Please Don’t Say or Think This: “Let’s Take Back America”

While watching a political documentary I shall not name, one Christian said that if enough evangelicals would register and vote, we could “take back the nation.” I started expostulating so loudly to my wife that my dog Sunny went over to her and climbed into her lap. He was even shaking. 

Now, I wasn’t angry at my wife or at my dog. I was angry with the rank idiocy of this statement. Here’s why:

First, evangelicals are not in agreement on the significance of issues or on who best represents their views. For example, black, Hispanic, and white evangelicals tend to vote differently. 

Second, this is America, not a theocracy. If you are a Christian and a citizen of the United States, you have the religious liberty (for now) to organize, contribute, and vote your conscience under God and before man. But so do other religious believers and those of no religious beliefs. So, we don’t “take back” the country from anyone. We never had it to begin with, despite the Christian influence on the country. If we mean that we want Judeo-Christian values to have more influence, then good. But skip the “take back” language, please. 

Third, the language of “taking back America” may concern non-Christians who think that Christians who get their way politically will put others in jeopardy in one way or another. But if we support the Constitution and the rule of law, that will not happen.

Fourth, there is a lot more to reforming and renewing America than winning political battles. In many races, both major candidates are debauched and it turns out (again) to be the lesser of two evils, which is also the evil of two lessers. Further, even good laws only go so far to improve society. Much must be done in the pre-political or non-political realms. As a Washington insider once told me, “There are a lot of dead bodies floating downstream by the time they get to Washington, DC.” He meant elected officials!

There is nothing wrong with educating and mobilizing Christians in politics. There is plenty wrong with “taking back America.”

Tom Gilson, Too Good to be False?

I asked Tom Gilson, author and editor at The Stream, to answer several questions about his intriguing book, Too Good to be False (DeWard Publishing, 2020) which takes a unique approach to the character and teachings of Jesus. I have found the book to be insightful and apologetically helpful. It has been endorsed by Lee Strobel and J. P. Moreland.

Click here can purchase Tom Gilson’s Too Good to Be False?

1. What is the central thesis of Too Good to be False?

It’s a two-part thesis with a coda. The first part stands alone, and occupies about the first half of the book: Jesus is greater than you knew. I’m hearing from many Christian readers, from everyday bloggers to seminary professors, that this portion of the book has genuinely surprised them with new insights into Jesus’ extraordinary character.

The second part builds on the first: Jesus’ character as portrayed in the accounts, is too unique, too consistent, too unexpected, and too good to have been produced the way skeptics think the story was developed, through legendary processes.

It’s not only that he’s “too good to be false,” though that’s part of it. The skeptics theorize legendary processes as the source of the Jesus story, but I say these processes are inherently story-scramblers, and Jesus’ character is manifestly not scrambled. He is very recognizably the same Jesus from beginning to end, in all four accounts, maintaining a stunning, detailed level consistency in a long list of traits.

The coda? He’s worth following no matter what. That’s part three of the book. I think we’re heading toward a stage in history where Western Christians will have to face the “no matter what” question like never before. But he is extraordinarily good no matter what, his truth is certain no matter what, and we must keep following him no matter what.

2. What most surprised you in your research?

Many things. I took an approach to Jesus that may never have been published before. (If it has, I’d be very happy to hear about it.) Instead of focusing on what Jesus did and said, I looked for what he didn’t do and didn’t say. 

For example, I was astonished to find out there is no reference anywhere in the Bible to Jesus having faith. Silence on a given topic isn’t always significant, but this one is, in my studied opinion. He taught faith even more often than he taught love. His love is mentioned often, but his faith? Never. There has to be an explanation for it. The best I’ve found has been in connection with Jesus’ deity. I won’t go into details on that here, though. 

Even more stunning was the discover Jesus never used his extraordinary power for his own benefit. Satan was right about one thing: Jesus could have turned the stones into bread. The mockers at the cross were right: He could have come down from there. If power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then by that rule Jesus should have been a tyrant. Instead he was the model of love. I try to imagine being that good, having even an infinitesimal fraction of his power, and I crumble, knowing I could never be that perfectly other-centered. It brings me to my knees in absolute worship.

