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Christian Ethical Duty

R. Sutcliffe

Aldergrove Baptist Church

2005 08 14

Scripture Reading: Romans 12

Years ago I built a shed out of scrap lumber from a construction project. One corner had sagged by this year, so I dug under, prepared to jack up that corner and level the building. To my dismay, I found that the supporting beams and floor joists over half the building, which were untreated lumber, had been too close to the damp soil and were now rotten. A three hour job became a four day task of replacing the foundation without dismantling the building.

Thus, the first task in approaching today's topic is to define the term ethics. After all, if the foundation is not sound, then when it rots or is washed away, so will everything built on it.

Morality is about right and wrong, not in a legal sense, but in a universal one. All religions try to answer questions like:

Who am I?

Why am I here?

What else is there?

Is there a God?

If so,

Who is He?

How do I know Him?

What does He demand of me?

In this last category come questions about right and wrong behaviour. Note that religions like Buddhism that do not even describe a personal God, consequently almost entirely lack the concepts of right and wrong, replacing them with a vague idea of karma. But per Ro 1:20 since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. That is, the whole creation witnesses to the existence of a personal God who created it all, and this fact implies He has the power and the authority (among other things) to define right and wrong, that is, morality. When he revealed himself and his standards in the Old Testament, he had much to say about acceptable morality.

This by the way, means that those philosophers who say that moral rules either do not exist at all, or are entirely relative to events or to one's feelings about the situation are wrong--just as those who say "I have my religion and you have yours" are wrong. Indeed, to say that all value sets or all religions are of equal importance is really to say that none of them matter. But there is one God, one set of truths about him, one set of moral standards to which we are all accountable, one way to God in Jesus Christ. Joh 14:6 Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. Call this exclusivity a scandal if you will, but it is nonetheless true, and all religions and moral codes that disagree with the Bible are simply false.

Ethics deals with the duty imposed by morality on our actions. It is one thing to know what is right and wrong--morality--but quite another to fulfil in our lives the duties morality demands. That is, ethics deals with specific duties that arise because there are moral standards decreed by God the holy, the righteous one. Fallen humankind resists submitting to authority, but God is the Almighty one, the maker of the universe. Everything and everyone belongs to him, so He does have the authority to make the rules, and we therefore incur a duty to obey those rules.

In the garden, we humans rejected God's ideas about serving him, we went off and did our own thing, out of his presence. Our fall from that original state affected all humanity since, because by nature, inclination, and practice we are all sinners. God eventually provided the written law as a guide to his moral standards and some examples of our resultant duties toward him, but the main point was to demonstrate by those principles that the human heart is too corrupt to follow His ways sufficiently to find our way back to Him.

Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others of the Old Testament writers clearly understood that something more than following a set of rules was required--that unless God intervened with an act of grace, there was no hope, because sinners cannot ever sufficiently fulfil their duties to be holy before a holy God. Later, when I give examples, they should illustrate this point.

The animal sacrifices in the OT laws are one such intervention of grace, establishing the principle that the punishment of death due for sin could be transferred to another, and the blood of the sacrificial animal then became a temporary covering for that sin. Nothing inherent in the death of an animal took away sin, but God told the people he would regard the animal's shed blood as a substitutionary atonement for inadvertent or unintended sin, and his people were supposed to have faith that he was good for his promise. Of course, we all sin continually, so the guilty one must come back daily, weekly, yearly to make more sacrifices for more sins.

For high handed deliberate gross sin there was of course no sacrifice, only the death penalty, so all that sinners could do was repent and throw themselves on the mercy of God for forgiveness.

What could avail to deal with the punishment for all sin for all people for all time? Was there a sacrifice so great, so powerful, so complete that it could not only cover sin temporarily but take all its punishment? Offences against God Almighty are by very nature infinite, so the sacrifice would have to be infinite, the punishment taken infinite, the substitutionary death not a mere animal, but one by very nature God himself, yet somehow one of us so that the sacrifice could be applied to human beings who repented and trusted in that provision.

