Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

ST008/3 The Principles of Christian Ethics.


The Principles of Christian Ethics.

Christian Ethics are of necessity based on Christian experience and the manner of Christian living is governed by general principles rather than by a mass of particular commands. i:e will consider these principles under four heads,

  1. Law and Liberty.
  2. Love.
  3. Conscience.
  4. Faith.

(a) Law and Liberty.

While it is true that the Christian life is governed by general principles rather than detailed individual instructions, we cannot avoid the fact that Christianity has laws and that the New Testament is quite clear on this point.

In Romans chapter 8 we have on the side of evil, the "Law of sin and death" and on the Christian side, the "Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus". We also have mentioned "the perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25), "the royal law of love" (James 2:8), "the law of Christ" (1 Cor.9:21). 

The word "law" in these instances does not mean quite the same as it normally does. It has sore the meaning of "principle" or "governing tendency". There are also in the New Testament a number of definite commands and regulations which cannot be neglected. They are there for our direction and to be obeyed.

The desire and ability to keep them seems to be summed up in the words of Hebrews chapter 8 v.10, "I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts". At the same time the New Testament is just as clear that the Christian life is one of liberty, that the law cannot save us, and that there is freedom from the claims of the law. 

The paradox is even expressed in one of the laws mentioned above the perfect law of liberty. How can there be a law of liberty? The whole basis of Christian living lies in this paradox and in the combination of law and liberty. The Christian is free. The believer who is trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ is free from the claims and condemnation of the law, but he is not free in the sense that he owes no allegiance to anyone and that he has not to obey the moral law of God and the commandments of the New Testament. 

No one is completely free. Human nature is so constituted that it must be dependent on someone or something. The freedom that comes is the freedom to obey God and do His will. We are not free from the law, in this sense, but we are free to keep the law. We were never this before. While, then, there is freedom to keep the law, the law has another purpose also. 

It is that which keeps liberty an the right lines and prevents itturning into licence. Discipline and order are necessary in every realm of life if there is to be fruitfulness, usefulness, and strength. Law is that which disciplines, guides and controls our freedom and directs it into channels where it can have the greatest power and purpose. Sin is irrational and makes man irrational. The combination of law and liberty as revealed in the New Testament restores rationality in the true sense and constitutes what someone has called "the Law of reason restored and more than restored".

(b) Love

Love is the positive principle in Christian living. James (2:8) speaks of love as the "royal law" and Jesus tells us that on our love for God and our neighbour hang all the law and the prophets. 

John adds that "God is love” which means that God's ethical nature is love. The whole basis of Christian ethics lies just here. Love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom.13:10) and Paul also speaks of Christian living being motivated by "love out of a pure heart (1 Tim.1:5).

Every duty is to be an expression of love. The kind of love which is the essence of ethical living and which is the fulfilling of the whole law, is of necessity "perfect love". This kind of love never faileth. (1 Cor.1 3:8)

Love must regulate the life but love cannot really be explained. As a man must think to know thought, feel to know feeling, will to know volition, so he must love to know love. This is all the more true spiritually. Therefore the love of God shed abroad in the "heart by the Holy Spirit" (Rom.5:5) must regulate the life of the child of God. Our guide must always be the law of love. 

This, however, is not meant in the sense given to it in the new situational ethics prevalent today. The love which regulates is the love which is itself inspired and governed by the Spirit of God and the word of God. There are clearly problems even here. Which of two or even more actions is that which is guided and inspired by the Spirit of God? Loyalty
to God and His will must always have first place.

(c) Conscience

From the point of view of Christian Theology the question of conscience has to be considered in o somewhat different way from that in which it is considered in natural ethics. It must be considered in a Pauline sense as forming an integral part of religious experience. 

Some have taken it to mean almost man's personality but it seems that Paul does not consider it quite like this. It rather seems to be that within personality on which the Holy Spirit works. In the first epistle to Timothy (1;5) Paul speaks of a "stream of charity or divine love flowing from a pure heart, regulated by a good conscience, and kept full, fresh and flowing by an unfeigned faith."

Conscience as usually understood infers two things:-

  1. (i) A feeling or impulse within which impresses us that we should do this or not do that and which accompanies our resultant actions with a feeling of having done right or wrong as the case may be. The feeling of accusation comes far more often and more strongly than the feeling of approbation.
  2. The standard of moral judgment by which conscience operates. Conscience, therefore, is "the self passing judgment upon its conformity or non-conformity, in character and conduct, to the moral law, that is, as right or wrong, with the accompanying feeling or impulse to obey the judgment of righteousness." (Robbins).

Conscience, however, differs from country to country and from age to age, and some explanation has to he given as to why this should be. Conscience derives its authority from true law and from a true standard of living. In a Christian and Scriptural sense this standard is the law of God and the decisions of conscience should be made in accordance with this.

If man were in a normal condition these decisions should be always right. But man is not in a normal state; sin has entered, man has fallen, and as a consequence his conscience and the law of his being are obscured and perverted. For this reason also God has given man an external law. Likewise conscience is said to be evil (Heb.10:22), defiled (Tit.1:18), weak (1 Cor.8;7) and seared (1 Tim.4:2). 

It is God's will that it should be good and pure. As more feeling, conscience is beyond the power of education, but as the moral standard it is not. Also it is the guardian of the soul and needs to be obeyed. V`o'hen it is pure, governed by love and enlightened by the Word of God, it can be depended upon. It is often better to act according to conscience even when it is not fully enlightened, because it keeps it strong and undimmed.

(d) Faith

Unfeigned faith is real confidence in God. It is this constancy of trust in Christ which keeps love and liberty full, fresh and flowing. It keeps the conscience clear. This faith in God must remain undefiled. Everything goes wrong when faith goes wrong. We must gaze upon the Lord and adore Him and obey Him if faith is to remain strong.

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