March 2007

(This post may be considered a follow-up to The Incarnation and Ethics)

Does the new ethic obligate the Christian to a sort of radical pacifism? That’s the question that came up a couple of weeks back in Sunday School when I spoke a little about the new covenant morality. The questioner gave an example. If someone invades my home, can I defend it? Or does the new ethic obligate me to step aside and let the thief take what he wants? What about defending my person or my family? Must I also allow the thief to do us bodily harm?

It’s a good question. I think it’s not quite the right question, but it’s not quite right in an instructive way. If I answer the question yes then the new ethic degenerates into legalism. The call for a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees becomes a crushing demand that we out-Pharisee the Pharisees. But if I answer the question no I’m backing away from the glorious implications of the Incarnation and the Cross. I’m admitting I got a little carried away with rhetoric but when push comes to shove (ha ha) I’ll sober up and back down. Not back down. Whatever.

So instead I want to answer the question yes and no, or “not exactly, but let me explain.”

Let’s get away from the question of obligation for a moment. Let’s evaluate the act being proposed as though someone’s already done it. Suppose you hear of a Christian man who encounters a thief in his home. He stands aside and says, “Friend, take what you need freely. I will not have your soul stained with this sin.” Suppose the thief attacks and the man refuses to strike a blow in return. Instead he pleads with the attacker not to proceed further down this path of corruption. If the attack extends to the man’s family, he shields them with his body but still refuses to strike a blow.

Wouldn’t we say that such a man had behaved in a Christlike manner? Wouldn’t we find in this story the echoes of the cross? I hope we would not say that the man had somehow failed in his duty to defend his home from being plundered or his body from harm. (I think some might have difficulty with the “failure” to defend family, but I think even that could come from grace and be a taking up of the cross.) We would rather say that he had acted according to the grace given to him. And the result was a moving testimony to the love of Christ.

So far so good. Now let’s bring back the question of obligation. Was the man required to behave this way? Was he, after all, only doing his duty in not fighting back? I don’t think so. I think he was going above and beyond, just as Christ went above and beyond to die on the cross.

Now here’s where it gets tricky and we have to think carefully. Don’t we have an “obligation” to go above and beyond? Aren’t we “required” to take up the cross? Yes we are. But I cannot prescribe for you nor you for me how that will work itself out. Only the grace of God, only the Spirit of Christ working from within can make that prescription. If I make the requirement from without it will become a heavier burden even than the Law of Moses. It will crush you. But if the requirement comes from Christ in you, then his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Think of another example. Right now there are plenty of people who need kidney transplants. You’ve got two good kidneys. Go give one away. To give your kidney to a stranger would be (or could be) a Christlike action. Therefore you must be obligated to do it.

You see how, looked at the wrong way, the new ethic can become a terrifying new legalism. If I go out and give a kidney, great. Hopefully I’d be doing it out of Christlike love and it would be a testimony to the power of the cross. But if I come back and tell you that now it’s your turn and the love of Christ compels you to give a kidney as well, I’ve taken a wrong turn. I’m trying to take the role of the Spirit in speaking to your conscience.

An example from Scripture can help us sort this out. Consider the early Church. The book of Acts tells us the first believers were selling their possessions and holding the proceeds in common to be given to each according to their need (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37). It’s a beautiful and moving testimony to the work of the Spirit and of grace in their lives.

Now we can have two wrong reactions to that story. The first wrong view is to say that those early Christians over-reacted. They shouldn’t have been so careless with their money. People who take this view (and sadly, there are some) point to the fact that Paul later speaks of taking monetary gifts to Jerusalem from other churches (Romans 15:25-27, 1 Cor 16:1-3). Obviously, they say, the Jerusalem church wasn’t prudent with their money. They hadn’t saved some for a rainy day and now other churches had to help them out. That’s a ludicrous view. Clearly, the point of those gifts is that, just as the Jerusalem church had provided for others who had need, so now other believers were providing for them. It’s a beautiful example of the cross at work.

Still, I guess you can have a little sympathy for what drives some people to that view. They’re intimidated by what the Spirit did in the Jerusalem church. And they wonder, does that mean that the pastor and elders of my church need to start telling everyone to pool their resources and stop having any private goods?

That’s the other wrong reaction to the story–as though Scripture is telling us we must become communistic. In fact, the Bible goes right on to speak against that error. Remember Ananias and Sapphira. They sold a plot of land and gave part of the proceeds to the church but claimed they gave it all. How does Peter rebuke them? Does he say, “You really should have given everything to the church. Don’t you know we have no private property here?”

No. Peter says, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Peter clearly affirms that the property belonged to them and that, for his part, he had no designs on it and the Church had no claim to it. The problem isn’t that they had private property. The problem is that they were trying to fake the work of the Holy Spirit in order to gain approval. If the Spirit had truly moved them to sell the property and give all the proceeds, everyone would have rejoiced with them. If the Spirit did not so move, no one would have a right to judge them.

That’s the only way this new ethic can work. Otherwise, it’s time for the elders of the church to come audit your finances and take whatever you don’t need (and then some, really) and give it to the poor. That’s what will happen if we turn this new ethic into a set of regulations where I can define for you exactly how far above and beyond God requires you to go.

