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What is the Christian life? When we add the adjective Christian to the noun life, we make an enormous announcement: the resurrection of Jesus Christ now determines how we ought to live. That means Spirit-wrought faith in Jesus Christ changes our actions. But when Christ calls us, it is not easy to understand how exactly our lives are to change. How, then, should we live?

the christian ethical mandate

What do we mean when we say “ethical mandate”? Ethics is reflecting on how one ought to live life. If there is an ethical mandate, there is a command that tells us what it means to live the good life. If there is a command, that means there is a command giver. This simple confession stands against modernity, which confesses that moral goods are not real but socially constructed. Yet, Christians know that the triune God is the command giver. In the incarnation, God comes to the world and shows us a life that is truly good. Looking at the life of Christ in the Gospels, it is not difficult to state precisely what God requires of us. Jesus affirmed the words of the lawyer in Luke 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . soul . . . strength . . . and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” In John 13:34, He gives a “new commandment”: “love one another.” The ethical mandate of the Christ-centered life is to love God and to love others with our whole selves.

Notice, though, that this new covenant command is not entirely new. God pronounced this command in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. In fact, the mandate to love God with all of ourselves and to love people is not only biblical, but it is also revealed in God’s universal unveiling of Himself to the world. To be a human is to be a creature made by God and called by God to live a perfect life of love. God speaks this command to every human being on the conscience, where we all stand accused. It is part of what John Calvin called the sense of the divine.

To be a human is to be a creature made by God and called by God to live a perfect life of love.

Yet, while this command is very old, there is something new about it in light of the coming of Christ. It is a Christian ethic. As Oliver O’Donovan states, “A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgments belong to the Gospel itself.” What is “new” about this old command? The newness of the command is found in that Jesus Christ’s very being and action, His person and work, reveal the definition of this love. This love is agap . Biblically, agap is love expressed to people who do not deserve it: “God shows his love [agap ] for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Agap pays a price: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Agap loves all the way to the end: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Agap encapsulates all the virtues: “Love is patient and kind . . .” (1 Cor. 13:4).

Only the Spirit-changed heart can exercise this Christ-defined love because Christ reconciles us to God and to neighbor and even puts back together the broken pieces of our own selves. The ethical mandate is to put on the agap of Christ because we were loved by Christ all the way to the end.

christian ministry

We can be more precise about our call to love God and neighbor. The Christian is called to be a witness: to witness to the kingdom of God in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The miracles of Jesus point to a world to come, a life without blindness, deafness, hunger, and death. We, too, have a calling. Our witness is not against the natural plight of the world in the same way, but it is against the lifestyles and consequences of a sin-soaked world. Loving God and neighbor with our whole selves means first stewarding the gospel itself. There is primacy in our ethical call to speak the gospel to others. Our ethics also includes witness by deed.

We see the union of word and deed ministry present in the life of Christ and the life of the first church across the book of Acts. The Christian life looks like the witness of gospel proclamation, new obedience, radical hospitality, and works of mercy, being carried along by the Spirit, through the means of grace. This is what it means to be salt and light to the world, or the leaven of Christ that leavens the whole lump. As Paul put it, “Godliness is of value in every way” (1 Tim. 4:8).

True religion speaks the word of the gospel, because a life of love without word is not good news at all but just a temporary help for temporary problems. Yet, true religion witnesses to that gospel with acts of love and obedience: “[visiting] orphans and widows in their affliction, and [keeping] oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

christian wisdom

What about the rest of life, where we are not actively engaged in obvious Christian ministry and where we don’t have a direct biblical command telling us exactly what to do? The answer here is that we need to ask God for wisdom. The books of Proverbs and James are books of wisdom, calling us to be “doers of the Word” at all times. How can we be “doers” of the Word at all times? The Bible does not tell us precisely how to love God and neighbor in every possible circumstance of our lives. Our actions in these circumstances can either glorify God or fail to do so.

Christian wisdom is the Spirit-wrought ability to apply the Word of God, its moral principles in particular, to all of life’s circumstances with skill. Wisdom grows if we are continually communing with God and striving to apply the Christian world-and-life-view to all domains. First Corinthians 1:24 pronounces that the Son of God is the wisdom of God, the One through whom all creation, all the moral order, all being itself is held together. Wisdom is a person. We need the person of Christ—all of Christ—if we are to become wise. And, when we act with creaturely wisdom in this world, we more and more put on the mind of Christ. In other words, when we seek the good as God has defined it, we are more and more learning to “think God’s thoughts after him” and act in love as Christ loved us.

The Image of God and Christian Ethics

Applying the Christian Ethic to Specific Issues

Keep Reading The Christian Ethic

From the March 2021 Issue
Mar 2021 Issue