Law, Jesus, and Ethics
By: T.M. Moore|Published: April 27, 2012 3:03 PM
We are being conformed to the image of Christ, not Law.
He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this commandment.” Mark 10:3-5
A crisis of ethics
The present economic turmoil in America is but a symptom of a deeper crisis, a crisis of ethics.
This is a prominent theme of the series, Doing the Right Thing. People motivated by little more than vanity and greed plunged the nation into this present upheaval, which might have been avoided if a system of Biblical ethics rather than mere pragmatism was functioning as the overarching ethical framework for the nation.
Biblical ethics flow out of the three confluent streams: the immediate situation, the teaching of God’s Law, and the upright and good plan of God as expressed in the original creation and in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the situation of which our text is the denouement we can see how Jesus teaches us to think about ethical matters. First, understand the situation and the choices before us; then consider the teaching of God’s Law; finally, interpret the Law in the fuller light of God’s original intention, as that is being reclaimed in Christ and the New Testament.
Let’s look more closely.
A simple situation?
The question before Jesus was clear: What is your view of divorce? The options were fairly cut-and-dried: Either Jesus agreed that divorce was lawful, or He didn’t. At least, that’s how His interlocutors would have liked the issue to be framed.
But in every ethical question with which we might be confronted there are usually more alternative courses of action than what at first seem evident. For example, in this case, as Jesus pointed out, the answer to their question, on the one hand, was: Divorce is lawful under certain circumstances. Now the Law of God spells those out, as the religious leaders would have known, and these circumstances relate, roughly, to matters either of infidelity or irreligion. If a wife is unfaithful, she could be divorced; if a husband turned out to be an idolater, he would be separated not only from his wife but from the entire community, and treated as though he were dead (if not actually killed).
On the other hand, Jesus pointed out, there is the option of remaining married, even when such conditions as would justify divorce might exist. After all, from the beginning, He explained, God intended men and women to stay married for life.
Now the religious leaders examining Jesus would have nodded agreement to part of that answer; but part of it would have confused them. They would have had to ask themselves: What does God’s original intention have to do with it? Given the problem of sin, how can we ever get back to where God originally intended us to be? How can we overcome the ravages of sin, and our own sinful inclinations, to recover that relationship of perfect grace with God in which His original purpose for men might once again flourish?
Of course, the religious leaders of Israel hoped that obedience to the Law of God would accomplish this in some measure; but that had not been their experience. Indeed, they had found over the years that they were so incapable of keeping the Law that they had to pile up qualifications and traditions and case laws upon case laws to explain just what obedience to the Law required. In the process they had made obedience even more onerous, were burdening the people in ways even they could not fulfill, and had grown to despise the people for their inability to understand and live by the Law (Jn. 7:49). These religious leaders considered that they themselves kept the Law, but, like Nicodemus, they must have realized that all their paraded “obedience” had not brought them the inner peace of knowing they were acceptable to God.
A pattern for ethical thinking
The Law provided the ground for thinking about divorce: Under some circumstances, yes; in other cases, no, or, at least, not necessarily. The Law created a pattern or trajectory for thinking about divorce, but it was by no means the last word. Jesus placed Himself at the crucial point of being the interpreter of God’s intentions in His Law, and of pointing beyond the Law to possibilities not envisioned by the Law, but not excluded, either.
Jesus, returning to God’s original purpose for marriage, restated that purpose as still valid and in tact, and called upon the leaders questioning Him to take God’s original purpose as the framework within which to think about marriage and divorce. Later, He would explain to His disciples that certain criteria making divorce lawful were yet in effect. Later still, inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, the apostles would further develop their understanding of Jesus – and His interpretation of the Law – in directions more expressive of the grace of God, saying that believers ought to hang in there in marriage as long as it is possible, that is, as long as the unbelieving or adulterous partner has not repudiated the marriage and thus made himself an exile from grace and truth. Under those circumstances a believer should let the unbelieving spouse go his way, and not feel under any constraints about marrying again in the Lord.
Thinking about ethical questions
So in thinking about ethical questions the Lord’s guidance is clear: Make sure you understand the question before you and all the possible ways resolution might be achieved. Examine the Law of God to discover if there is any groundwork here for thinking about this particular ethical question (there will be). Then look to Jesus and how He either embodied or taught obedience to the Law, and to His apostles as the fuller exponents of what the life of grace and truth requires.
Thus in the full light of Scripture we may develop a Biblical view of ethics that does justice to the situation, the Law, the original purpose of God, and the requirements of grace.
This kind of thinking will not save us, nor will it redeem our culture. At best, when applied by unbelievers in their own life settings, a Biblical approach to ethics can check the ravages of sin, stay the hand of God’s wrath, and leave space for grace and truth to flourish in goodness and beauty.
God continues to manifest His grace and goodness even to those who have no interest in or love for Him (Matt. 5:43-48). To the extent that such people can be persuaded to embrace a Biblical approach to ethical thinking and living they will know more of the wooing blessings of God than if they chart a deliberate course of rebellion and disobedience to His truth.
But for the believing community, the practice of Biblical ethics, such as outlined above, is a key to tapping into the promises of God, opening the spigots of grace in powerful and transformational ways. Further, the more Christians practice Biblical ethics, the more they will be able to create an alternative society and culture that stands in sharp contrast to the fallen and rebellious culture of naturalistic, pagan men.
The power and beauty of that alternative can be compelling in an environment where the Word of truth is consistently preached and practiced (Acts 6:1-7).
So let us be careful students of the times in which we live and the ethical issues with which our generation is confronted. Let us also study and meditate on God’s Law, as is appropriate for those who have been clothed with the righteousness of Christ (Ps. 1; Rom. 3:31); and let us look to Jesus and the apostles – in the light of our Christian forebears’ own ethical understanding – to discover those grace-and-truth alternatives that might bring glory to God in ethical situations, renew our hope in that glory, and persuade our neighbors to ask a reason for the hope that is within us.
Next steps: What is the Law of God? What role should the Law of God have in the lives of believers? Talk with some of your fellow Christians. Reflect on such passages as Psalm 1, Psalm 19, Matthew 5.17-19, Romans 7:7-12, and 1 John 2:1-6. How might you begin to give the Law of God a more prominent place in your own thinking?
For more insight to this question, order the book, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, by Scott B. Rae, from our online store. For a better understanding of the Law of God, download the free PDF series, “The Law of God in the Life of the Church,” by T. M. Moore.