A Christian Moral Theory

Christian Moral Theory

“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  This question, asked of Jesus by the crowd in John 6:28, is one that pertains to every person who ever lived, but especially Christians.  If we seek to follow Christ and honor God by how we live our lives, then we must necessarily attend to this question.  The answer, of course, given in the context of the passage is that we are to “believe in him whom God has sent,” namely, Jesus himself (John 6:29).  What it means to be doing the works of God, according to John’s Gospel, is that we believe in Jesus Christ.  And we know that this belief is not merely intellectual assent, but is rather a genuine forsaking of our own selves and a wholehearted trust in the sufficiency of the person and work of Christ on our behalf.  This kind of belief, this true faith, is what constitutes a Christian.  Before we can do anything else that God would have us do, we must believe in Christ.  This is the case because “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) and “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Yet we also know from Scripture that there are many other things which God requires of us.  In summary form, we are to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).  But what does this actually look like?  How are we to understand Paul’s words here and then apply them to our own lives?  How should Christian leaders help their people live authentic Christian lives in light of these words?  The purpose of this paper is to answer these questions by providing an overview of an authentically Christian moral theory and then by proposing a few practical ways to enact this theory.  Every moral theory has a specific grounds, a specific motivation, and a specific end in mind.  An authentically Christian moral theory, then, is one that is grounded in the Word of God, motivated by love for God and neighbor, and one which seeks the glory of God in all things.

Christian Morality: Grounding

Holy Scripture serves as the fundamental source of grounding for an authentically Christian moral theory.  The reason for this is that Scripture is the very word of the absolutely authoritative God who created all things (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17).  There is none greater than the God of the Bible (cf. Isaiah 46:9; Hebrews 6:13), and his word “will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8; cf. 1 Peter 1:25).  David says that God’s speech is perfect, sure, right, pure, and true (cf. Psalm 19:7-9).  He concludes by saying that God’s rules are “more to be desired…than gold, even fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.  Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11).

In Psalm 19 we see that a good theology of God’s word is not esoteric or disconnected from practical Christian living.  God’s servant is warned by God’s word, and in keeping God’s word there is great reward.  Thus, it seems to me that having a right knowledge of the nature of God’s word is fundamental to the Christian life.  And this is precisely what the Bible itself teaches in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  There, Paul writes, “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  One of the purposes of Scripture is to make the Christian complete and equipped for every good work.  God speaks to us not simply because he likes hearing his own voice, but because he is transforming us into the likeness of his Son.  Scripture is given to Christians as a gift in order that we might know how to go about our work in the world in a way which pleases God.  Therefore, Scripture should be seen as the foundation of any authentically Christian moral theory.  There is nothing beneath Scripture to which Christians should look for grounding, and Scripture itself is sufficient for equipping us to be complete in the Christian life.  As John Frame says, “Scripture is clear enough to make us responsible for carrying out our present duties to God.  Sufficiency should be understood in the same way.”[1]

Perhaps the most striking example of the intersection between the doctrine of the word of God and the doctrine of the Christian life is Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy 8:3: “And God humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”  Jesus employs this familiar passage against Satan during the temptation, but notice again: “man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”  It is not simply the case that Christians should live by the word of God, although that is true.  Rather, the force of this text is that the word of God is the cause of the very life of the Christian.  Moses’ point is that the word of God is what sustained Israel in the Wilderness.  It sustained Jesus during his temptation (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).  It upholds the universe (cf. Hebrews 1:3).  And it is sufficient for the Christian life (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

But this understanding of the word of God is heavily challenged today.  The Bible is frequently viewed as a neat, if outdated, historical document, but rarely is it viewed as the actual word of God.  Scripture’s sufficiency is challenged by those who look for signs and other “words” from God, perhaps by way of divine whisper.  Scripture’s clarity is challenged by those who say that it is too difficult to comprehend or that there are simply too many disagreements over interpretation to have full assurance of what the Bible really teaches.  Scripture’s authority is challenged by those who seek to be their own authority, or at least by those who look to a different standard of authority for their life.  And Scripture’s necessity is challenged by those who say that we do not need Scripture in order to know God our to live the Christian life.  I have many friends who, perhaps inadvertently, challenge the notion of Scripture as the fundamental authority which grounds the Christian life and Christian morality.  But surely this effort is in vain.  Given the above data, a right understanding of the nature of Scripture can and must necessarily lead to an increasingly effective Christian life, one that is slowly and surely transformed into the image of Christ.  If the word of God really is sufficient to make the Christian complete and equipped for every good work, then it also provides us with both the necessary motivation for and telos of Christian morality.

Christian Morality: Motivation and End

Christian morality is fundamentally grounded by Scripture, but it is motivated by love toward God and love toward neighbor.  Scott Rae argues that “any account of New Testament ethics that does not include love as the central virtue is surely incomplete.”[2]  Jesus said that the two greatest commandments of the law are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-38).  Paul argued that “faith, hope, and love abide…but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Thus, I take it that the central motivation behind Christian morality should be love.