So, yes. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Give to the one who asks of you. Bear the cross. Everything you have and everything you are belongs to God, to the body of Christ, and to every stranger you meet. Give as much of it as you can according to the grace and the strength you are given. Seek to hear the Gospel that you may be moved to give even more. And leave your brother’s conscience to the Spirit of Christ who alone can command in a way that is not burdensome.


(This post may be considered a follow-up to This Holy Tide of Christmas which I posted on December 25, 2006.)

Once the Incarnation occurred, it should have been obvious that Old Testament ethics were insufficient. It’s not that there’s anything actually wrong with the morality God gave his people under Moses. I’m not saying a word against the 10 Commandments (any more than Lee Irons was, but that’s a post for another time). But the ethical substance of the Decalogue tells us only of our duty. It outlines our obligations–the good deeds that God requires–and leaves the matter there.

The Incarnation introduces a new element to the discussion. And this new element makes it impossible to discuss the ethics of God’s people in terms of mere obligation.

The ethical core of the 10 Commandments expresses God’s unchanging character. The rules could not be otherwise. Worshiping other gods is something God must condemn. If he did not, he would not be God. Nor could God make creatures in his image and then tell them–contrary to that very image–that it is ok to murder or commit adultery or steal or lie. The Decalogue is one summary (there are others) of what the rules must be because of who God is and what he must require. God himself is obligated by these rules. And that statement does not compromise God’s freedom. It simply means that God is who he is and does not change. God who is supreme, always just, faithful, and true cannot suddenly become God who is one among many, unjust, breaking his oath, a liar. Nor can he permit his creatures to behave in that way without retribution.

In short, God must be good.

But the Incarnation involves a whole different sort of goodness–a goodness to which God was not obligated. He didn’t have to do it. Of course, if the eternal son of God had not become man, we could never be saved. But then God had no ethical duty to save us.

Consider the angels. Some angels rebelled against God so he ejected them from heaven. Now the fallen angels await their final judgment with dread. For them, there is no Savior. And that reflects no injustice on God’s part. God did with the angels what was right and good. He did, in a manner of speaking, his duty. For God must punish sin or be unjust. He who is holy cannot dwell with those who are unholy. That is contrary to his nature.

That much we can learn from the ethics of the 10 Commandments.

If God had treated us according to those ethics (as he did the fallen angels) we would have no cause for complaint. When Adam and his wife sinned, God could have judged them then and there with a final, irreversible judgment. Or he could have ejected them from the garden to await, without hope, their final condemnation. Just as he ejected the angels from heaven.

Then, just like the fallen angels, we would have no legitimate accusation against God. Adam and all his descendants could have been condemned to hell and the unfallen angels would sing unceasingly in praise of God’s goodness. Indeed the Decalogue–as an insight into God’s moral character–gives us no reason to expect a different outcome.

But we did get a different outcome. The eternal Son of God became a man to save his people from their sins. Truly this even springs from the goodness of God, but it is a goodness beyond any ethical obligation. God did not have to save us, yet he did. The Father owed us nothing but wrath. Yet he gave us his Son.

In doing this, God transcended the old ethics of obligation in a way that puts its stamp on everyone who belongs to him. How can we any longer speak of mere duty when God went so far beyond duty to save us?

If the Incarnation fails to persuade us that a new morality is afoot, surely the Crucifixion will awaken our dead hearts. In the Incarnation, God gave us his Son, humbled more than we can possibly conceive. At the Crucifixion, God put that Son to death.

How can we, who have benefited immeasurably from this extravagant, gratuitous, unrequired goodness speak any more of mere duty?

This is what’s behind Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:7-10 where the servants who do only what was commanded cry out “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty”. That seems a strange thing to say when judging by the old morality. But looked at in the light of the Incarnation and the Cross, it makes perfect sense.

There’s a new ethic in town. It’s an ethic that calls us to be as extravagant with one another as God has been with us. The Law can tell me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Only the Gospel–far transcending the Law–can move me to esteem you better than myself (Philippians 2:3). Moses commands us not to defraud. Only the Spirit of Christ could have made the churches in Macedonia give “beyond their means” (2 Corinthians 8:3). The Decalogue can order me not to murder. Only the love of Christ can compel me to lay down my life for the brethren (1 John 3:16).

This is the newness of the new commandment that Jesus gives in John 13. We are to love one another in the same way Christ has loved us–humbling ourselves to the utmost as he did at his Incarnation, laying down our lives as he did at the cross. Moses never issued such a command. He couldn’t. The Law lacks that kind of moral authority.

The new commandment isn’t just another commandment to add to the list. The new commandment differs fundamentally, qualitatively, from all the old ones. The old commandments tell us of our obligation, of our duty. They push us to do right. The new commandment draws us forward to do more than mere duty. It calls us by the love of Christ to freely and cheerfully go beyond all commands. Anyone who seeks to fulfill the new commandment will naturally fulfill the old, and more besides. Anyone who pursues the old commandments will not even fulfill those.

(For a follow-up to this post, see Implications of the New Ethic.)