Ethics: Knowing Right from Wrong

  1. The futility of non-Christian ethics
  2. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Rom. 1:21

    1. Non-Christian ethics has no adequate grounds for authority.
    2. There is no way to go from what "is" to what "ought to be".

    3. Non-Christian ethics does not have available adequate knowledge to utilize its principles.
    4. The non-Christian cannot live or even think on the basis of such a shaky foundation. Therefore, he is constantly driven to draw upon the reality from which he seeks to flee -- God's creation and God's image within him and even a Christian-influenced culture -- to base his ethical sentiments.
  3. Christian ethics is grounded in the nature of God as it relates to his creation.
    1. The standard flows from God's nature.
    2. 1 Peter 1:15-16

    3. The requirement of perfection flows from God's nature.
    4. Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, And You can not look on wickedness with favor. Hab 1:13

    5. Like God himself, ethical principles reflect co-ultimate particularity and universality. In both cases, the particulars complement rather than compete with one another or with the universals.
  4. Ethical obligation flows from our relationship to God as our creator and owner.
  5. Rom. 9:20-21

    This obligation is strengthened by redemption -- 1 Cor. 6:20

  6. Knowledge of ethics comes by revelation.
    1. Nature (both internal and external) - Rom. 1:17-23, Rom. 2:14-15
    2. Scripture - 2 Tim. 3:16-17
    3. Scripture speaks with greater clarity than nature.

  7. The agony of ethical dilemmas is a result of the fall.
    1. Sin and blindness create confusion about ethical obligations.
    2. Rom. 3:10-11

    3. The curse creates unwanted consequences of our choices.
    4. Rom. 5:12

      Rom. 5:19

      Rom. 8:20,22

  8. Testing the options -
    1. No Absolutes

    2. Relativism - logically impossible to live with
    3. One Absolute

    4. Situation ethics - "Always do the most loving thing."
    5. How can we know what is most loving? How can we criticize the action of others? How can we define justice in this context? This approach denies that there are non-negotiable particulars to expressing love. Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." (Jn. 14:15)

    6. Kant's categorical imperative - "An action is ethical only if I can with consistency will it to be universally acted upon."
    7. There is an implied set of values behind this. What does it mean to will "with consistency?" Thus, some hidden absolutes are being brought in. Furthermore, the only logical basis for this norm would be this norm. Thus, it is circular.

    8. Utilitarianism - "Do that which will bring about the greatest good."
    9. As with situation ethics, it does not give us information for determining what constitutes the greatest good. Furthermore, it forces us to attempt to predict the future, and it can bring great guilt feelings if there are unforeseen consequences to our choices. In essence, it says that the end justifies the means. (Rom. 3:8)

    10. "What would Jesus do?"
    11. This falls prey to many of the same criticisms as situation ethics. Furthermore, it implies that there is a change of standard from Old Testament to New. Also, it ignores the uniqueness of the person and mission of our Lord and Savior.

    12. "Let your conscience be your guide."
    13. Conscience is merely the faculty of moral judgment. So we should follow our conscience, because that is the faculty that determines what is right and wrong. Our responsibility is to instruct our conscience and then follow it. Conscience can be wrong (1 Cor. 10:29), but we must follow it because to do otherwise is to do that which we have judged to be wrong. (Rom. 14:14)

      Many Absolutes

    14. Conflicting absolutism - due to the fall, there are inevitable conflicts in absolutes; therefore, choose the lesser of evils
    15. This implies that sin is unavoidable, but: 1 Cor. 10:13, Heb. 4:15

    16. Graded absolutism (hierarchicalism) - there are real conflicts in absolutes, but they are ordered so that it is not sin to violate a lower one if necessary to keep a higher one. (advocated by Norman Geisler)
    17. This view does not take seriously the fact that ethical absolutes are rooted in God's nature. Since God's nature is not self-contradictory, neither are the ethical absolutes that flow from his nature.

      There is no conflict between the oneness of God's essence and the many-ness of his persons. Therefore, there is no conflict between the particulars and the universals of ethics.

      Logically, it reduces to a single absolute absolute that provides the order for the absolutes that really aren't. Did God give the 10 Ascending Priorities?

      It takes a lazy approach to the ethical questions raised by historical portions of Scripture.

      One/Many Absolutes

    18. Unqualified absolutism - there are many absolutes that do not conflict when properly understood, all of which find their unity in supreme love to God and love to neighbor as self. (Augustine, Charles Hodge, John Murray)
    19. It alone does justice to the one/many, non-contradictory nature of God.

      It is founded in the revelation of Scripture and especially the greatest commandment and the Ten Commandments.

      It does not force man to be omniscient but forces him to rely on God and his revelation for what is the greatest good, how to love in the highest sense, etc.

      It teaches that there is no ultimate conflict between our duty and our happiness.

      It requires both biblical actions and biblical motives (the highest being love). This is why the apostle can say, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God." (Rom. 8:8)

  9. Resolving ethical dilemmas
    1. Because of the fall, some right choices have agonizingly difficult consequences.
    2. Some dilemmas are only hypothetical.
    3. Some dilemmas spring from faulty hermeneutics.
    4. Positive duties are generally regarded to be stewardships that must be pursued within the bounds set up by biblical prohibitions.
    5. We must fully avail ourselves of the means of wisdom - particularly God's appointed teachers in the church - to help us see clearly in difficult decisions.


Principles of Conduct, by John Murray, Eerdmans, 1957, 272 pp. This book is rather dry, but you'll never find a better study to shape your thinking on the core principles God has revealed for human conduct.
Availability: CPC library

"Futility in Non-Christian Ethics", by Sam Waldron. A great study of the absolute bankruptcy of non-Christian ethics. A bit technical.

"Non-Christian Hypocrisy" by Douglas Jones, Credenda/Agenda, vol. 6, no. 3, p.15. "I just can't stand it. Non-Christians are such hypocrites. They should learn to practice what they preach. How could anyone become a non-Christian? They don't even live what they claim to believe!" This is how Douglas Jones begins his provocative essay on the truth that non-Christians cannot consistently live out the implications of their system of truth.