This is the second post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.
We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
The foundational value of a Christian ethic is love.
1. In Matthew 22:34-40, when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, his response is, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
The rest of the New Testament confirms this truth. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul says, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
All the commands of the Bible, wherever they may be found, are summed up in these two ethical injunctions. If at any time someone thinks God wants them to do something that contradicts love of neighbor, they are mistaken. Any application of Scripture that contradicts love of God, neighbor, and self, is a misapplication. The Bible cannot be used to contradict Jesus or this cornerstone of New Testament ethics.
No matter how pious sounding the argument may be, an ethical maxim is simply wrong if it truly contradicts love of God, neighbor, or self. These are the ethical absolutes of the Christian faith, to which there are no exceptions.
In Luke 10:25-37, a lawyer tries to find an exception to whom he should love by supposing that not every person might be his neighbor. Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which someone the lawyer might not want to love--a Samaritan--proves to be the one who acts lovingly toward his neighbor. At least part of Jesus' point is that everyone is our neighbor, not just our friends but our enemies as well.
Jesus captures this truth best in Matthew 5:43-48. Here he tells his followers that they must love completely, as God the Father loves completely. They are not only to love their friends--do not even disreputable people love that much. No, they are to love their enemies, as God does when he sends the sun and rain on everyone. Therefore, the love of neighbor means the love of everyone, friend and enemy. We must love every human being.
2. It is important to say that love must be carefully defined. When we were considering what it means to say that God is love, we saw that Jesus describes love very practically in Matthew 7:12: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." Love here is not a feeling. It is a choice. Love is the choice to act in a way that is for the good or benefit of others.
You can thus "love" another person when in fact you really do not like the other person. You can choose to act in a loving way when you do not feel like it at all. You can do for them what you would want them to do for you, assuming you have a healthy sense of yourself.
There are important considerations. You can be mistaken in what you think is for the benefit of others. Love is not about the real consequences of your action but your motivations for doing them.
Another very important consideration is that the benefit of others often means not making them happy in the short term. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to discipline another person in hope that he or she will grow to become a better person. It is not loving to help a person do wrong or do evil, which is ultimately harmful to their soul and destiny.
Further, there is a love of the many that may require justice to the individual. Love of the many never justifies wrongdoing to the few or the one, but there may be a time when the love of the many requires us to discipline the individual or let them experience pain. The administration of justice need not be unloving.
Justice may protect the many from the few. In war or extremely unusual circumstances, choices may have to be made that result in the death or harm of an individual. These choices, however, are made for the greater good under unusual circumstances and are not preferred but necessary. They are a choice for the greater good, not a choice for individual harm. There should always be regret when a life must be taken, for every individual is created in the image of God.
3. We are also assuming a healthy sense of self-worth when we say to love your neighbor as yourself or when we say to do to others as you would have them do to you. There are individuals who harm themselves. There are individuals who do not have a healthy sense of their own worth.
Most people have the opposite problem. They are too focused on their own advantage and not that of others. When Jesus says these things, he is assuming that we have a healthy sense of our self-worth. We are created in the image of God, therefore all human life is valuable. Every individual is precious in God's sight, even the vilest of sinners. Indeed, God grieves even at Satan's impending destruction.
4. Love of God never contradicts love of others or love of ourselves. When we love ourselves properly, we love ourselves in the context of our love of God. God has made us, so we love ourselves as individuals loved by God. We do not love ourselves as more important than God, for we are not. There may be decisions of self-sacrifice we make that are not unloving toward ourselves but love ourselves as honored--and thus benefited greatly--to serve the Lord and others in our sacrifice.
Love of others never contradicts the love of God both because we love others as individuals loved by God and, even more significantly, realizing that to a very large extent we fulfill our love of God by loving others. God never calls us to wrong or truly harm others; therefore, the love of God never requires hatred toward others.
5. We love God by recognizing him as the King, the most significant thing that exists. We recognize his will as the supreme will of the universe. We love God by aligning our will to his will. What is sin but when our wills are in conflict with his will?
Paul well captures what it means to love God when he says that, "Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). Similarly, Colossians 3:17 says, "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." We love God by giving him his appropriate place in the universe.
We act as if we truly believe that he is the most significant Being that exists. We act as if his will is the final answer for the universe. We see our choices as messengers of his will in the world. We have to make them, for that is how God has made us, but we make those choices as we believe he would make them.
The foundational value of a Christian ethic is love--love of God, love of our neighbors and enemies, and a healthy valuing of ourselves.
Next Sunday: ET3. We must not let any other thing take God's place in our life.