“The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics.”
Oliver O’Donovan, “Resurrection and Moral Order.”
I suppose most of us would nod our heads in agreement. The content does seem obvious but demands further consideration as the implications may not be quite so clear.
You see it is more than possible to be an ethical Christian whose ethics do not rely on Christ. We often fall into the self-congratulatory trap of believing our faith endows us with a heightened sense of morality and therefore gives us the resolve to meet moral and ethical issues head on. Christians rightly look to Jesus as the paragon of ethics: Jesus was without doubt the empathetic and caring person who ever lived (for instance Matt. 14:14; Matt. 15:32; Matt. 20:34; Mark 1:41). Yet was that actually His ethic? Is being nice actually ethical?
He spent much time healing the sick and caring for those in need, but we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of His primary concern: to bring with Him the Kingdom of God and freedom from sin and death (John 17). He set His face towards the cross despite protestation (Mark 8:33) and endured the emotional turmoil of His impending crucifixion knowing (Luke 22:42) knowing that it would bring glory to many sons and renew this fallen earth (again John 17). It is telling that in the points of greatest anguish He reflects not on healing or miracles, but His Father's Kingdom and the salvation of man. His resurrection was the powerful demonstration of death’s defeat and that man and God were reconciled. But we forget that this is the basis of our ethics. It is all too easy to divorce the Gospel and the resurrection from our ethical approach and dare I say it our lives as a whole.
The resurrection should be our starting point: it is the place where God takes control of our lives once more and vindicates us beyond the last time we truly walked with Him in Genesis 1-2. It is the most powerful affirmation that God wants us to live with Him (1 Cor. 15:45), for there can be no greater sacrifice than to see your dearly Beloved Son nailed to a cross bearing the weight of sin (for more see here).
Remember though what God said about Eden and creation: it ‘was good’ (Gen. 1-2). This means to say it was perfectly ordered to such a degree that God could dwell with Adam and Eve. The entrance of sin at the Fall meant that the perfect order instituted by God had become disrupted and now that disorder threatened to unravel creation itself. The resurrection shows us that God has restored the order of creation by purging sin and that man has again taken the place for which he was created (1 Cor. 15:23). So faith-professing Christians find themselves wrapped up in Kingdom of God which is inaugurated but not yet completed – the ‘now-not yet’ tension of last days.
Why is this emphasis on order so important? We live in days of moral relativism – that there is no moral truth but only what you subscribe to and what your will compels you towards. This is the mechanism through which Christian morality and ethics can become contrasting and occasionally contradictory with its Gospel-basis – we appeal to our conscience and adhere to our precepts by our will. No mention of God. Christian moral obligation then becomes a function of a believer’s decision, that which we opt into. This is a slope back towards legalism, a concept for which Christ certainly did not die.
In the face of the resurrection and the order it brings, Christian ethics becomes concerned with man’s life in the face of this order (O'Donovan once more): “the way the universe is, determines how man ought to behave himself in it.” Given the vindication of creation through His Son, God’s morality is as important now as ever and given that there is an eschatological priority to His morality so it is for us. We are now free from the bondage of sin and given Jesus identifies Himself with man through His incarnation, life, baptism and death we are adopted into God’s family. So we share in God’s ultimate freedom as we were supposed to in Eden – to have dominion over creation and to act responsibly within it.
So this also includes moral decisions: we are to make moral decisions on the basis of living with God. God is a priori perfect and so the resurrection allows us through the Spirit to know the mind of God. With the resurrection of Christ came the resurrection of man but also the resurrection of creation – a renewal into a form which would be eternally pleasing to God hence why we should concern ourselves with our behaviour within it. It is in creation that the morality and ethics of God is acted out in physical form, a substrate in which the reinstituted order of God may be enacted. This is why the resurrection is so important to Christian ethics: it is the ethics of God’s eternal kingdom – to act in a Heavenly way, not to just be ‘nice’.
Framing ethics and morals in Kingdom terms becomes much more pleasing and holy; they become acts of sanctification! The mindshift the resurrection brings is not to counter culture but to think the ethics of Heaven and God. If it will not do in Heaven then it certainly will not do in this renewed world. This is only an introduction not the whole answer and nor is it an attack on 'nicety'. The point is that we should not think of what is nice or ethical in the eyes of the world. Opinions come and opinions go (Eccles. 1:8-11), but God lasts forever. Our thoughts and ethics are to be holy, how much more the greater task.