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.

3 replies
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear David
    Of all the responses, it is neat for me to observe that I felt the most kinship with your confession of sin and stress on grace! I’ve hung around a lot of Baptists in my academic home for almost 30 years, so I know the fallacy of the refrain that “all those Baptists are legalists” (a refrain we hear too often and unfairly in non-Baptist circles). Perhaps I might surprise you here when I agree that Jesus often did teach the Law. The Lutheran idea of Law and Gospel allows for the possibility of our finding much in the New Testament that is concrete behavioral teachings. And like Lutherans, would not Baptists concede that these commands often function to condemn our sin? If so, I can report that some Lutherans (esp. the Pietist and Orthodox) also agree with Baptists that ethics can be concrete with guidance offered from the Law of God. It’s just these Evangelical Catholic Confessionalists like myself, wanting to stress freedom and spontaneity, who contend that New Testament directs are just intended to condemn sin or offer guidance for running institution. If most Lutherans can tolerate the co-existence of each other’s position regarding Christian Ethics (while shaking our heads a little about the lack of wisdom of the other side), can Baptists tolerate this diversity in approaches to Christian Ethics as well?
    As just suggested, Lutherans can endorse a need for the concreteness of the Law in guiding political actions and decisions (in accord with the Lutheran Two-Kingdom Ethic). I hope that that insight makes you feel a little more like kin with Lutherans. But first let me try a couple of more rationales for the Confessional Lutheran focus on freedom and spontaneity. Does the Law apply in every situation? It did not in the ethical deliberations of Bonhoeffer or Abraham. And does not love (esp. God’s love) firmly anchor us in love as well? (I appeal here to your eloquent conclusion, to the Sovereign God strand of Baptist thinking, and to the once-saved-always-saved motif in trying to make the case for this approach having possible resonance in Baptist thinking.) But there is another reason for not being too concrete about Ethics all the time in Lutheranism. Too much ethical deliberation can steal your joy and your focus on grace. To do Ethics always in dialogue with the Law gets your brain focused more on your context and this in turn activates the back parts of your brain (the parietal lobe). When that part of the brain is activated, you are not rewarded with the good-feeling brain chemicals which flow when we are focused on God and grace (Stefan Klein, The Science of Happiness, pp.35-37,56-58). I’m not trying to convince you that Baptists ought to do Ethics the Lutheran Confessional way. I’m just trying to learn if Baptists could concede that the Situational Ethic of Confessional Lutheranism might be a Biblically based valid approach sometimes in some situations (Gal.5:1; Gen.22:1-19).

    You partner in celebrating God’s grace,

    • Dr. David Gushee
      Dr. David Gushee says:

      Hello my friend Mark! I would briefly respond by saying first that as a Baptist “Law” is not the first term that comes to mind when thinking about Christian ethical obligation. I tend to use words like principles, rules, action-guides, and mostly “norms.” Norms generally have a concreteness to them but if understood in a prima facie way it is always understood that most norms have exceptions and that situational discernment is always necessary. I think it would be fair to say that in my ethics Jesus teaches a Way, filled with content and expectation, but this Way cannot be reduced to Law. And I would always emphasize that the first and last word is grace — because being given ethical direction is an expression of divine grace — we could have been left in the dark — and forgiveness and mercy surrounds all our efforts at following Jesus’ Way. Gratefully, we proceed on the journey of discipleship…Thank you for taking time to respond so thoughtfully.

  2. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear David,
    So sorry to delay this grateful response to our dialogue. Just came across where you had posted it. I am merely intending here to clarify the meaning of the terms and concepts I was using in our previous exchanges in order to make the upcoming dialogue we will have over your presentation a bit more intelligible to both of us.
    Your comment that Baptists do not think of principles, rules, or action guides as Law was insightful to me. We are defining Law in different ways. I follow the Lutheran Confessions’ definition that Law is anything in harmony with the Decalogue, requiring obedience (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IX.5,6,8). Law is anything which takes the form of God instructing us to “do something” in accord with the Decalogue (The Heidelberg Disputation, 26). In short, for Lutherans, references to principles, rules, and action-guides fall under the definition of Law. Even Jesus’ ethical teachings are Law, not Gospel. I can understand the Baptist rationale for the more narrow definition of Law, as it allows you to affirm the Pauline freedom from the Law (Galatians 3:6-13; Romans 3:31-28) and still employ principles and rules.
    Lutherans have a concept which I think approximates what Baptists intend with reference to principles, guides, etc. It is called the Third Use of the Law, defined as the Law used for the reborn so “that they can orient and conduct their entire life” (Formula of Concord, Ep. VI.1). It is said to function when Christians “live in the Law [in the teachings of the Ten Commandments] and walk according to the Law of God” (Formula of Concord, Ep.VI.6).
    How about it? Is this definition compatible with your own dispositions? If so, the question for you and other Baptists is whether you would concede that there might be times in which the intimacy with Jesus is so intense (not unlike a passionate moment of sexual encounter) when no principles, rules, and action-guides need to be taught in that situation. Of course these moments/miracles of intensity in spiritual life are still marred by sin. That awareness along with an openness using the Law in the sense in which I think Baptists do is the Lutheran safeguard to avoid effacing the distinction between right and wrong. It certainly is not fool-proof. But the alternative is also not fool-proof in avoiding Pelagian legalism. That’s why I submit the Church needs both Baptist and Lutheran alternatives. Maybe we can explore this further in discussions about your presentation.

    Enjoying the dialogue,


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