touched or transformed. By ‘antinomianism’ we mean the holding of the Christian faith in a way that expresses disregard, or insufficient regard, for moral questions. Once it is decided that morality is not part of the good news the Christians welcome and proclaim, believers will have to choose between being thoroughly evangelical and ignoring it, and respecting it at the cost of being only half evangelical. A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgements belong to the gospel itself; a belief, in other words, that the church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as a bearer of glad tidings.

from Resurrection and Moral Order, p11.

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted on Monday, 10th Nov, 2008.

1 Law and Gospel: i.e. the Lutheran distinction between the doctrines of Law, which demands obedience to God’s ethical will, and Gospel, which promises the forgiveness of sins in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For more info: Wikipedia: Law and Gospel article.

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