This is the seventy-seventh lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
See Mel Lawrenz’s book, How to Study the Bible: A Practical Guide.
One way of talking about “living the Bible” is to focus on a whole range of issues that are called “biblical ethics.” The concept of “ethics” is the perception of and commitment to certain standards of morality that are good for oneself and good for society. Over the ages some people have viewed morality as absolute and universal principles. Others view morality as subjective: that one person’s morality and that of another may not match, and that’s okay.
Well, in most circumstances, that is not okay at all. If it is wrong for my cousin to steal my car, it is wrong for me to steal his car. Murder has a specific meaning, though we do make distinctions between premeditated murder and crimes of passion. Almost everyone agrees that intentional, deceptive lying is wrong because there is no way to develop relationships and have stability in society unless we can develop trust. Though there are exceptions, like a country at war using deception in order to prevent attacks from the enemy.
In the area of personal ethics there is great disagreement. Some assume that having sex with a wide variety of partners is perfectly okay, or that it is part of the dating process, or that sex is okay in a committed relationship before marriage. Others would hold to a traditional morality that says sex is the unique physical bond that enhances the emotional bond of a legally constituted marriage. They would say that the biblical focus on marriage-based sex is a protection of society, resisting the destructive effects of promiscuity or, in some cases, predatory behavior. Some scoff at such traditional views as quaint, repressive, and unrealistic. That should not come as a surprise. Many have proclaimed a traditional view of sex, all the while violating it.
So many issues to deal with. So many complexities. So many challenges.
It is challenging to understand what biblical ethics are, but a wide natural reading of Scripture does make the essentials clear. But it is also challenging living it out. It seems obvious that we should not lie, cheat, or steal. But, given human nature, most people are at least strongly tempted to lie if they are found out. It is easy to slip into cheating on one’s taxes, with the rationalization that the government is a monster trying to steal from us. And people steal all the time; maybe not embezzlement or bank robbery, but in all the small ways we are tempted to take something if we can get away with it.
Biblical ethics, in other words, cuts against fallen human nature. We will not hold to biblical ethics unless we have a deep core conviction that we are bound by right and wrong as God has defined right and wrong. We avoid transgressing because it is bad for society, but also because it is bad for us, bad for our families, and bad for Christian witness.
Biblical ethics begin in Genesis with the “goodness” of the Creation and God’s grace in allowing humanity to enjoy it all. Biblical ethics reach their high water mark in Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” (Matthew 5-7), widely viewed as the most wide-ranging, transformational set of ethical principles ever expressed in Scripture.
We will only understand biblical ethics if we see how they are connected to the rest of reality. If separated off, then we end up with only lists of rules which will never be followed.
Biblical ethics are connected with the nature of God. Two of the core attributes of God are holiness and love. Or we may say truth and grace. Any moral or ethical foundation of our lives is directly founded on the character of God.
Biblical ethics are connected with the nature of human beings. Because we are made in the image of God, we are designed to live in the goodness God has given us. What God considers good, we must consider good; what God says is bad, we must also consider bad.
Biblical ethics are connected with the principles of building a healthy society. Truth and grace are the basics of any healthy relationship. And societies are built on a wide network of family and friendship. There is no civilization without law and order, but also mercy.
Biblical ethics are connected with God’s way of redeeming. To be saved by Jesus Christ is just the beginning of a whole life of being saved and having a hand in rescuing others. We are not merely saved “from,” we are saved “to.” The human race is in a continual state of moral and ethical crisis. Hearts grow hard and don’t want to hear about what is right and wrong. Others are just caught in a fog of moral confusion.
But there is hope in the transforming power of God to change our hearts. “I’ll give them the ability to know me, for I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God when they return to me with all their heart” (Jeremiah 24:7).
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.