Personal Testimony, which led to, The Dead Have No Need of Ethics
I have taught ethics at the college level for over twenty years and have wrestled with and expounded upon a host of ethical theories and perspectives. Perhaps I too have been affected by the postmodern zeitgeist of our age and found that none of the theories fully satisfied my quest for right conduct. Each theory and tradition had its range of pros and cons, but it seemed that all of them were lacking. I tried combining theories in hopes of acquiring a hybrid that would improve upon the original and satisfy my own existential sense of individuality and uniqueness. Yet, even my hybrid theory fell short and I finally realized I was an unbeliever in ethical systems and solutions as to how to determine the right way to live. I realized that ethics like religion were all human constructs and attempts to come to terms with how to reconcile ourselves to the good life or to God. Unfortunately, all ethical and religious systems were developed by finite fallible creatures, and because of these limitations could never satisfy the eternal, infallible desire I felt within me to be in right relation to my Creator.
The irony was not lost on me, that here I was, a college assistant professor of ethics and religion, at a Christian College no less, who didn’t believe in either discipline as an avenue for right living or right relationship with God. In many ways I have a love hate relationship to ethics and religion, not to mention Christianity. I am fascinated by their scope, diversity, intellectual precision or faith filled devotion. Yet, I am repulsed by their limitations, arrogance, dogmatism, legalism and deception. I was by no means a nihilist or atheist, far from it, but the more I learned the more fascinated and alienated I became. It was like seeing a philosophical/theological train wreck about to happen and not being able to look away. One thing, however I knew for certain, I didn’t want to be on that train.
Religion provides the most basic answers to the human condition, like why am I here? Where did I come from? What is the meaning of life? How should I live? Why is there suffering and evil in the world? Where will I go when I die? Yet, religion like ethics had a variety of answers and solutions to these very human questions. How did I know which religion had the truth, or could they all be true, or all have pieces of the truth? Even if I found the true religion, how was I supposed to live up to its ideals and moral dictates and guidelines? I had been enculturated as a Christian and had an inherited belief in God, Jesus and the Bible from my earliest memories. Yet, when I reached my late teens, probably when my frontal lobes began to attach, I had a crisis of faith. It was like scales had been ripped from my eyes and for the first time I began to critically think about and question the beliefs and world view that had been used to indoctrinate me. The answers I received from my religious community were far from comforting, but rather led me to even greater questions and deeper doubts. These questions became magnified when I left the sheltered garden of my youth and entered the wide and wild world of men. Things were not as I had been led to believe and this brought me anxiety, anger, fear and dread, all the elements one needs for existential angst and my new companions were depression, resentment and despair.
I now considered myself an agnostic, I studied the arguments of atheists and philosophical naturalists and materialists, but I could never shake the idea that there had to be something more. The cosmos seemed to show purpose and design from the galaxies to the wildflowers, so it made sense to me that there had to be a designer. What I was not certain of, was what kind of designer or God this was and if it even cared about the cosmos, let alone me. So began my quest to find out the truth, I nobly called myself a seeker, and was determined to live in doubt rather than to accept a lie. I felt deceived by my upbringing and was cynical and skeptical towards all truth claims. I searched for God under every rock and behind every tree. I would contemplate the mysteries of the universe and wrestle with my own inner demons. I studied all the major religious traditions and philosophical teachings of man. Yet rather than providing me answers, it just generated more questions and I felt both intellectually and spiritually paralyzed by the host of competing truth claims. No one seemed to understand me or why I needed to know these answers, yet I was driven and obsessed, and was determined not to rest until I found my answers or to at least die trying.
Silence is his friend
Loneliness his brother
His ways are like the wind
He will touch but won’t be tied to another.
He feels without touching
His smile is only in his eyes
It’s hard to cling to nothing
Much easier to grasp a lie
No answers to his endless quest
No solace only thoughts contest
No road can lead his soul to rest
Save the silent path of death
It was out of this place of darkness, brokenness and deconstruction that I heard God call my name. I was given the gift of faith and for the first time since my youth was able to believe there was a God who loved me and wanted to have a relationship with me. This belief did not come through my heritage, truth seeking, devotion or reason, rather it was like a seed planted in the depths of my very being that gave me absolute peace and assurance that Jesus was God and he gave himself as an atoning sacrifice for me. This seed of faith became my most precious possession and I have never doubted God’s existence or providence since that day. What started as a simple belief in God and His love for me has grown into a tree of faith. There certainly are seasons for my tree of faith. Sometimes the tree is in full bloom or laden with fruit, and in other times it is barren and appears dead, yet its roots run deep and it is not fearful of drought or storm. I still do not know the answers to some of the issues that tormented me in my youth, yet I now know through faith that God is Good, Holy, Righteous, Just and Merciful, and I am content to trust in Him. I realized that many of my questions and complaints towards God had been my attempt to justify my own actions and disbelief. I refused to offer my worship or obedience to God unless He could give me an accounting for the state of the world. I was horribly confused, and somehow thought that God owed me an explanation. What God finally showed me was who I was and who He is and like Job of old, this changed everything and stripped me of my self justification and righteousness leaving me in a place of awe and self repulsion.