3. Why do you think some aspects of your argument have not been used in recent decades in apologetics?

I wish I knew. It’s a complete mystery to me. What I do know is that the argument is stronger now than it was when Paley or Schaff used it, because skeptics have hardened into a position that’s more vulnerable to it.

I don’t know exactly what led me to it, though I wonder if it has something to do with not being a specialist in New Testament studies, which may have allowed my mind to wander more freely into new territory. 

For example, I used to do organizational assessment work for a major mission organization. Seeing what’s there in a team’s operations is easy, my partner and I quickly learned. The hard part — the skill we kept working to develop — is seeing what’s not there. It’s possible that might have helped me along in this study. 

4. How does your argument challenge the skeptical view that Jesus never existed?

I take the story seriously as a story. Every story has a backstory, a place, person or group that produces the story within its culture, and related in some way to that culture’s norms, expectations, restrictions, and so on. But the backstory has to fit; that is, if you view the story as the effect and the backstory as the cause, the backstory has to be the kind of cause that could produce that story as an effect. And I don’t think the skeptics’ legend theory is the right kind of cause to produce a story with a main character as unique, consistent, unexpected, and good as Jesus. 

Take away that skeptical backstory, and for now at least it leaves one live option: The Gospel accounts are true. Maybe skeptics will offer a new and better-fitting skeptical backstory. It’s hard to imagine what that would be, though. 

5. What has been the response to your book so far?

I keep hearing words like “surprising,” “refreshing,” “fascinating,” “compelling,” and even (from Gary Habermas) “a fun read.” Many are saying it’s helped them fall in love with Jesus all over again. One reader said she’d been sliding into spiritual apathy, but this view of Jesus, “totally shook me up.” It’s been so gratifying to hear of readers seeing Jesus in a new light through it. I’ll tell you, the same thing happened to me as I was studying for it. 

Meanwhile those who are more familiar with apologetics have expressed similar surprise at the originality of the argument. It’s new to our generation, at least. 

6. Have skeptics responded to it?

Some think they have, but they’re only responding to interviews I’ve done, though. So far I haven’t heard from any who have taken the trouble to read the book. 

From those who’ve tried to respond, the most common response has been, “Jesus isn’t actually that good. Just look how Christians have practiced slavery in his name!” But Jesus completely knocked the legs out from under slavery through his strong version of the Golden Rule, by teaching love for neighbor, and by condemning greed, pride, and self-centeredness. He demonstrated love for all, at every level of society. Christians (self-styled or otherwise) have failed horribly at living up to his example, but the book is about Christ, not about Christians.

Besides that, a couple of YouTubers have mounted massive takedowns of arguments I don’t make. Sometimes I wonder what’s so entertaining about that. You’d think it would be more interesting to engage with what people actually say instead.

Just today I heard one going on and on about a comment I’d made in an interview about Jesus being perfect from beginning to end in the accounts. “That’s bad literature!” he repeated in a half-dozen different ways. “Perfect characters are the worst characters. They’re boring!” 

It was sad and hilarious, both at the same time. He doesn’t know I made precisely the same point in my book! Except I also noted what this skeptic, too, should have seen: Billions of people in thousands of cultures across thousands of years would tell you Jesus is the single most compelling character they’ve ever encountered, in life or in literature. So if the rule is that perfect characters are boring characters, then Jesus breaks that rule into a billion tiny shreds. 

And that makes his character incredibly extraordinary on that one count alone. Still the skeptics think his kind of story is so easy to write, any old legendary process could have come up with a man like him. Funny thing: It’s never happened anywhere else. Not even close. Not in legend, not even flowing from the pens of the greatest poets, playwrights, or novelists, from Homer to Sophocles, from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to Dickens and beyond. Jesus, I say, is just too good to be false.

