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Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part One

Fear and reason provide the chief motivations for not doing wrong. You hesitate to cheat on your income taxes because you might be audited and fined. You avoid sleeping around because you could contract a venereal disease or AIDS. You don't steal because prisons are not ideal places to spend one's life. The young girl who exclaims, "If my boyfriend got me pregnant, my mother would just die!" is appealing to her fears as a rationale for avoiding teen pregnancy.

Reason gives another, more sophisticated, justification for avoiding bad behavior. Self-actualization and personal fulfillment require me to lead a good life. I can ensure a higher quality of life both now and in my old age through temperance (refusing to smoke or take drugs), moderation (eating less fat and sugar), and self-discipline (exercising regularly or losing weight). I can promote democracy and the American way by exercising the virtues of citizenship, tolerance, responsibility, and fairness. I can win the confidence of customers and succeed in business through honesty, generosity, trustworthiness, self-reliance, and perseverance. I can avoid guilt, loss of self-esteem, and interpersonal conflict by abstaining from premarital sex. The many good reasons to do right will outweigh any motivations I may have to do wrong.

With fear and reason at our side, do we need Christ in order to lead ethical lives? Do we actually need the revelation of God in scripture, since most of what we learn in scripture about ethics serves merely as a confirmation of the lessons fear and reason have already taught us? Reason instructs us to respect life and property ("You shall not murder or steal"). Fear reminds us that those who steal and murder may themselves be robbed or killed. To what extent are Christian ethics distinctive? Where is the need for Christ in ethical decisions?

One crucial problem with fear and reason is that they don't work. Despite the menaces of the penal code and appeals to logic, people still persist in committing crimes and immoral acts. Fear and reason do not seem to have much control over the human impulse to do evil. Furthermore, neither fear nor reason can motivate anyone to engage in selfless virtues like laying down one's life for a friend or spending one's life caring for an invalid. It is something beyond the power of fear or the plausibility of reason that has the potential to make people truly good.

Paul argues in Romans that law, while well-intentioned and good, cannot save us because, ironically, law only serves to increase sin as its regulations provide a convenient foil for the perverse human will (Romans 5:20-21; 7:7-25). Telling a little boy not to step in a puddle seemingly makes him only more intent on doing so. Adults behave similarly. Salvation comes only through the grace of God that enlightens and transforms our perverse will to sin. By the same token, true virtue is a by-product of the salvation that gives us a new life, a new spirit, and a new will (Romans 6:1-7).

Paul contrasts the letter (that is, law with its carrot of reason and stick of fear) and the Spirit. The letter brings death while the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). It is no wonder, then, that the cardinal Christian virtues are represented as the fruit of the Spirit and that living virtuously is called living by the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25).

Paul does not tell Titus to justify his moral teaching through appeals to reason or by threats of damnation in hell. Instead, he tell him to remind Christians that they have been saved by grace. He justifies ethics and morality by pointing Christians to the sacrificial death of Jesus in the past, to renewal through the Holy Spirit in the present, and to the hope of eternal life with God in the future (Titus 2:1-15; 3:1-8).


1.Suppose you are in the check-out line at the store and the clerk forgets to charge you for an item. Would you call it to her attention? Why or why not? Would fear or reason adequately motivate you to do so?

2.Can you think of anything besides fear, reason, or grace that might motivate you to do the right thing? What about feelings of benevolence, empathy, or conscience? Do these provide sufficient motivation to do right or avoid wrong?

3.If fear and reason are inadequate to deter wrongdoing, is grace any more effective? Is grace too abstract to provide much motivation to the average person? Tell what motivates you the most to do right instead of wrong.

4.A preacher once said, "The only thing that rules can do is remind you that you are lousy at keeping rules." What do you think he meant? Do you agree? Was he implying that rules are totally without value?

5.In the first half of the twentieth century, activities such as going to movies, "mixed bathing" (going to a pool or beach with members of the opposite sex), playing cards, and dancing were considered immoral behavior. In what way, if any, should our "new birth" affect our thinking about these activities? Can you think of similar activities that were once condemned but that Christians now engage in without the same degree of guilt?

6.In what sense do you think the "gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38-39) has made you a better person? How precisely do you feel the Spirit working in your moral life?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 9, 2007 9:13 AM.

The previous post in this blog was How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Three.

The next post in this blog is Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part Two.

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

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