Praise God that His Son, His Only Begotten, by very nature God, took on humanity by being born a human being. He lived a life that displayed his perfect righteousness, then died on the cross at the hands of the father in Heaven, taking all the punishment for sin on himself. Ro 10:9 ... if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. That is, all who believe in Him by accepting that death does apply to them can be reconciled to God, finding in Christ the restoration of the purpose for which we were originally created--serving God. The believer in Christ not only has sins forgiven by Christ's death, but righteousness imputed on account of Christ's life being applied to us.

That is the legality that allows us to be reconciled. Our punishment debt is written off as paid and our status is marked down as "righteous in Christ." But what about those ethical duties to act in accord with what God says is right or wrong?

They remain. No, they no longer are expressed with the force of law "do these thing in order to live" because the point of the law was always to get people to say "I can't perform your commands, Lord, and no sacrifice I can make suffices to make up for my failures. Make a sacrifice for me that does suffice, forgive my sin, have mercy on me, help me to obey."

In Christ he has. No, the "law" in the sense of the ethical obligations we have to God are now, as Jeremiah prophesied, "written on the hearts" of the believers by the Holy Spirit, and this becomes God's New Covenant, that is, we trust Christ for salvation, and he not only forgives us our sin and imputes legal righteousness to our accounts but he also gives us both the knowledge and the ability to practice in our lives the righteous demands of God who is ethical (this is imparting righteousness, by the way).

So, with the foundation carefully laid, with it clearly understood that the duties the Christian is supposed to perform are not to gain salvation, because it is impossible to work our way into heaven, but instead they are intended to give our Saviour his due, to serve and glorify God, for He desires that his Holy Spirit instantiate the character of Christ in us for his glory, what are these ethical duties?

They fall in seven categories, and there are too many to describe them all (refer to the source documents) but a few examples ought to suffice to illustrate the concepts, and provide an item or two that is relevant to our day and age.

1. To God

De 6:5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

The first duty of every human being is to God who created us. Everyone and every thing belongs to him. Therefore, our duty is to worship him, to glorify him, to praise him, to honour him, to follow in his ways by obeying him, and in general to reflect his character in our lives so that others will be led to do the same thing. In Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, it becomes possible to fulfil this, even though as sinful human beings in our own power we cannot.

1Sa 12:24 But be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.

More generally:

Php 2:5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Very succinctly and to the point:

Ec 12:13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

2. To His Word

2Ti 4:2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.

Ps 138:2 I will bow down towards your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.

De 30:14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.

Lu 11:28 He replied, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it."

Ps 19:9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring for ever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. 10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. 11 By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Ps 119:103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

1Jo 2:5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

The word, the logos, the revelation of God's thinking about right and wrong , is our source of information about the ways of God and the duties of his people. All other supposed scriptures, all other theories and systems of morality are to a greater or lesser extent false. There is only one guide for living, and it can only be interpreted correctly by one who has the indwelling Holy Spirit.

2Th 1:8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

1Jo 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.

The person who says he or she is a Christian but does not have within them the Holy Spirit driven desire to know God's ways and do them is either deceived or deceiving.

Now let's get into more specific examples. However, keep two things in mind. First, all the following flow from our duty to God and his word. Second, these are only scattered examples to illustrate from the Scripture principles that are already present and operating in the heart of every believer.

3. To our families

Duty is owed to someone. Next to God, those closest to us are our families, and the scriptures make our duties to them clear.

Eph 5:22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

Eph 5:24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

Eph 5:28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

Col 3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

1Ti 5:8 If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

1Ti 3:4 [An elder] must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.

Titus2: 2 Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. 3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God.

Eph 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

God's people have a duty to love and respect their families and do what is right for their sake, because God commands it, to witness that the fundamental social building block God has decreed is better than anything man would devised, and to proclaim the truth of the word that saved them. When supposed Christian men beat their wives, view pornography, drink or smoke away the money for food and clothes; when supposed Christian women are unfaithful, or bedeck themselves with paint, immodest clothing or jewellery in the manner of the world, when supposed Christian children are rebellious and disobedient, they malign God, his word, and his people.