Your Jesus, My Jesus?

Shock, anger, sadness, and fear came over me as I watched a clip of a group of protesters curse “your Jesus” in unison with the F-word. Has it come to this? And what is this? Who is Jesus?

Jesus of Nazareth does not belong to anyone, so there is no “my Jesus” or “your Jesus,” there is only the genuine Jesus—the Lord of history and eternity, the man who walked the earth in ancient Palestine, who died on a cross and who rose from the dead. Whoever we are, we must not take God’s name in vain or paint the one true Messiah in false colors that represent us more than him.

Jesus was not a man of means and social standing, for he stood outside the religious establishment. He was a traveling teacher, preacher, prophet, and healer, and he had nowhere to lay his head. He was accused of being possessed by demons—this one who cast out demons as no other ever did or will do. He knew what was in the heart of people, and he had no need for their acclaim to fulfill this mission, which was “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Jesus was no nationalist. He warned that his own nation, his own beloved people, would be judged once again for their refusal to recognize their day of visitation, their rejection of the Messiah. He claimed to have authority over every nation, calling them repent and have faith in him (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus was no racist. His ministry focused on his Jewish people, but encompassed others; and he commissioned his followers to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He spoke with and revealed his identity to a Samaritan women, a racial and social outcast to most Jews (John 4). Jesus is the man for others, all others. 

Jesus was no violent revolutionary (a zealot), otherwise his followers would have taken up the sword and stumped for political power over Rome. He said to render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:18-23). The state is not God, and neither are his followers anarchists who want to burn it all down. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

The way of Jesus is the the way of Cross—self-sacrifice, daring hope, and bold love. It does not burn down; it builds up. It does not hate, but makes the necessary sacrifices of love. It is not content with injustice; it works for justice, but justice with knowledge and wisdom. It eschews the irrational reflexes of unreflective rage for fits of rage are the work of the sinful fallen nature. (Galatians 5:20). 

There is no “your Jesus” or “my Jesus.” We must content with the real Jesus—now and at the gateway to Eternity. We can get Jesus wrong, and he warned of those who claimed to follow him who would be exposed as frauds at the Last Day. Listen to Jesus.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 7:21-23

We can only speak of “my Jesus” when we have made him Lord of our lives, when we have accepted his death on our behalf to forgive our sins and give us a new start on justice, wisdom, and love. Is “my Jesus” the real Jesus? Is “your Jesus” the real Jesus?

13 Principles for Addressing the Present Social Unrest

1. Pray for wisdom, safety, courage, and virtue–as a way of life.

2. Study the issues, such as a biblical view of justice, race, the state, and rights. For starters, read Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto. Then, Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty.

3. Don’t speak about what you don’t know. Be different.

4. Don’t follow a multitude in doing evil–or being stupid.

5. Do not destroy anyone else’s property or threaten their person for your cause. 

“Civil war is the worst of all kinds of war”–Blaise Pascal. 

The end does not justify the means.

6. Don’t put your final hope in politics.

7. Don’t deny the importance of politics.

8. Politics is downstream from culture.

9. Work on strengthening the good, the true, and the beautiful in culture–in the home, in the school, in voluntary organizations.

10. Build up the church.

11. Never sacrifice personal virtue for the sake of supposedly common good.

12. Choose 1776 (American Revolution) over 1787 (French Revolution).

13. Chose Martin (Luther King, Jr.) over Malcolm (X). 

14. Don’t swallow non-Christian ideologies whole. Study the roots of ideas. For starters, see Francis Schaeffer, How Shall We Then Live (history of ideas). Then, James Sire, The Universe Next Door(worldviews).

Joni Mitchell

Kathleen and I have been watching specials about and interviews with Joni Mitchell. I have been listening to her music, especially from her jazz period: “Shadows and Light” and “Mingus.” On the former, her band is Pat Metheny, guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Lyle Mays on keys, Don Alias on drums and percussion, and Michael Brecker on tenor sax. Let that sink in your consciousness. Better: let the music itself sink in. She has also recorded with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

One inept interviewer pivoted any time Joni said something philosophical, which was often. He was more concerned with her relationship to fame (which she hates) and her creative process. She is a painter and a poet and a songstress. As an artist, she had the courage to never rest on her laurels, which are considerable. Like John Coltrane, she restlessly seeks more.

