Biblical Ethics: An Introduction

Dieumeme Noelliste | Jamaica

Ethics is concerned with the way we ought to conduct our lives. Clearly, then, it is an integral part of biblical revelation. From Genesis to Revelation we find principles, precepts, commands, warnings, guidelines, and counsels that are intended to steer our lives toward that which is right, good, and God-honoring. The apostle Paul tells us that Scripture was given not only to reveal God’s way of salvation but also to train us in righteousness and equip us for “every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14–17).

As the people of God blessed with the Word of God, we must receive God’s ethical instruction in full submission and wisdom. As those who have been shown mercy in Christ, it is our great joy to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” that is ours in him (Eph. 4:1). This essay seeks to encourage such ethical integrity by highlighting four aspects of the ethical teaching of the Bible: its importance, its purpose, its foundation, and some of its salient characteristics.

The Importance of Biblical Ethics

At the very outset of creation, God himself introduced ethics when he repeatedly declared his own work “good” (Genesis 1) and proceeded to give Adam and Eve responsibilities to fulfill (Gen. 2:19) and standards to live by (Gen. 2:15–17). Then, after rescuing Israel from bondage and choosing her as his special possession (Ex. 19:1–6), God began his relationship with the elect people by giving them an ethical charter to govern their behavior toward him and among themselves (Ex. 20:1–17). This basic code was expanded in the rest of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah (meaning “law” or “instruction”).

Centuries later, when Jesus appeared on the scene to usher in the climactic phase of redemptive history, he too started out by issuing an ethical manifesto to provide guidance for the conduct of his disciples (Matthew 5–7). Called the Sermon on the Mount, this charter took ethics to a whole new dimension, while also reasserting the essence of what the Old Testament Torah had always intended. At the heart of Jesus’ ethic is the call to love God and others (Mark 12:28–31), a call that resounds through the rest of the New Testament (1 Cor. 13:1–3; James 2:8; 1 Pet. 4:7–8; 1 John 4:8).

When we come to the final moment of salvation history, with the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21–22), we hear the ethical note once again. But this time ethics has reached its highest peak with the triumph of good (1 Cor. 15:27; Rev. 21:1–8), the defeat of evil and suffering (Rev. 20:7–10; 21:4), and the restoration of humanity in the presence of God (Rev. 21:3, 22–27).

Along with this brief overview of ethics in the biblical story line, the importance of ethics is further highlighted by the high value God places on the ethical life. For the Old Testament prophets, for example, any act of worship that is not accompanied by acceptable ethical behavior is futile and offensive to God (Isa. 1:1–10; 58:5–10; Amos 5:21–26). Moreover, the Bible condemns those who subvert ethics by calling good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20) and says that right belief must express itself in right action (James 2:14–26). Clearly, it matters immensely to God that we believe rightly and live rightly!

The Purpose of Biblical Ethics

Besides stressing its importance, Scripture underscores the practical purpose that ethics serves. In the preceding section we saw that one important payoff of the ethical life is the authenticity it imparts to worship. But the Bible adds three insights to this.

The first concerns the validation of our Christian identity. According to Jesus, when our lives exhibit the ethics of love, we demonstrate to the world that we belong to him (John 13:34–35) and we reinforce the claim that we are sons and daughters of God (Matt. 5:44–45).

The second is seen in Jesus’ assertion that the ethical life glorifies God. Jesus teaches that when our light shines before people, they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). Moral integrity honors God.

The link that Jesus makes in this verse between ethics and witness supplies the third insight: ethics is a means of Christian witness and mission. We find this theme throughout the Bible. For instance, in Genesis 12:3, God chose Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. But later on God said that the fulfillment of that promise was linked with the Abrahamic family’s willingness “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). In Psalm 72, the psalmist prays that Israel’s king would fulfill his ethical obligation so that the nation may prosper and realize her missionary calling (Ps. 72:1–17). Peter and Paul echo the same theme when they assert that the positive influence Christians can have on society depends upon the kind of ethical lives they live (Phil. 2:14–16; 1 Pet. 2:11–12).

The Foundation of Biblical Ethics

For Christians, an even greater incentive to explore biblical ethics is the fact that ethics finds its foundation in God himself. Biblically speaking, it is God, as Creator of a morally ordered universe, and as an absolutely perfect being, who is the author of morality (Gen. 2:17). It is God who endowed the creation with norms and standards and holds its inhabitants answerable to him (Gen. 3:17; Ps. 33:13–15). In biblical terms, then, ethics is not a human invention. It is rooted in God himself.