Our duty to build up and strengthen our families is part of our duty to God.

4. To God's Church, that is our fellow believers

There is a direct connection between the last set of duties and this one, for the Church is our spiritual family, and our duties to our natural family extend in a straightforward way.

Eph 5:28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no-one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- 30 for we are members of his body.

What are some specific duties we have to the Church as the body of Christ?

o We have a duty to love God's people

2Jo 5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.

o We have a duty to assemble together regularly

Ps 84:4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Heb 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

o We have a duty to encourage

Heb 3:13 ... encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

1Thess 2:10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

o We have a duty to build each other up

1Th 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1Co 14:12 Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.

Heb 10:24 ... let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.

o We have a duty to bear each others burdens

Ga 6:2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

o We have a duty to pray

Jas 5:16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

o We have a duty to teach and learn

Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

Mt 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

o We have a duty to be hospitable

1Pe 4:9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

o We have a duty to have and act in unity and harmony

1Co 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be

o We have a duty to submit, obey

1Pe 5:5 Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

o We have a duty to forgive

Eph 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Col 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

If we bear grudges, we are not bearing Christ's forgiveness nor His image.

o We have a duty to admonish one another to leave wrong and do right

Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

By the way, did you note the duty implied in that verse to ensure that the Church's music is diverse, consisting of singing scripture, formal hymns, and also less formal songs, ones we might today call "choruses"? Yes, narrowing our musical choice to a single style contradicts the Scripture. It is surprising sometimes to those who don't read it how many modern topics are already covered in the word.

o We have a duty to discipline those who claim to be Christians but are morally wicked or divisive

Co 5:13 "Expel the wicked man from among you."

Tit 3:10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.

o We have a duty to give to the Church

Pr 11:25 A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.

Pr 22:9 A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.

1Ti 6:18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

1Co 16:2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income

This is not a duty to tithe, as the Old Testament law commanded, for we are under grace, not law. However, giving a tenth of all one made was the ethical duty or example of the principle in the Old Testament. It ought to serve as the starting point for generosity in the new, and I doubt that any Christian today can begin to prosper materially until first acknowledging God's authority over their wallet or purse by giving back at least a tenth of what he gives them.

5. To the unsaved

Interestingly, part of our duty to God is also a duty to witness by our lives to those who do not know Him.

Le 20:26 You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

In discussing the punishment that would come to Israel because God's chosen had failed to witness of him and instead followed the gods and ways of the nations around, he says:

Isa 48:11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.

The professing Christian who smokes, drinks, attends movies and dances, watches just anything on TV, reads prurient books, views pornography or otherwise acts as anyone else in the world sends two messages to the unsaved: (1) that sin and its associations don't matter, and (2) that God lacks the power to change lives.

But they do matter, and he does have that power, so rather avoid the activities of the world. Oh yes, a few of these things may in one sense not be morally wrong in themselves, even as some of the things forbidden in the OT law were not wrong in themselves. Moreover, you can rightly answer that, say, smoking is not explicitly forbidden to Christians. What about sorcery? That forbidden? But sorcery was intimately connected to drug use, and the Greek word for it is pharmacopeia. Should we avoid drug use, such as heroin, crystal meth, and tobacco? I think so. Should we avoid the use of alcohol, the single greatest cause of modern social problems? This former drunk thinks we should.

Does anything separate the people of God from the people of the world? If there appears to be no external difference, then there is no witness, and there probably is no internal difference either. The one who looks like a pagan, walks like a pagan, acts like a pagan, eats and drinks like a pagan and has the same entertainments as a pagan, is a pagan.

1Jo 2:4 The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

(KJV)1Th 5:22 Abstain from all appearance of evil. (Better: Avoid every place where evil appears.)

Am I making a new legalism, a new list of do's and don'ts whereby we are saved? Of course not. I am merely expressing that once saved, we belong to Christ, not to worldly appetites, and we have a duty to God, to the Church, and to the unsaved to make this crystal clear. We fail to witness as we could if we muddy the waters by acting indistinguishably from those in the world. If we cannot make this distinction, the world surely cannot. If they do not see Christ in us, they will not see him anywhere.

