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How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part One

The Bible is a primarily a book of stories that illustrate principles. The story of Abraham teaches the principle of trust in God; the story of David loyalty to God despite one's flaws; the story of Paul courage and commitment; the story of Jesus the love of God and the power of self-sacrifice. Jesus himself told fictional stories in the form of parables to drive home the points he wanted to make. Stories have multiple levels of meanings and teach many lessons. Each of us as individual Christians attempts to relate the stories of biblical characters as well as the stories of godly parents and fellow Christians to our own life story. We try to give the stories renewed life in our own lives.

In addition to stories, the Bible also teaches morality by listing virtues and vices or by giving commands and exhortations. Because the vices seem to outnumber the virtues, critics have characterized biblical ethics as a negative doctrine composed of endless "Thou shalt nots." Careful readers recognize this criticism to be unfair since the Bible clearly promotes active good as opposed to the passive avoidance of evil. But lists and exhortations do lack the human interest of stories. Stories show how principles of courage and devotion actually come alive. Lists of virtues test our will, insight, and judgment by challenging us to remember them and to apply them as specific cases arise.

How does one take a list of virtues and apply it to the dilemmas of daily life? How does one answer the basic question "What am I to do"? Here are some tests Christians may use to make ethical decisions.

ONE -- The Scriptural Test: Does the Bible endorse or approve what I am about to do?

Biblical teaching does not cover every form of questionable human activity, but it does treat some broad categories. For example, gambling and abortion do not appear in scripture, but greed, murder, and selfishness do. The Bible does not expressly condemn slavery or racial segregation, but it does teach us to love other Christians as friends (John 15:12-17) and to seek the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:24).

One weakness of the scriptural test is that it is open to abuse by legalism. Some may distort the spirit of God's word by emphasizing the letter alone. Those who seek to justify themselves will say that unless the Bible specifically condemns something by name, it is all right to engage in that activity. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for using legal technicalities and human rationalization to subvert the spirit of the Mosaic law (Mark 7:9-13).

TWO --The Personal Test: If I do this, will it make me a stronger or a weaker Christian?

Paul writes in Colossians 3:9-10, "Do not lie to one other, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."

If something we contemplate doing is not in keeping with our new, born- again self, we should not do it. Each of us has a Christian conscience that warns us when what we are doing is inconsistent with our duty to glorify God.

Sometimes this personal test may make us overly punctilious, as was the case of those whose conscience would not let them eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Romans 14:1-18; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). On the other hand, we may manipulate our conscience by rationalizations in such a way as to silence its voice. No one can apply the personal test effectively without some degree of lucidity and good judgment.

THREE - The Fellowship Test: If I do this, will it bring reproach on the body of Christ?

Christians ethics are not solely a personal matter. As members of a body, the church, we must always consider how our individual actions will affect the body as a whole.

Some of the Corinthians were evidently engaged in lawsuits against each other. Paul is shocked that they would air their dirty linen in front of unbelievers (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), thereby bringing reproach upon the church from outsiders.

At times, ministers have shamed the churches they serve by building up unpaid debts in the community. In other cases, members have been arrested for drunk driving or taken to court for engaging in deceptive sales schemes. Elders have been known to embezzle church funds to finance their own businesses. All such practices bring shame upon the family of God.


1.Each of us needs practical wisdom to make right choices. A young man once asked an old man why he was so wise, "Because," said Uncle Zeke, "I've got good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience--well, that comes from poor judgment!" Can you think of ethical lessons you have learned from mistakes of judgment you have made in the past? Tell your story.

2.What Bible story has helped you to make a specific ethical choice in your own life? What Bible story means the most to you in terms of its practical moral applications?

3.Do you know of any cases where people have used scripture to justify immoral behavior? For example, someone may quote "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" to justify taking brutal revenge.

4.Suppose you are facing the choice of either defaulting on a debt or subjecting your family to many years of personal and financial sacrifice in order to repay it. Which of the three tests discussed would best help you make your decision?

5.Suppose your daughter has become pregnant out of wedlock and tests indicate the child will be born with a serious birth defect. Would any of these three tests help you decide whether or not to seek an abortion?

6.Do the leaders of the church have the right to tell you how you should behave? For example, if a Christian widow decides to remarry a man who is not a Christian, should the elders tell her she is making an unethical decision (based on 1 Corinthians 7:39) that is not in the interests of the body? What if it is a Christian widower who decides to propose to a non-Christian?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 6, 2007 3:31 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Are Some Virtues More Important ?.

The next post in this blog is How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Two.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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