Again with the confusing ideas: Jesus and Ethics

As somebody who teaches Bible to college students at my local church, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by popular misconceptions about Christianity that seem merely to confuse people for the sake of sounding novel. For instance, the claim that Jesus didn’t come to make people good confuses people who do not read theology books for a living.

In a post over at Reknew, Greg Boyd makes the claim (by title and content) that Jesus and by extension the New Testament do not teach ethical behavior. Here are some quotes:

Jesus did the same thing throughout his ministry. He was not calling people to a new ethical system; he was calling people to life. When someone wanted him to settle an inheritance dispute with a brother, for instance, he responded, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). He was telling the man that he did not come to give definitive answers to our many difficult ethical questions. He rather came to offer an alternative way of living to all ethical systems.
The New Testament is not about ethical behavior; it’s about a radical new way of living.
In some sense, the bold portion is true. Jesus invited people to himself, to God, and to eternal life in God’s kingdom. On the other hand, Jesus’ preaching was summarized by these words: “Repent and believe the gospel.” In a famous sermon, Jesus told his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you absolutely will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus taught about ethics.
Let me demonstrate further, here is what my copy of Webster’s dictionary says that ethics means:
The doctrines of morality or social manners; the science of moral philosophy, which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it.
Here is what a recent bible dictionary says ethics is:
A term drawn from Greek philosophy, “ethics” denotes an effort to present norms of behavior in a systematic way that shows their internal, rational coherence.
L. William Countryman, “Ethics,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 431.
Now, where do ethics appear in the New Testament? Well, the word repent, in the gospels, carries the connotation of rethinking one’s life on the basis of Jesus and his gospel. This is a highly ethical notion and the Bible treats it as a summary of Jesus’ message! Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount is intended by its author to be a disclosure of solid ground upon which to base your life and character and it is filled with Jesus’ reflections upon ethical matters (Matthew 7:24-28). Similarly, the great commission includes a command from Jesus for Jesus’ disciples to teach other people how to “observe all which I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19).”
Jesus doesn’t merely teach ethics by way of command and example, but he gives explanation for ethical norms as well as motivations based upon the normal human perceptions of goodness and beauty. His teaching about loving your enemies, for instance, is based upon Jesus’ perception of God’s kindness even to those who are evil.
I think that the problem with Boyd’s piece and others like it is that for the sake of rhetorical punch many authors make absolute statements that melt under simple examination. Boyd makes a true point at the end of his article when he says that our holiness is a gift of grace from God. But, the grace of God comes to train us to renounce evil and to become zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14). So, if ethics is about our behavior, our character, our intentions, the source of character norms and their coherence, and the nature of human duty, then Christianity is precisely about ethics (Bonhoeffer’s argument that ethics is the reason for the fall is silly). Now, Christianity is certainly more than mere ethics. It is an experience with the living God who is revealed in the resurrected Christ. But it is not less than ethics.

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