Jer 42:5 Then they said to Jeremiah, "May the LORD be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the LORD your God sends you to tell us.

Ac 22:15 You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.

6. To society as a whole

If you read letters to the editor these days, you'll often see warnings about the government's approval of homosexual practices. The next week there will be counter letters saying that Christians should be loving everyone, that other people's love is none of their business, and that they should if they are good Christians even support homosexuals in their quest for human rights.

Yet God forbids homosexual practices, his word condemns them, and it clearly states that those who do such things shall never enter the kingdom of God. Following a discussion of sexual perversion and a list of other sins, Paul says:

Ro 1:32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.

1Co 6:9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Note that there are many other sins that need to be warned of, ones that likewise lead to eternal separation from God.

If you saw someone about to walk over the edge of a precipice, would you not think you had the duty to warn? Our whole society is running over the precipice of moral degradation and at the bottom faces judgement. Eze 33:8 When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. Lest the blood of many be on our hands, we have the duty to warn of sin and the judgement it will bring.

Specific examples of social duties:

o to care for widows and orphans

Jas 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

o to obey government

Ro 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.

Ro 13:5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

By the way, since in a democracy the people are the government, at least in theory, we have, I believe, a duty to participate in debate, in elections, and even in governing, so that the influence of God and his ways is felt in the process.

o to the next generation

De 4:9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.

o to responsible business ethics

The Old Testament in particular is filled with admonitions to be integral in business dealings, not to move boundaries, not to aquire too much land, not to use dishonest weights and measures, not to trust in the power of wealth. This leads directly to the next obligation to society as a whole.

o to do justice and relieve oppression

Isa 1:17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Isa 33:5 The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness.

Mt 23:23 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.

To tie together some pieces of this section, it is interesting to note, as Christians often do that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God for their sin.

2Pe 2:6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

Jude 7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

However, this was not all there was to it.

Eze 16:49 Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

That is, rampant immorality went hand in hand with injustice. This brings us back to the duty to warn, for the same thing can happen to our nation, and for the same reasons. The nation that ignores God and his ways will be first given over to its perversions and its greed, and then when both have become so full they pollute the very land, they will be judged, as Canaan, as Sodom.

7. To ourselves

1Co 6:116 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.

Eph 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

There is a principle here of proper respect for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the bottom line for which can be found in Matt 5: 13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. 14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

That is, we have an obligation to so treat ourselves in our acts as to bring glory to God. Interestingly, this passage in Matthew is the conclusion of the beatitudes, the character description of God's people, which perhaps ought to be read as: "The blessed are those who...." which again say, as other passages already mentioned, that the saved will act in ways consistent with the morality, ethics, and character of Christ, not for legalistic reasons, but because they have been transformed by God. See for instance the passage read at the beginning "be transformed by the renewing of your mind...."


God is both moral (defines the principles of right and wrong) and ethical (acts consistently and integrally on those principles). He expects the same of everyone, but especially of his people. The knowledge of good and evil was given to Adam and Eve, per their desire, for they now knew evil. This was conscience. When we turned so far from God that conscience became in large part seared, he gave the law, lists of his moral principles and examples of ethical actions flowing from them. In theory, if you could do right all the time according to these principles of law, you could be saved and enter God's presence. The point was to show you were incapable of so acting.

Moreover, the point of my making lists of moral principles and a few scattered examples of the ethical actions that flow from them is not to say "do these things and you will see God" or "don't do these things or you will end up in hell". Either would be legalism, which cannot work. No, my point is to remind us of some of the duties and obligations that we now are able to perform because we are saved.

Jesus Christ came to live the perfect life in full obedience and then die in the agony of punishment so that we who trust in him might have that punishment applied to our account and be forgiven on the one hand, and have his righteousness added to that account on the other so that we might be acceptable to God for eternity to come, and be a witness to his saving power in this life now. He gives us the ability to do this now, for His indwelling Holy Spirit interprets the words of scripture to our hearts to understand what is good and right, and empowers us to perform it. Let us be about our Father's business.


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