We have been discussing the Ten Commandments for the past few weeks as a part of our larger study of how the old covenant is fulfilled in the new. These Ten Commandments have played a foundational role in all Christian ethical thought, especially within the Reformed tradition, which has traditionally been known for its high estimation of the law of God revealed to Moses. Given this connection between the Ten Commandments and Christian ethics, we will now take a short break from our study of covenant fulfillment and take a broader look at ethical theory and practice using Christian Ethics, a teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul.
Hardly anyone today would deny that in the modern West, the prevailing cultural mood is one of moral relativism. A majority of people in the United States, for example, would deny that there is any absolute truth, especially when it comes to matters of personal and private behavior. The problem is even more advanced in Europe. Most people have a live-and-let-live attitude, and they voice opinions like, “What is right for you may not be right for me, and what is right for me may not be right for you.”
A confusion of the terms ethics and morals lies at the root of all this relativism. Ethics has traditionally been considered a normative science that addresses the foundations of civilization and the norms that govern our lives. It has endeavored to discover what we “ought to do.” Contrariwise, morality has been historically understood as a descriptive science, looking at what people are actually practicing in a given culture. It looks to what “is” and not necessarily to what “should be.”
Most people today have reversed the order of ethics and morals. Many consider that whatever the majority is doing is okay as long as there is no clear harm to the majority. We have confused “isness” with “oughtness,” believing that what is happening is what ought to happen.
Students of Scripture, however, know that the Lord always distinguishes between what people are actually doing and what they should be doing. As Dr. Sproul has often reminded us, “God does not rule by referendum.” The actions of the majority are not necessarily good. What society allows us to do may not be what God’s Word allows us to do, and our ethics must always be based on the latter standard.