Freedom, Law, Sin, and Concreteness in Christian Ethics

Mark Ellingsen’s elegant presentation of Lutheran theology and ethics — of Lutheran ways of following Jesus — is an absolute treat. I will confine my remarks here to engaging a couple of issues that I consider especially interesting for my specific discipline of Christian ethics, understood, of course, in (my-kind-of) Baptist perspective. As my title suggests, I want to dig around a little at the nexus of issues around moral freedom, divine law, human sinfulness, and the concreteness of moral obligations.

Glen Stassen and I argue in both editions of Kingdom Ethics (2003/2016) that Jesus offers concrete moral teachings that should be understood as retaining a law- or rule-like dimension.

When Jesus teaches that we are to forgive those who wrong us, he means that extending forgiveness is part of the rule of life of those who wish to follow him. We are not free not to forgive, if we would be his people.

When Jesus teaches that we are to pray, fast, and give alms, and to do so in ways that do not involve attention-seeking from others for their piety, he means that concretely. His followers should indeed pray, fast, and give to the poor, without seeking attention from others. Numerous other examples could be cited.

Glen was concerned, as am I, about concreteness in Christian ethics. We think that Jesus taught a “way” to be followed, and that he taught specific elements of that way with sufficient clarity and concreteness that in most cases you can be fairly clear whether you are living that “way,” and obeying his teachings, or failing to do so. The danger of more abstract ethics — an ethic of principles, or even of Christian freedom in situational discernment — is that it is not clear to believers what following Jesus might actually require or forbid. There is a huge yawning gap between the love of God, or our effort to love God and neighbor, and the question of how to make the right decision in this particular situation.

Human sinfulness is such a wily thing that unless people have clear direction as to what following Jesus requires, we can easily be tempted to justify the unjustifiable and rationalize wrongdoing. The Decalogue certainly helps, with its clarity and concreteness, mainly concerning acts prohibited but in a few cases acts commanded. But Jesus’ teachings, especially in concentrated form in the Sermon on the Mount, offer considerable additional content for concrete Christian obedience.

The Christian community is to be the place in which the teachings of Jesus are taught, their implications considered, and sisters and brothers in Christ together try to work out what obedience requires in all concreteness and specificity. There is freedom there, for sure, both for individuals and congregations, but there are also clear boundaries set by the teachings themselves and by our personal adult commitments to follow Jesus as Lord.

I continue to be concerned that the structure of Luther’s ethics, with his great concern about legalism, and his emphasis on loving, essentially situational discernment, does not provide adequate concreteness for struggling, tempted people in everyday life. People need clearer direction than this.

For example: What exactly does this parishioner do in relation to this unhappy marriage? Is she allowed to leave her spouse if she is merely unhappy, or is some specific “cause” required? What are the boundaries and options as I care for my dying father? Am I allowed to discontinue medical care? What about actively assisting him to end his own life?

I believe that to say that all human acts are tainted by sin, that there is no sin-free path for any human being, is, to coin a phrase, “simultaneously true yet dangerous.” It is true that none of us are innocent. But it is also true that some courses of action are morally right and others are morally wrong, full stop.

It is dangerous to efface the distinction between right and wrong, or even better and worse, when it comes to moral actions. It is important for Christians to be able to make the best possible, the best available, or the clearly right decision, and having done so not to trouble themselves overmuch with any taint of sin that might have gotten into the mix along the way. We need clarity about what we are to do and peace of mind that we have done it, when we have indeed done it. I think we can leave to God to discern into our marrow and judge whatever might not belong in the heart of a true Christian. Meanwhile, we need guidance concretely as to what following Jesus demands of us.

I do agree with the Lutheran tradition on this last point, however — the first word is grace, and the final word is grace. It was by God’s grace that we were invited into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is by grace that our journey is sustained. And it is by grace that we, with our many mistakes, errors, and sins, will be greeted by Jesus at the end of our discipleship journey.