As far as I can tell, she has a Buddhist worldview mixed with astrology and with an appreciation for Nietzsche, who she quotes from memory.. She said, “I’m doomed by astrology to be a deep thinker.” What a sad viewpoint. Astrology dooms no one, since God is the “lord of the star fields, Ancient of Days” (Bruce Cockburn). She is seething with words and images and music. Who knows, but I imagine her words-to-length-of-songs ratio is very high (at least in one period of her career) when compared to other singers. She says a lot about many matters, and always poetically.

Oh, Joni Mitchell! Your songs are our companions. Your voice is unparalleled. Your sorrows run deep. She said her basic message was “You’re on your own. And that’s OK.” But we aren’t, and thinking otherwise is not OK. One of her songs has the lyric, “We’re gonna raise up Jesus from the dead.” What an odd idea. Too late! He has been raised and he will come again, bringing his own with him in great glory, a glory that makes the majesty of Joni Mitchell’s voice seem as almost nothing.

I wish I had an hour–at least–to listen to and talk with Joni Mitchell–and not because she is famous or talented or beautiful. Of all her words, some have spoken of God or the church. In the 1980’s she was angry about “snake bite evangelists.” So was I. Of all her words, I cannot think of any that recognized, let alone worshiped, the God who gave her the gift of being “a deep thinker” and the gift of being a singer extraordinaire. But I don’t know here entire oeuvre—so many words, moods, textures, voices.

Perhaps, I really don’t know Joni Mitchell at all.

Spiritual Warfare and the Christian

No matter how dark the times, we should remember and celebrate that Jesus has indeed defeated Satan and the demonic hordes John declares that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn 3:8) Christ triumphed over sin, death and the devil by his crucifixion and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14; Colossians 2:14–15). It is in his power that Christians wage their spiritual war as loyal soldiers of the risen King. Any other allegiance is to no avail. Our real enemy is invisible, but real.

Paul should inspire us in this. When opposed by false teachers seducing the Corinthian church, Paul wrote:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every prevention that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3–5; emphasis added; see also Colossians 2:8-10).

Paul takes on false teaching, not in his own strength, but by wielding God’s weaponry. He is on the offensive. Confrontation with dark forces requires the same empowerment.

Because of Christ’s victory over Satan, James can say to Christians, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:7–8). As we submit to Christ’s lordship we are given authority to scuttle Satan. Christians are no longer under “the dominion of darkness” (Colossians 1:13). God alone has ultimate cosmic authority, and he teaches citizens of his kingdom to pray that his “kingdom [may] come . . on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). After his resurrection, Jesus charged the disciples to “make disciples of all nations” because he had “all authority in heaven and on earth” to make it happen (Matthew 28:18–20). He still does.

Jesus is Victor, but the victory is being progressively executed through his people. The outcome is sure, but the battle rages on. The German theologian Oscar Cullman likened Jesus’ crucifixion-resurrection victory to D-Day, the turning point of World War II when the victory of the Allied forces was assured. Yet from this decisive point until the actual end of the war in Europe (called V-E Day) the combat continued. The soldiers still fought, but with a renewed vision for victory. Such is the Christian’s position: all will be completed at Judgment Day, and so we should fight the good fight of faith today.