Moreover, according to the Bible, God supplies ethics with not only its source but also its anchor. This anchor is found in the worldview that emerges from the story of salvation that God tells in his Word. This worldview says that God created us in his own image (Gen. 1:27). We fell and profoundly disturbed the condition of well-being that existed under God’s rule (Gen. 3:8). But we were redeemed by a gracious God (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 3:22–25). This view is crucial for ethics. For it is the image of God that provides the basis for the Bible’s teaching on such issues as the sanctity of human life (Gen. 9:8–17), the equality of all humans before God (Job 31:15; Acts 17:25–26), and the intrinsic worth and dignity of all people. Similarly, one major reason the Bible insists on sexual purity is the doctrine of redemption, which says that the redeemed no longer belong to themselves but to God, who dwells in them by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:18–20).

Some Characteristics of Biblical Ethics

We close by highlighting six features of biblical ethics.

First, biblical ethics is covenantal or communal. It exists for the people of God. While all people are morally accountable to God, the Bible teaches that the ethical life portrayed in Scripture is intended especially for those who are in covenant relationship with God. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, reveals this (Matt. 5:1–2). Likewise, the love ethic, the cornerstone of the New Testament’s moral teaching, is placed squarely on the shoulders of believers (John 13:34–35; 1 Pet. 4:8; Heb. 13:1).

Second, biblical ethics is grace-motivated. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) is the consistent rhythm of the Bible. What God has done for us, supremely manifested in Christ, is the foundation for what we then do for God. God’s acceptance of us as his children results in ethical living; ethical living does not result in God’s acceptance of us. Throughout the Bible, upright living does not lie essentially in believers’ exertion of willpower but in the spiritual and moral transformation brought about in them by the gospel (1 Cor. 6:9–11; see Rom. 1:16–17) and the ongoing work of the Spirit in their lives (Rom. 5:5; 2 Cor. 5:14; Gal. 2:14; 3:3).

Third, biblical ethics is transformational. The ethical life described in the Bible is one that is energized by something more profound than mere behavior conformity. Rather, biblical ethics stems from the inner life, what the Bible calls the heart. It is an ethic generated by a law written on the heart (Jer. 31:31–33) and the animating impulses of the indwelling and sanctifying Spirit (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22–25). This is fundamentally an internal rather than external ethic (Matt. 5:27–28; 6:1; 15:18–20). It goes beyond mere conformity to a written code (Matt. 23:25–28; 2 Cor. 3:6).

Fourth, the ethics of the Bible is countercultural. It is “against the grain.” Whereas the surrounding culture conducts its life largely in ways that result from the fall, those who are in a covenant relationship with God are called upon to conduct their lives according to the new identity that flows from that gracious relationship (Ex. 19:5; 1 Pet. 2:9–12). This does not mean rejection of existing cultural values but radical assessment and, if necessary, replacement of those values in light of the kingdom into which believers have been drawn by God’s grace (Rom. 12:1–2). Jesus demonstrates this principle in his teaching on loving one’s enemies (Matt. 5:43–44), on materialism (Matt. 6:19–24), and on non-retaliation (Matt. 5:38–42). Paul also follows this countercultural principle in his teaching on sexual purity (1 Cor. 6:12–20; Col. 3:5–6), the equality of people before God (Gal. 3:28–29; Col. 3:11), and concern for others (Phil. 2:1–3).

Fifth, biblical ethics has an integrative character. Reaching into every corner of human living, the system of ethics taught in the Bible touches belief and conduct (Rom. 12:1ff.; Eph. 4:17–24), private behavior and public morality (James 1:27), personal piety and communal justice (Jer. 7:1–11; Mic. 6:6–8). This characteristic is due to the saving framework in which believers now live—they have been given a wholly new identity (Romans 6; 1 Pet. 2:9–10). Their ethical life therefore cannot be set off from other aspects of living.

Finally, there is a sixth element of biblical ethics: its eschatological character. Biblically, ethics is shaped and motivated by what God has done in Christ and what he promises to do in the future. The new age longed for in the Old Testament has dawned in Jesus, but it has not yet been brought to full completion. Biblical ethics, then, is really an interim ethics: it is for those who live between the times (Titus 2:11–14; 2 Pet. 3:13–14). Followers of Christ pursue holiness by looking back and by looking forward. We look back to what God has done, sending his Son, uniting us to Christ, and placing his Spirit within us. And we look forward to what God will do, as Christ returns a second time to execute justice and finally redeem his people from all sin and suffering.