I felt like a prisoner who had been set free or a blind man who had received sight. For the first time in my life I realized that I was deserving of death and eternal separation from God. Yet, with this realization also came the great joy that Jesus had paid my debt and taken my place. Jesus did through his self sacrifice what I could never do through my self effort. This truth resonated within me and became my template for evaluating all other systems of self correction, improvement or realization. God had done for man what man could not do for himself. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”(Ephesians 2:8+9) I felt so free and clean for the first time in my life, and out of gratitude, love and devotion was determined to live for God. God’s own Son had died to save me, the least I could do was to live for Him.
It was so clear to me now that what separated Christianity from all other religions or ethical systems was that we could never be saved from our alienation to God through our own efforts. Salvation came through divine provision rather than through human accomplishment. All other religions and moral systems had missed the point and would be damned for their self sufficiency, dependence and effort. I took my gift of salvation seriously and was determined to serve and obey God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength and this is when the true struggle began. I started off well, full of zeal and vigor, but as time went by I found that many of my best intentions came to not. I had picked up a variety of vices and bad habits during my sojourn as a seeker, and even though I prayed and pleaded with the almighty, they seemed to have become constant companions. I also was a man, and although I strove to maintain sexual purity in thought and deed, my very body conspired against me. Sometimes the struggles were so great I thought I would have to ram my skull into a wall to find any sort of temporary relief. I read of the great saints and desert fathers, and thought that through their examples I too might find a way to liberate myself from my own internal desires. I studied spiritual disciplines and incorporated them into my lifestyle, I was cautious of what I ate and drank, but most of all what I took in through my eyes.
This daily struggle for personal sanctification (holiness and perfection) had reached its breaking point by my mid twenties. I was exhausted and defeated. It was so frustrating! My life was a cycle of ladder climbing, doing all the do’s of “Christianity” and trying to avoid the bigger list of don’ts. I would do well for a season, but would always end up failing. It was like trying to climb a ladder of Holiness trying to reach God’s perfection. I would pray, read my Bible, and go to church, I would try and avoid anger, lust, and pride etc. to the best of my ability. Eventually, however I would end up not doing my do’s and doing my don’ts. This would leave me battered and broken, and then the evil one would accuse me and say stuff like, “and you call yourself a Christian” or, “if only people knew who you really were, or the garbage going on inside your head” etc. At this point I would usually tell the evil one I had it from here and then begin to psychologically flagellate myself, I would beat myself up emotionally and spiritually, maybe I should have just used a stick. This could last anywhere from a few days to a few months, I called it contrition and was trying to show God I was serious about my sins and my failings.
I was always so annoyed by others who would sin, and then ask for forgiveness and go about like nothing had happened. In retrospect, I realized that it wasn’t God I was trying to satisfy by beating myself up, but rather my own ego. God already knew of my failings and had forgiven me; it was my Adam Fred, full of guilt and shame that it had not lived up to my own ideal image of myself. I even told God when he was trying to comfort me to stay out of it, that this was between me and my superego. When I finally realized the truth of Romans 6 and Colossians 3 that I was dead and my life was hidden with Christ in God, everything changed. It didn’t mean I never messed up and forgot to do my do’s or to not do my don’ts but I realized that neither of these things made me more perfect or Holy in God’s eyes or made me any more or less sanctified.
Once I realized that I was sanctified the same way I was saved, by the person and work of Jesus, it took all the pressure off of me. Now when I do my do’s and don’t do my don’ts it’s because of who I am in Jesus, I’m no longer trying to do things or not do things to become something I’m not, but I do or don’t do things because of who I now am, Jesus Fred. I still mess up, but now I just acknowledge my shortcomings and ask Jesus to help me remember who I am rather than asking him to try and help me overcome poor behavior. When I’m focused on Jesus and who I am in Him, all the behavior issues take care of themselves. Guilt and shame don’t come from God, but rather from us not living up to our own expectations. Conviction comes from God, but with conviction also comes the empowering of the Holy Spirit to affect change in our lives. So if you are feeling shame and guilt it should be a red flag that this is not from God but rather from your own ego. If you find yourself judging others, it is probably because you either are out of touch with your own depravity, or you are striving so hard to be holy through your own efforts that seeing others not striving as hard as you brings resentment and condemnation. Reckon yourself dead daily; Remember who you are in Jesus, Abide in the Vine, and Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. When you fail, acknowledge your failings and ask forgiveness, if your actions have harmed others apologize to them and then thank God that he has already covered all your past, present and future failings.
