Ethics--getting real

It is common for Christians to approach the subject of ethics (sometimes referred to as Christian living) as having to do with conformance with a particular code of conduct (be it the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or perhaps one of Paul's household codes). From this rules-based perspective, Christian ethics becomes conceptual and thus static.

In contrast, a Trinitarian, incarnational approach to ethics is fundamentally relational and thus dynamic---having to do with our participation (or lack thereof), through the Holy Spirit, in the love and life of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

In An Introduction to Torrance Theology, Discovering the Incarnate Saviour, David Torrance writes that the "basis of the Christian living out and manifesting the reality of our union with Christ...The whole of the Christian's life is a summons to be obedient to Christ and to share in and with him in his continuing ministry to the world."

In a chapter in the same book, Gary Deddo, who now works for Grace Communion International, calls on the church to approach Christian ethics (and ministry) from its true foundation, namely our union with Jesus. He notes that obedience to Jesus is a real sharing in Jesus' life. This sharing is not a matter of mere conformance with external laws or rules but real participation in the real life of a real person, namely Jesus in whom the whole of humanity is brought into the perfect and perfecting love and life of God.

Rather than encouraging lawlessness (antinomianism), this approach to ethics gives access to ever-deepening life transformation, which is the by-product of sharing with Jesus his perfect human life.

This view tells us that both justification and sanctification are the outflow of union with Jesus. Thus both are of grace alone. And sharing in Jesus' life and love and the transformation it brings, is about a dynamic and ongoing relationship with a living person.

So what should Christians do when they see others exhibiting immoral behavior? They might be tempted to "lay down the law" or use some other external source of discipline and motivation. They might be tempted to impose a rigid program to get people involved in certain activities. But in doing so, they risk turning people away from the real union they have with Christ. Any change in behavior they then exhibit may be merely out of their own devices and will, and not of faith; not a real sharing in the real life of Jesus.

What we as Christians are called to do first and foremost is to help people come to know and place their trust in Jesus--in who he is in union with them. And with this foundation renewed (or discovered for the first time), as they follow Jesus their hearts and minds and then their behavior, will be progressively transformed through his indwelling Spirit.

This relational/incarnational approach to ethics is life-transforming because it is grounded in the reality of Jesus himself. Using this approach, we can helpfully support people by instructing, mentoring and coaching them as to the life that is a real sharing in the ongoing life and love of Jesus. We do so not merely with lists of rules in hand, but through helpfully sharing with them the life that they are presently sharing with Jesus (for a previous post discussing this idea of "place-sharing" with Jesus, click here).

This is Christianity---this is real, Christian ethics.