Paul gives us the essentials for Christian combat in Ephesians 6. He reiterates that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (v. 12). Therefore, he urges us to “stand [our] ground” by putting on “the full armor of God,” which includes (1) “the belt of truth”—a deep knowledge of God’s character and will as applied to our lives; (2) “the breastplate of righteousness”—a godly character; (3) “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace”—a willingness to proclaim the gospel; (4) “the shield of faith”—the protection of complete trust in the Commander-in-Chief that “extinguish[es] all the flaming arrows of the evil one”; (5) “the helmet of salvation”—the assurance of a right relationship with God through faith in Christ; (6) “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”—the offensive weapon of scriptural truth applied to all situations (See Hebrews 4:12). Paul also adds that we should “pray in the Spirit” that our spiritual suit of armor might not slip off due to lack of closeness to God.

Psalm 91 also offers rich assurance of the protection of the believer in the “shelter of the Most High” and in the “shadow of the Almighty” (v. 1). The psalmist later declares the believer’s power over evil: “You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent” (v 13; see also Romans 16:20).

The armor clad Christian is ready for encounters with the enemy, and there will be encounters any time the gospel is brought to bear on a Satanic stronghold such as the New Age movement Many involved in the New Age may not believe in Satan or may not consciously contact spirit guides or may have no overtly ill intentions, but inasmuch as they reject the gospel of Christ for a counterfeit gospel they are of their “father the devil” (John 8:44).

Acts 13:6–12 gives us an example of a confrontation between opposing spiritual powers, which might be called a “power encounter.” We see Paul confront an occult deceiver, “a sorcerer and false prophet” known as Bar-Jesus or Elymas We should remember that at that time the gospel was spreading like wildfire over the known world, as Jesus’ resurrected power was being unleashed in preaching, healing, signs and wonders. The kingdom of darkness was being displaced by the kingdom of God. Conflict necessarily ensued. Paul and Barnabas had come to Cyprus to preach the gospel. At Paphos they met a sorcerer who was “an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus” (v. 6). It was then common for political leaders to enlist occult assistance; and this was part of the demonic design that Jesus came to destroy. The proconsul sent for Paul and Barnabas because he was interested in the Word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer “opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith” (v 8). Perhaps he figured that if his superior were converted he would be out of a job Paul, filled with the Spirit, sprang into spiritual action. Staring down the official “secretary of sorcery,” he condemned him as a “child of the devil” hell-bent on “perverting the right ways of the Lord” (v. 10). Paul then pronounced that he would be shut up by being blinded for a time. He was. At this, the proconsul “believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (v. 12).

This power encounter manifests several critical points. First, the gospel was opposed by the sorcerer; spiritual warfare erupted. Second, Paul rose to the occasion, not by an outburst of human anger, but as he was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Then, and only then, did he have the authority to bind the evil attacker. Third, both the message and the miracle convinced Sergius Paulus, and he was converted. God’s power through God’s minister overcame the power of the enemy.

As Christians do battle with dark spiritual influences throughout Western culture they dare not forget that they are dealing with power encounters, not just interacting with ideas, individuals and events. We triumph “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4.6)

Adapted from Confronting the New Age: How to Resist a Growing Religious Movement (pp. 39-43). InterVarsity Press, 1988. Kindle Edition.

Race, Thought, and Action

What would happen if we stopped taking about “racism”–trading insults back and forth–and took up matters of the just and loving treatment of human beings, according to their different backgrounds, ethnicity, and abilities? Is there a perspective that unfairly assesses and treats people? Of course. Can social systems partake of this, consciously or even unconsciously, Yes.

But instead of hurling invective, how about thinking hard about our common life as citizens, whether we are poor, rich, politics, community organizers, teachers, politicians, “red and yellow, black and white (and brown)”? Instead of throwing stones and toppling statues (some need to be peaceably removed), pick up some books and build your knowledge unto justice and compassion. And if you don’t know what to think, don’t open your mouth. Ponder, then speak when ready, Then act when the time is right.

Here are some things I am doing.

  1. Talking to African American friends about what they think of what is going on and asking them if they have been discriminated against because of their race. I should also talk to Latinos and Latinas, etc.
  2. Reading on the subject, such as Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Dispossessed and “Deep River: The Negro Spiritual Speaks to Life and Death. (I am quoting the later in the 2nd. edition of Christian Apologetics).
  3. Changing my syllabus for Apologetics and Ethics to include a book called Urban Apologetics, written by a black evangelical named Christopher Brooks.
  4. Praying for justice, peace, and love to prevail.