The Blood and the Cross
“The blood procures our pardon for what we have done; the cross procures our deliverance from what we are.” Watchman Nee
Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Colossians 3:3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
Romans 6:6+7 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
For he that is dead is freed from sin.
This is what finally clicked for me and perhaps where East meets West. I got the justification part, that it was Jesus’ blood atonement that covered my sins and made me righteous. Unfortunately I was under the impression that I was like a criminal who caught a lucky break. Using the courtroom analogy with God as the judge and me as the sinner condemned to death, I felt like God had accepted His son’s offer to take my punishment, but then, the judge released me on my own recognizance and basically said, “You’re forgiven, now don’t let it happen again. I felt so relieved and elated, Jesus died for me and now all I had to do was to live for him. I had no idea of the years of guilt, shame and despair this would lead to. The doctrine of justification is wonderful in that it covered my sins, but it wasn’t the whole picture and that is why the cross is so important. In Romans 6:6 it tells us that Jesus wasn’t the only one crucified on the cross, but that I was crucified with him. The judge wasn’t just saying, My Son covered your debt now live accordingly, the Judge slew me as well, but didn’t leave me dead, rather gave me new life in His Son. I didn’t leave the courtroom alone, but rather I left with the Judge’s very Son inside me, or I in Him. When we don’t have both the blood atonement and personal crucifixion we take on a task we were never meant to handle. I can no more live for Jesus than I could provide for my own righteousness before God. It is precisely because I’m dead and my life is not my own that I can now live a life that is pleasing to God, because my new life is in His Son, I am a new creation all things have become new. I correctly understood that I couldn’t justify myself before God, but foolishly thought I could sanctify myself and live a good and honoring life because I loved God so much. The reality was I could no more sanctify myself than I could justify myself. I understood that salvation was by grace through God given Faith, but I had unwittingly engaged in a works based sanctification. What foolish madness. Thank God that I am dead and the life that I now live is in the One who gave Himself for me.
The Dead Have No Need of Ethics
It is out of this context that I began to finally see the disconnect between my spiritual understanding of the good and what it meant to live a righteous life and my academic intellectual understanding of ethics and morality. I expected to find flaws in the ethical systems and theories of philosophers and religious thinkers alike. I thought, however, that Christian Ethics would give me God’s own truth about how God wanted me to live. Many great theologians and spiritual leaders had written on Christian Ethics, yet the more I read their works, the more disturbed I became at what I found. The vast majority of Christian Ethics is really little more than new and improved Judaism or Islam with a grace safety net. Christian Ethics, for all intents and purposes, was just another take on the Divine Command Theory (God’s commands are good, God’s prohibitions are evil) with the exception being, we now had Jesus to show us God’s mercy and forgiveness instead of just having God’s justice and judgment.
I was finally in a place where I accepted the presuppositions of Christianity so Christian Ethics seemed like a logical choice for right conduct. I believed God exists, I believed God has made His will known to us through general and special revelation. I believed the Bible is the inerrant word of God and authoritative for doctrine, correction and reproof, God’s very own will revealed to us. I believed I had the tools to interpret God’s will and word correctly, at least after much prayer, counsel and study. Yet the more I studied God’s standard of right conduct, even in the context of Christian Ethics, an awful realization came upon me. Jesus, rather than taking the edge off of the Old Testament Law, rather made it even more precise and demanding. In the Law of Moses one simply had to follow the rules, and if you broke them there were a series of sacrifices you could perform to bring you back into right standing with God and His people. Jesus went beyond the external requirements of the law and demanded right intention, attitude and thoughts to be in conjunction with our external obedience.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “I have not come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:17+18) The Law of Moses tells us, thou shalt not kill; Jesus now equates anger with murder. The law tells us not to commit adultery; Jesus now equates lustful thoughts with lustful actions. The law talks about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Jesus tells us about the law of non retribution and to not resist evil. In times past people were told to love their neighbor and hate their enemies, Jesus now tells us to love both our neighbors and our enemies, to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who use us. Matthew 5 ends with Jesus’ standard for right living. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Jesus is showing us once again that God’s law and standard for righteous living is perfection. The only person who can live out a Christian Ethic is Christ.
