Biblical Ethics

By Ramon A. Madrigal

While the theme of the Bible focuses on the redemption of man from the curse of sin, part of that grand story deals with the actions, demands, character, and manner of life which God expects from men and women. This latter -discipline of study is known as “Biblical Ethics.” While the philosophical terminology is somewhat abstract, there are certain universal characteristics of the morality prescribed in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Let us notice these important attributes of Biblical Ethics.

Biblical Ethics Are Personal

The Bible conceives of virtue and duty as precisely what God tells man to do. “Be holy because 1, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Faith and loyalty is expressed in obedience to God’s explicit commands. The supreme good is to “walk in the light as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7). Such is the “whole” of man (Eccl. 12:13).

Yet while Divinity places certain demands on humanity, each individual has a choice; every man enjoys free will. People are at liberty to obey God and equally free to disobey Him. While Joshua challenges the Hebrews to “choose ye this day whom ye will serve . . . ” (Jos. 24:15), Jesus invites all the weary and heavy laden to receive the rest which only He can provide. In each Testament the specifics of morality are addressed to the individual. Jesus also warns us that “. . . no man (individual person) goes to the Father, but by me!” (Jn. 14:6). Yes, God does indeed command all men everywhere to repent and turn to Him.

Biblical Ethics Are External

In contrast with the humanistic and worldly ethic of “autonomy” (self-rule: everybody does his/her own thing), the morality of the Bible is decidedly theistic, that is, God-given and God-oriented. Jeremiah observed long ago that “the way of man (i.e. “ethics,” RAM) is not in himself, it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (10:23). Thus the moral code prescribed in the Bible comes from some source outside of man, not from his own imaginations. Biblical Ethics are, in this sense, external and objective. As Proverbs 3:5-7 assesses it:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

and lean not on your own understanding

In all your ways acknowledge Him,

and He will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes,

fear the Lord and shun evil

Modern, secular man allows the utility or convenience of the situation to determine his ethic of behavior. After all, if there is no God and man is, in fact, the “measure of all things” – why not eat, drink, and be merry? Today’s godless generation sings, “We’ve got tonight, Who needs tomorrow?” in an effort to justify fornication and riotous living. A Hollywood “angel” reveals the “art of being a woman is knowing when not to be too much of a lady”; while a familiar fashion designer displays how it is “good to have a body to fall back on” when your mind fails you. Yes, this is reminiscent of that “ancient” time in Israel when “every man did that which-is right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25). He who would follow Christ, however, must walk a straight and narrow path.

Biblical Ethics Are Internal

In every generation there have been those religionists who suppose that the mere appearances of piety is sufficient, that the ritualistic acts of worship are adequate in themselves. However, a critical reading of the Bible reveals something else altogether. Isaiah condemns Israel for offering “vain oblations” to the Lord (1: 13) while Jeremiah denounces Judah for her blind trust in the temple (7:4) and her empty sacrifices (see 7:21-26). The God of the Bible is interested in obedience, not sacrifice per se. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly lament the fact that Israel tried to substitute outward acts of piety for the necessary inward motives of love and reverence toward God (see also Amos 4:4-5, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6-8). The wise Solomon also noticed that “the sacrifice of the wicked is detestable; how much more when brought with evil intent?” (Prov. 21:27).

Jesus found the highly religious Pharisees guilty of hypocrisy and vain worship (Matt. 15: 1 -11). The ethic of Christ is climaxed in His “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5-7), where He focuses on the intentions, attitudes, and motives of the heart as being more important than the outward actions which result from such thoughts. Not only is murder wrong, but the angry emotion is equally condemning. Not only is it wrong to commit adultery, but the lustful intentions of the heart are just as evil. I believe it would be beneficial to make some applications in the area of worship and devotion to God:

Does it really do us any good to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs when our thoughts focus on carnal and worldly things? Are we truly longing for the spiritual milk of the Word when we daydream, clip nails, or even apply make-up during the sermon? Can we honestly “amen” a prayer that, for some thought or another, we haven’t heard? Are we genuinely discerning the Lord’s body while we contemplate the action of the Super Bowl or the cuisine of Sunday Dinner? Do we give cheerfully or grudgingly? The morality of the Bible centers on the heart. Holiness must be internal before the externals of religion become meaningful. Brother, is thy heart right with God?

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 6, p. 166
March 15, 1984