 

Law, Love, and Justice

A politician recently said that racism will only be solved through conversion Christ. Since the problem starts within, in the heart, the heart needs to be radically changed through the supernatural regenerating power of Jesus Christ. He is both right and wrong in saying this, and the difference between what is right and what is wrong is no small matter when the world is blowing up around us.

Sin starts within and works itself out in myriad ways. As James wrote:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:1-4).

Fights, quarrels, murder and more are rooted in inner discontent and strife. Coveting disorders the soul and does not allow it to rest in God. The best way to change behavior is to change the man or the woman from the inside out, one by one. We need peace with God through Christ to demonstrate peace with others. As Paul wrote:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand (Romans 5:1-2).

If we have been reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, we can live in God’s grace, knowing his love for us. We than, therefore, live conscientiously before the face of God without self-deception. Being “born again” through faith in Christ gives us a new position before God. It also changes our motivations and desires. Thus, the ultimate answer to racial injustice and all strife is the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to change our attitudes and feelings about others, such that we truly love our neighbor as ourselves. James also speaks against favoritism concerning wealth. But the principle applies to race as well.

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4).

 

Free Speech and Rightful Protest

America has more opportunities and avenues for free speech and political action than anywhere else in the world, despite all our problems and injustice. Let us, therefore, use these freedoms and not resort to violence. And let our civil government protect these freedoms, enshrined in the First Amendment.

If you think destroying other people’s property and threatening their livelihoods is right, then you are bewitched by a debauched utilitarian ethics: The end justified the means. You are not respecting the dignity of individuals (made in God’s image) or their property. If you want to be respected, then show respect. It is the Golden Rule of Jesus, the greatest nonviolent and constructive revolutionary of all time. If you worship him, love your neighbor, even your enemy.

You have a voice, so don’t use a fist.
Speak, even yell, but don’t hit or throw.
Make a sign and show it. Don’t make a bomb and throw it.
You have a vote, so don’t use a torch.
You can protest, but do not destroy.
Be angry, but in your anger, do not sin.
Govern yourself as you seek to reform our civil government.

Street brutality is no answer to police brutality, which is real and must be addressed.

Pray and work. Work and pray. Pray while you work. Work while you pray.

May God bring justice and peace.

 

Moral Theory for Church Leaders

            As pastors and teachers in the church seek to exposit and apply the Bible to their congregations, they need to handle wisely the moral matters discussed in the Scriptures. We need wise positions on hot-button topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but we also need a sound theoretical understanding of morality rooted in the Bible. As Paul told Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15; see also Titus 3:5-6).

Some parts of the Bible are more directly related to ethics than others. Questions of conduct cannot be avoided when teaching on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18; Deuteronomy 5:1-21), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), or the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). All of Scripture is profitable for guidance on how to live well before the face of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, all of Scripture, in one way or another, concerns the moral life—our obligation to do good and to avoid evil, our need to learn to become a virtuous person, and our doing of good works.

            It may not be obvious, however, that moral theory can help ground and organize the church’s teaching on ethics.1 Teaching ethics at Denver Seminary—and elsewhere—for nearly thirty years has convinced me of this. So, let me explain and illustrate a few basic elements of moral theory in the hope that preachers and teachers will appropriate them for solid and clear teaching for God’s people.

            In the first paragraph, I said that Scripture concerns “our obligation to do good and to avoid evil.” That phrase captures the deontological aspect of ethics. Deontology concerns moral duties or responsibilities. In the biblical context, duties are based on God’s commands. Our actions should conform to his directives. The Ten Commandments are the moral backbone of biblical ethics.2 Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative: You shall not have another God, take God’s name in vain, worship an image of God, commit adultery, murder, bear false witness, steal, or covet.”3 Positively, you shall keep the Sabbath and honor your parents (Exodus 20:1-18). These commands all address actions to be done or avoided. When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus is not replacing the Ten Commandments, but rather getting to the heart of them. Loving God and neighbor needs the structure of God’s specific commands, lest “love” be reduced to untutored and unhinged sentiment (as it is so often today). For example, it is never loving to commit adultery, to dishonor one’s parents, or to murder. And Paul writes that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). It cannot be loving to delight in what breaks God’s commands.