The first thing that should be said here is that the motivation of authentically Christian morality absolutely must begin with love for God.  The first four commandments of the Ten Commandments all have to do with the people’s love for God (cf. Exodus 20:1-11).  Only then, with that truth firmly established, can the people of God begin to consider how to love their neighbor, which, consequently, is written for them as the second table of the law, the final six commandments.  But even before the people of God are told what God requires of them concerning their love for him, they are told of what God has done for them: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).  Only after God has saved his people from their oppression and affliction are they told how they are to live in a way which pleases him, that is, how they are to love him and their neighbor.  John says as much in his first epistle: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Thus, authentically Christian morality motivated by love must begin by considering God’s love for us before it even considers our love for God.  Then it must turn to consider how we are to love God, which is perhaps the most neglected consideration in the evangelical church today.  There is much talk of God’s love for us.  There is much talk of how we should love ourselves (especially) and our neighbors.  But there is little talk, at least as far as I can tell, about how we should love God and God’s glory.  This is a shame, for this consideration filled the minds of brilliant theologians such as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards.  In fact, Edwards was so bold as to say the ultimate reason that God loves and redeems a people for himself is precisely because he loves his own glory supremely.  The end for which God created the world is the display of his own glory, consummated by creatures rejoicing in that very glory.  Thus, I take it that what it means for us to love God is for us to love God’s glory supremely.  There should be no greater affection in our hearts, no higher meditation of our minds, no end toward which we toil more frequently than that which is called in Scripture: the glory of God.

Isaiah 40-48 contains some of the most striking imagery of God.  He compares himself to idols which are deaf and dumb; he mocks them and asks them to tell the future; he declares that there is only one God and that he alone is savior.  And in one fascinating line, the people of God are told what they are to do: “in the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:25).  The people of God shall glory in God.  This is the same as what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:31: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  This is the central motivation for all Christian morality: love for God and his glory.  Every other kind of love which should be present in the Christian life is merely an outworking of that fundamental love for God and his glory.

Returning to John’s first epistle, we read: “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).  Here again we see the necessity of love for God coming before love for our neighbor.  John’s command for us to love one another is grounded by the reality that God, who is love (1 John 4:8), has caused us to be born again.  The work of God in the life of a Christian causes the Christian to love God.  But it also causes the Christian to love their neighbor.  John continues, “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).  An authentically Christian moral theory must also speak to love for one’s neighbor.  There is no Christian faith without this kind of love, for John says that those who do not love their neighbor, do not know God.  Now, of course, Christian love for neighbor does not cause Christian knowledge of God.  That is opposite what the text says.  Yet a lack of love for one’s neighbor really does demonstrate that one does not know God.

John then goes on to say: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:2-3).  The first point of the litmus test for knowing whether we love our neighbor is whether we love God.  Without this love we cannot love our neighbor.  And we know we love God when we keep his commandments.  The point behind all of this is that love in the Christian life is holistic.  An authentic Christian moral theory motivated by love must take consider how we are to live in light of our love for God and neighbor.  One or the other is insufficient, for it demonstrates a deficient understanding of the nature of God and God’s love for us.

A note should be made here about the end toward which the Christian moral theory must strive, namely, the glory of God.  In some ways, the end or purpose of an authentically Christian moral theory should not deviate too far from the stated motivation behind the theory, and that is true in this case, as has been shown.  The primary motivation that drives Christian morality is love for God, and that is synonymous with loving God’s glory.  Thus, the motivation is the means by which the end is accomplished.  And when that specific means is fulfilled genuinely, then the end truly is accomplished.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  The reason, of course, that Christians should do all to the glory of God is because God does all to the glory of God.  The reason that the primary end toward which the Christian toils is the glory of God is because the primary end towards which God toils is the glory of God.  This may seem obvious, but it is, nevertheless, true.  It would make little sense for Christians to be seeking in an ultimate sense after something for which God himself does not seek.  We see this in Scripture when Paul says, “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:4-5).  Bringing about the obedience of faith is to be done for the sake of God’s name throughout the earth.  As Christopher Wright argues well, “the ultimate reason for the church’s existence is to glorify God by worshipping and enjoying him for all eternity.”[3]  This is the great end toward which the Christian life strives.

Christian Morality: Practice

It will be helpful at this point to provide a word about how this Christian moral theory might be taught by Christians and applied in the Christian life.  I can think of three ways in particular in which the Christian motivation of love should be applied: 1) Christian preaching should be aimed at helping Christians rejoice in the glory of God.        Christian preachers should not settle for anything less than trying to help their people see and savor the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  2) Christian public intellectuals should be concerned to communicate a message in which Christian love for God comes before Christian love for neighbor.  How often we see that public intellectuals are so good in some areas, but lacking in others.  I propose that one of the chief areas in which Christian public intellectuals are lacking is in their failure to communicate that our love for God is central and from there flows our love for everything else. 3) Christian leaders should be practitioners in the racial reconciliation movement on the basis that genuine reconciliation is one aspect of genuine love for our neighbors.  It will not do to merely say that we love our neighbor as ourselves if we intentionally remain divided from them.  Therefore, in an effort to demonstrate our real love for our neighbor, we should seek racial reconciliation in both the public and private square.


An authentically Christian moral theory should be one grounded in the word of God, motivated by love for God and neighbor, and striving toward the glory of God in all things.  The Bible provides the grounds and the content for our morality, and it also teaches and demonstrates how we are to live on this side of heaven.  God’s love for us causes our love for him, and he should be uppermost in our own affections.  Every other kind of affection should be an outworking of our affection and love for God.  This means, too, that we should genuinely love our neighbors, demonstrating therein that we do, in fact, love God.  And this can be applied practically in our own lives as well.  Christian preachers should help Christians love God’s glory.  Christian intellectuals should communicate that our love for God is first and ultimate.  And Christian leaders should work toward racial reconciliation as one way to fulfill the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Each of these brings glory to God, and that is the purpose behind Christian morality in the first place.

[1] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 162.

[2] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 42.

[3] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 244.

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