Basing Ethics on Sound Theology

by
June 22, 2015

Some persons question whether there is any appropriate relationship between Theology and Ethics. In fact, Theology and Ethics are integrally interconnected. We see this interconnection of Theology and Ethics illustrated in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. The characteristic structure of the Pauline epistles is for the first half of the letter to address Theology (who God is and what He does), and the second half to address Ethics (who we are in Christ and what we should do). Usually these two sections are linked by the transitional word “therefore,” because who we are and what we should do as believers is properly based in who God is and what He does. If the goal of the Christian life is to become more Christlike, then we must know the character and actions of God to know who we are to be in Christ.

As an illustration of how Ethics flows from Theology, I will describe three key characteristics of who God is (and what He does) and their implications for who we should be and what we should do. These three characteristics are (a) God is love, (b) God is holy, and (c) God is just. In arguing that ethical standards flow from God’s character, let me first explain the important relationship between “being” and “doing.” Ethicists sometimes debate which is the more important – being a good person or doing good things. The truth is that both of these are important. God does what He does because He is who He is. His actions flow from his character. Likewise, believers must have a godly character in order to do ethical deeds. It is possible to do apparently good deeds but do so with a wrong motive. Jesus condemned actions done with such an improper inner motivation. To be truly good, a deed must not only be good in itself, but must flow from the right motivation. An apparently good person who does not do good deeds is not truly moral, and a person who does apparently good deeds with bad motivations in not truly moral, either. Being the right person and doing the right thing are both crucial to a deed being truly moral. Now, let us look at who God is (and what He does), and explore what that means for who we should be in Christ and what we should do.

God is love. John the Apostle made the bold pronouncement that not only does God do loving things, but He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is characteristic of who God is. This same divine character trait is described in various similar ways in Scripture. God is “gracious and compassionate” (2 Chron. 30:9, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, HCSB), and is “slow to anger and abounding in love” (Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2). God is “merciful” (Deut. 4:31, Dan. 9:9). How is God’s love expressed in actions? He loved the world so much that He sent his own Son to provide atonement for those who would believe (John 3:15-17). Our loving Father bestows “great love,” “great mercy,” and “great compassion” on fallen humanity (Neh. 9:31; Ps. 5:7, 25:6, Luke 1:58; Eph. 2:4, 1 Pet. 1:3). God is gracious not only to believers, but to ungrateful and evil persons (Luke 6:35). He bestows blessings and providential care on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matt. 5:45), and does not show favoritism of people based on their race or social status (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9). God’s love is consistent; it is described in Scripture as a steadfast or “faithful love” (2 Chron. 1:8, Ezra 3:11, Ps. 86:13, 103:11, 117:2, 145:8, Jer. 32:18 ), a love that is eternal (Ps. 136:4, 7).

What are the implications of God’s love for believers? Since God is love, we are to be loving. In fact, Jesus taught that loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is the first and greatest commandment, but the second is “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-39). Indeed, Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (v. 39, a concept repeated in Rom. 13:9). James described love of neighbor as the “royal law” of Scripture (Jas. 2:8). Indeed, Jesus said that the distinguishing mark by which those who are His disciples may be known is “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This priority on God’s people being loving is consistent throughout Scripture. Micah the prophet said that to “love mercy” is one of three things that God requires of His people (Mic. 6:8), and the Apostle Paul dedicated an entire chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians to proclaim love as the “greatest” of all the virtues (1 Cor. 13:1-13). Because God has loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins, “we also must love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Indeed, “the one who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8), for, as John asserts, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20). The love that godly persons should have is not merely a feeling, but is made manifest in loving, compassionate, merciful actions.

God is holy. The “pole” in God’s personal character that complements and balances His love is God’s holiness. The Bible makes it clear that God is holy, just as He is love (Lev. 19:2; Josh. 24:19; 1 Sam. 2:2, 6:20; Ps. 77:13, 78:41, 99:9; Isa. 5:16, 29:23, 30:15, 43:3, 48:17, 54:5, 55:5, 60:9;Jer. 51:5; Rev. 4:8). God is also described as being righteous (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 7:9-11, 50:6, 116:5, Isa. 45:21; Dan. 9:14). God’s holiness and righteousness is sometimes expressed in His wrath against sin (Exo. 15:7; Deut. 29:28; 2 Kings 22:13, 17; 2 Chron. 19:2, 34:25, 36:16; Ps. 6:1, 7:11, 21:9, 38:1, 78:38, 90:11; Isa. 13:13, 30:30; Jer. 4:4, 7:20, 21:5, 23:19, 25:15, 30:23, 32:31, 33:5, 44:6; Ezek. 7:19, 8:18, 13:13, 20:33-34; Nah. 1:2; Zeph. 1:18; John 3:36; Rom. 1:18). Another way of describing this aspect of God’s character is that He is perfect (Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:31; Ps. 18:32, Matt. 5:48).

God’s people are called upon also to be holy, just as God is holy (Exo. 19:6, 22:31; Lev. 11:45; 19:2, 20:7; Num. 15:40; Deut. 7:6, 14:2; Eph. 1:4; 2 Pet. 3:11). Believers are called upon to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). No human is innately righteous, however, and thus we can only receive holiness and righteousness as a gift through faith (Rom. 1:17, 3:22, 4:5, 9:30, 10:6; Phil. 3:9; Heb. 11:6). Nonetheless, our faith is vital only if it is manifested in actual good works (Jas. 1:22-26, 2:14-26).

God is just.

God is just and acts justly (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 48:10; Isa. 5:16, 30:18; Rom. 9:14; Heb. 1:8). Another of the three requirements the prophet Micah lists for what God requires of persons is to “act justly” (Mic. 6:8). God desires that the weaker members of a society be treated with justice (Ps. 10:14, 18, 68:5, 146:9). The Old Testament called time and again for compassion to be shown on the most helpless members of ancient society – the widow, the orphan or child of a single-parent home, and the alien/foreigner (Exo. 22:22; Deut 10:18, 14:29, 16:11-14, 24:17-21, 26:12-13, 27:9, 82:3; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 22:3, Zech 7:10; Mal. 3:5). Likewise, in the New Testament, James described one mark of “pure and undefiled religion” to be caring for orphans and widows (Jas. 1:27). Dishonest scales and bribing judges are detestable to God (Exo. 23:8; Deut. 10:17, 16:19, 27:25, Prov. 11:1, 16:11, 20:23; Isa. 1:23; Ezek. 45:10; Amos 5:12, 8:5; Mic. 6:11).

We can extrapolate all ethical teachings from the character of God and/or the teachings and commandments of God in Scripture. Ethics and Theology are not strangers; they are inseparably bound together.


Steve Lemke
Dr. Steve Lemke is Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he occupies the McFarland Chair of Theology. He is also Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.