If the doctrine of salvation and sanctification are both dependent on the grace and righteousness of God rather than the efforts and intentions of men, then why is Christianity so obsessed with rules? Different Christians use proof texts to try and conform the scriptures to their idea of right and wrong rather than letting the scriptures demonstrate that all come short of any standard of righteousness. Different Christian sects love to “cherry pick” through the Old Testament and choose the laws they want to impose and rationalize away the ones that they don’t want to keep. Besides the big ten, there are over 613 commandments given in the Old Testament. While Christianity proclaims we are not under the law but rather under grace, it seems to be obsessed with creating new rules and guidelines just like the Jews of old. God gave the Law of Moses; religious thinkers gave us the commentary. God told us to keep the Sabbath holy, religious fanatics told us how far we could walk, how much we could lift, what activities we could participate in and what needed to be avoided.
Christian Ethics by and large have tended to be a Christ centered self improvement program. Rules and guidelines are laid down to promote good behavior and discourage evil actions. Many Christians like to make hedges (buffers between God’s prohibitions and ourselves). Let me give you some examples; if God’s command is to be not drunk, a hedge might be, don’t drink hard alcohol, or only drink in moderation, or only drink in moderation at special occasions, or don’t ever drink at all, because then there is no possibility of getting drunk, or even more extreme, don’t even give the appearance of drinking, or patronizing establishments that sell alcohol. You can make hedges to guard you from most anything. This could include modesty, entertainment, sex, etc. I have no problem with people making personal hedges if they know they have struggles with certain types of temptations. An alcoholic should probably avoid bars or social activities centered on drinking or people who try to entice them to return to a life of intoxication. Someone struggling with lust may need to avoid certain types of entertainment, images or activities which fan the flame of desire. If one struggles with pride they may need to avoid leadership roles or participation in competition.
Hedges, or using wisdom in one’s life to be careful not to invite sin, are not the problems. The problem is when people confuse their personal hedges with God’s own standard and then impose their hedges on others. I’m sure it is often done out of the best intentions. If people come out of destructive lifestyles or backgrounds and know the dangers of certain activities through personal experience, it is easy to see why they would want to protect others from the mistakes they had made or negative experiences they had encountered. I am not saying rules, standards and guidelines are wrong. I’m simply saying that when we equate our ability to keep the rules with moral goodness, and our inability to keep the rules with moral failure, we have fallen back under the curse of the law. For no one is justified by the law. The problem is, the more rules, laws and regulations that we make doesn’t make people more lawful, but rather it makes people more clever, rebellious or lawless. The Law of God shows our inability to live a morally upright life and is meant to drive us in despair to the cross. For those who think they can keep the law it leads to self delusion, self righteousness, self deception and ultimately self destruction.
Colossians 2:8-17, 20-23 KJV
8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
23 Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.
Galatians 2:16-21 KJV
16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.
18 For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.
19 For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.
20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
The whole point of ethics and morality is to live a life based on right conduct. The same issues that affect our attempts at trying to sanctify ourselves apply to any attempts to live an ethical and moral life. We are trying to reform ourselves, or in the case of most Christian Ethics, asking God to make us better people and to help us overcome our deficiencies. Salvation isn’t an ethical stain removal service that we stop by and get a touch up whenever we find ourselves soiled. Salvation is rather having our soiled garment burned in the furnace and having it replaced by a stain proof garment. Mortality is exchanged for immortality and our carnal mind for the very mind of Christ. Saved is a Christian cliché, but if you ask many Christians what they were saved from it is very likely they will tell you they were saved from hell. The more I think about what being saved means, I realized that God saved me from myself. The divine solution for sanctification is the same solution for ethics and morality. The only way out is death. Death frees us from the law and it frees us from ourselves. Jesus did come to save us, but he also came to slay us. Yet, He didn’t leave us dead, but quickened our very spirits and we now find newness of life in him.
Because I am dead, I no longer need ethics or morality. Because I am dead I no longer have to try and live up to some impossible standard. Because I am dead I am now no longer the slave of sin. Because I am dead I no longer am a part of the Adamic race. Death is the end of self and the beginning of the newness of life in Christ. Because I am alive in Christ my actions are an outflow of who I am, rather than an attempt to become someone I’m not. Because I am alive in Christ I now have perfect righteousness. Because I am now alive in Christ I now am a partaker of the divine nature. Old things have passed away and all things have become new. Ethics, religion and morality are for those who are still striving for self correction and self perfection; they all reek of the ways of Cain and are a slap in the face to the finished work of Christ. Because I am dead I no longer have need of such things, for my salvation and sanctification are found in the One who gave Himself for me and my hope, peace and righteousness are all found in Him. This is why; the dead have no need of ethics.