(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 love 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.)

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