When Bob was probing the possibility of homicide, we found that he could ask (at least) three kinds of why questions. One “why?” can be answered with an explanation about whether it is in fact legal or moral. Another “why?” could be answered with an explanation of why it is immoral to murder. If, after having the morality explained, he asked another question, such as “Why should I care if it is bad or good?”, then the only recourse is an appeal to the enforcement mechanism (punishment or reward).

In the 2nd post, we looked at how Christians are often criticized for holding to a childish kind of morality, because we have a tendency to point directly to God as the ground for morality, and both we and our critics tend to understand God’s place in morality as the ultimate enforcement mechanism. But we noted at the end of the 2nd article, that God grounds morality in a way far deeper than an enforcement mechanism. In fact, if we think that God is primarily a punisher of sin and rewarder of righteousness, his desire to show mercy and the self-sacrificial act of Jesus on the cross seem a bit out of character. But God’s forgiveness, his reckoning of faith as righteousness, is a sign that God’s relation to morality is not primarily as some transcendent lawgiver and judge.

So, what is God’s relationship to morality? In what way does God ground ethics?

In some ways, the answer I’ll give (and I hope I’m right!) is too obvious to be of much interest. In other ways, we seem unable to grasp it. But here it is: God grounds morality because all things exist as a result of his character and thus are sustained insofar as they function in accordance with his character, and deteriorate/die/are corrupted insofar as they function in a manner opposed to his character.

Most of us talk about this, but then we immediately fall into a discussion of a law as the standard. But the law isn’t the standard. God is the standard. The law is guidance—or instruction, as “Torah” would be better translated—to understanding who God is. For the key to righteousness is not following a law, but loving what is good, or, rather, he who is good—God—and growing to be more like Christ—the perfect image of God.

To take one more simple step: Humans were created in the image of God. Which means that we are fundamentally beings that are meant to reflect, to present, to image God. That, in turn, means that to be what we really are, we must reflect the character of God. And, of course, the clearest manifestation of God’s character is found in Jesus Christ.

What is that character, by the way? Love. All the Torah and the prophets are summed up in the dual commands to love God and love neighbor.

So, what does this mean about Christian ethics?

First, the law is not central—at least not in the sense in which we normally think of law. Law serves as instruction toward the character of God. It is not the case that “all have sinned and fallen short of the law.” It is, rather, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We have not been imaging God. We’ve turned against his character, by turning away from God, and ultimately becoming destroyers of his creation—by destroying ourselves, our neighbors (Cain being the first to do so), and the world around us.

Second, and this is the point of this series, the instruction we’ve been given in Scripture, and most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, is tied to what we are.

This second point might seem kind of obvious, but the way Christians talk about and respond to ethics suggests that we’re not getting the point of it.

Let me offer a quick story to emphasize this point.

Some time ago, I was speaking to the senior class of a Christian private school. I was to talk about identity in Christ. In my usual thick-headed way, I began the discussion by asking the students what it meant to have their identity in Christ. They interpreted this phrase “identity in Christ” as being equivalent to “I am a Christian,” which seems to mean “I have made a profession of belief in Christianity.” But I pushed a little, because finding our identity in Christ must mean more than that some legal transaction has taken place in heaven’s books. Surely it means something like we see ourselves somehow united to the very person of Christ…that we cannot think of ourselves without thinking of Jesus, or something like this. Isn’t that what having some particular identity means?

What was interesting, though, is that it didn’t take long for these students—children of Christian parents who were paying good money to send their children to a school that would support their faith—to admit that they felt that being a Christian seemed to be against who they felt they were.

Consider that. Who are you? How does one define oneself? While some may reference some attribute that they have, it seems that who we are relates somehow to those things that we desire, that we love (from pizza to parents).

