On the Teaching of Ethics
Preachers, what do you fear? No doubt there are many answers we would give. Some of them would be shared by a lot of us; some of them may be confined to just a few. I think I recently realised a fear that I hadn’t noticed before. I am easily afraid of being branded a ‘legalist’.
Now obviously, I don’t want to be a legalist. I want to live and proclaim the gospel and to handle all things, including the law, in relation to the gospel. That’s a good thing. But I’ve realised that in that good aim, is the risk of going too far and being controlled by a fear of the accusation of legalism. The result is preaching the gospel but without teaching the law. Or, as I think is more common in my case, only teaching the law if I feel I can make a rational defence for it. There might be nothing wrong with that rational defence, but I think there is something wrong if it wouldn’t also be enough just to know that God has commanded it.
The words which led me to this realisation are from John Stott. Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4, he includes a short reflection on the teaching of ethics. It stopped me in my tracks.
‘One of the great weaknesses of contemporary evangelical Christianity is our comparative neglect of Christian ethics, in both our teaching and our practice. In consequence, we have become known rather as people who preach the gospel than as those who live and adorn it. We are not always conspicuous in the community, as we should be, for our respect for the sanctity and the quality of human life, our commitment to social justice, our personal honesty and integrity in business, our simplicity of lifestyle and happy contentment in contrast to the greed of the consumer society, or for the stability of our homes in which unfaithfulness and divorce are practically unknown and children grow up in the secure love of their parents. At least in the statistics of marriage and family life, Jewish performance is higher than that of Christians.
‘One of the main reasons for this is that our churches do not (on the whole) teach ethics. We are so busy preaching the gospel that we seldom teach the law. We are also afraid of being branded ‘legalists’. ‘We are not under the law’, we say piously, as if we were free to ignore and even disobey it. Whereas what Paul meant is that our acceptance before God is not due to our observance of the law. But Christians are still under obligation to keep God’s moral law and commandments. Indeed, the purpose of Christ’s death was that ‘the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us’ (Rom. 8:3-4), and the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in our heart is that he might write God’s law there.
‘To our current neglect of ethics the apostle Paul presents a striking contrast. It is not just that his letters are usually divided into two halves, the first concentrating on doctrine and the second on ethics, but also that he gives detailed instruction in Christian moral behaviour, even to very young converts. The paradosis (apostolic ‘tradition’) which he ‘passed on’ to them, and which they ‘received’ (2 Thes. 2:15; 3:6), included both the truth of the gospel (1 Thes. 1:5–6; 2:2, 8, 13) and also moral instruction on ‘how to live in order to please God’ (1 Thess. 4:1–2).
‘In fact, one of the distinctive features of the two Thessalonian letters is the frequency with which the apostle refers back to what he taught them when he was with them. Tell-tale phrases like ‘we instructed you how to live’ (4:1), ‘you know what instructions we gave you’ (4:2), ‘as we have already told you and warned you’ (4:6), and ‘just as we told you’ (4:11), enable us to reconstruct the content of the apostle’s ethical teaching while he was in Thessalonica. He emphasized that Christians must live a life that is ‘worthy of God’ (2:12) and pleasing to God (4:1); that such a life will be one of moral righteousness; that God’s commandments include such mundane matters as our daily work (4:11–12; cf. 2:6–9; 2 Thes. 3:7ff.) and penetrate even into the personal privacies of sex and marriage (4:3–6); that God judges those who are sexually selfish (4:6); that uprightness only exempts us from judgment, but not from persecution, since suffering is part of our ‘destiny’ (3:3–4: as ‘we kept telling you’); and that the great stimulus to both holiness and endurance is our expectation of the Lord’s return (1:3, 10; 2:12; 5:2–8). Thus, exhortations to holiness, warnings of suffering and promises of the Parousia belonged together in Paul’s teaching. Within a few weeks or months he had taught the young Thessalonian converts not only the essence of the good news but also the essence of the good life, not only about faith in Jesus, but also about the necessity of good works by which saving faith is authenticated and without which it is dead (e.g. 1:3).
‘There is an urgent need for us, as pluralism and relativism spread world-wide, to follow Paul’s example and give people plain, practical, ethical teaching. Christian parents must teach God’s moral law to their children at home. Sunday school and day school teachers must ensure that their pupils know at least the Ten Commandments. Pastors must not be afraid to expound biblical standards of behaviour from the pulpit, so that the congregation grasps the relationship between the gospel and the law. And right from the beginning converts must be told that the new life in Christ is a holy life, a life bent on pleasing God by obeying his commandments.’
John Stott, The Message of Thessalonians (IVP, 1994), pp.76-77