The demands and commands of God’s law for our behavior always call us up short and point us to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness and new life. In fact, we are commanded to repent and come to Christ. As Paul preached, “God…now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; see also John 6:29).

Since the Bible is so insistent on obeying the commands of God, some Christians have neglected two other elements of ethical theory that are revealed in Scripture. The first is virtue.

Virtue theory dates to the ancient Greeks, principally to Plato and Aristotle. For them, someone cultivates particular character traits by finding a moral model and following his lead in the context of a virtue-forming community. The cardinal virtues of this tradition are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Christian thinkers added the virtues of faith, hope, and love to this list (taken from 1 Corinthians 13). While Christians should obey God’s commands in their actions, we are also called to be a particular kind of people on the inside. Our characters should be so shaped by the Holy Spirit that we obey God gladly and habitually and learn to respond affectively to situations in a God-honoring way. We may know well that we should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbor (deontology), but learning to be content—through prayer and mental discipline—is a matter of virtue. Thus, the virtues assist us to want to obey God’s law and to do so in the right way, with a heart of love and service.

The second element of moral theory besides deontology is consequences or the consequential aspect of morality. Some moral theories, such as utilitarianism, make the achievement of good consequences the entirety of ethics. Utilitarianism teaches that we must bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Now the question becomes, “What is the good to be brought about for the masses?” Utilitarians may answer this differently, but the standard model claims that the good is pleasure. God is not against pleasure, since he invented it as good in the beginning, but what fallen humans take pleasure in may not be truly good—for themselves or for anyone else. Think of the pleasure some derive from pornography or the pleasure derived from being a ruthless and heartless businessperson, who will do most anything to make more and more money. 

Christians can agree what we should do as much good to as many people as possible, but we should not attempt this apart from moral duties (deontology) and moral virtues. James tells us that our saving faith is verified by our good works (James 2:14-26; see also Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus tells us to serve “the least of these” who are his “brethren” (Matthew 25:31-46). God told the Jewish exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they were banished, because when it prospered, they would prosper, too (Jeremiah 29:7). Only as we our definition of good goes beyond mere pleasure can we bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. We cannot violate the law of love to bring about more pleasure for more people. Moreover, our moral goal is not pleasure per se, but the service of God and neighbor through lawful and virtuous obedience to God. One abolitionist, John Brown, said that American slavery had to be abolished even if all Ten Commandments had to be broken to accomplish it! Of course, no thinking Christian would every believe that. 

Christians can sometimes seek results at the expense of principles and godly character. I was in an evangelistic meeting where the teacher asked for eyes to be closed while he asked people to put up their hands if they wanted to become Christians. I kept my eyes open. Just after he asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to accept Jesus as Lord, he said, “I see hands going up everywhere.” They weren’t. I looked. After he lied, other hands went up. Only God knows how many people were born again that evening, but deception is never the proper method for evangelism or disciple making. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young childrenamong you (1 Thessalonians 2:3-7). 

Much more can be said about moral theory in relation to the Bible, but I hope I have shown that the categories of deontology, virtue, and consequences are pertinent to moral decision making and moral action for the Christian. Teachers and preachers in the church can help clarify the moral vision of the Bible by explaining these terms and showing how the Bible’s teachings about ethics can be understood in these terms.  


1 For an in-depth treatment, see Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), chapters 1-3.

2 To defend this claim, see the exposition of the Ten Commandments in The Westminster Longer Catechism.

3 On the significance of this negativity, see Rousas John Rushdoony, “The Negativism of the Law,” in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973).