Now consider what these youth were bold enough to admit: They felt like God came into their lives primarily to stop them from doing things that they loved, or strongly desired. In fact, it was in those moments where they felt “most alive” or that they were about to do something in which they would become wholly transported into that act. Consider for example two unmarried teens who have been dating for years, they feel wholly in love with one another, and they have an opportunity to be alone one evening. It is in those moments that it seems Christianity comes in to say, “Stop! Hold back!” And, indeed, that seems to be the case almost all the time. Christianity, yes, is about faith and love—we are saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, not by our own works. Nevertheless, the morality of Christianity seems to be a morality of living almost exactly like the world—but you can’t do quite as much.[1]

So, is that what “identity in Christ” means: Being a little less than the world?

No, it is not.

Identity in Christ is at least like being part of a sports team. Would an Alabama football player think that he was just like the other college students (he enjoys good food and the various fun things that college students do), but does a little less (can’t eat all that junk food, has to avoid some fun things because he has to go to the gym or practice, etc.)? Of course not!

The life of the football player is only seen as less if we ignore the fact that he has a purpose, and that excellence in that purpose requires a different life from the rest of the world.

Christian morality is not about stopping people from doing things—though it of course calls for us to stop doing things. Christian morality is about calling us to something great—and this great thing to which we are called is hindered by all the vices that the world declares to be the stuff of happiness.

Now, I should launch into a long discussion of a Christian’s purpose—because even here the sense that Christianity is about becoming less infiltrates our understanding. What is the purpose of a Christian life? To reflect God’s glory, of course! And what does that mean? Don’t sin!

But “don’t sin” does not mean stop doing things—it means stop missing the mark![2] Which, simplified, means, “Hit the mark!” And, if I may interpret that, surely means something like, “Do that for which you were created!”[3]

Thus, sin is about not doing that for which we were created. Sin is about becoming less.

Christian morality is about becoming those kinds of people who, like the well-trained and well-built football player, can carry out our purpose with that excellence and focus that gives us a fulfillment that a piece of cake or a night of binging alcohol and illicit sex could never give us. Christian morality is about becoming what we are.

So, why shouldn’t Bob kill Sam? Because Bob would be undermining both Sam’s being and his own. He would be acting against his nature—even if it felt good to do it—and so would be undermining the possibility of that rich fulfillment for Sam, Sam’s loved ones, and, of course, for himself as well. And such a loss of purpose and fulfillment, if not turned away from in repentance, will haunt him as he becomes that wraithlike[4] shadow of what he could have been.

So, too, we can at least partly agree with Wittgenstein’s claim in the Tractatus with which we began this series:

There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but they must reside in the action itself (6.422).

Thanks be to God that, if only we repent and turn to him, he forgives us and draws us out of that slavery to sin and death!

[1] That is, we hold in the highest respect Christians who are model economic machines—they make good money, plan a good retirement, possess nice things. It’s just that they should go to church, give a portion to charity and tithe, and don’t do as much of the stuff that the world does (keep sex within marriage, don’t smoke or drink—at least not too much,  don’t use vulgar language—at least not too much, don’t watch too many rated-R movies, don’t get too ostentatious with your possessions, etc.).

[2] As most of you probably know, the Greek word for sin in the New Testament (transliterated as hamartia) means “to miss the mark,” as in an archer who misses the target.

[3] What, though, does it mean that our purpose for being created is to reflect the glory of God? Surely, it means that we image God in the same way as Jesus. So, too, it means that we are meant to rule over the earth under God, overseeing and directing creation in a way that reflects God’s creative activity (see Gen 1 and 2). So, too, we are meant for the redemption of creation (see Rom 8), indeed we are even participating in Jesus’ act of redemption (Col 1:24). That we are called to great glory and power is almost an understatement (see the exalted language of Eph 1:18-23—pay close attention to what Paul writes in v. 23!).

[4] As I learned while reading The Lord of the Rings, “wraith” has the same etymology as “wreath”—they both refer to something that is twisted. Thus, the image of the Ringwraiths is that of humans bent and twisted by a love that is itself bent and twisted.

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

Author Wm. Travis Coblentz

Travis Coblentz is the Executive Director and philosopher for Tactical Faith. Dr. Coblentz sits on the board and is a great asset in the Birmingham, AL area. He is also an Adjunct professor of philosophy at UAB.

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