Doctrines and Ethics

Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12)

A Christian ministry that is faithful to perform its function installs a new system of doctrines in the minds of converts. On this foundation, the ministry then installs a new system of ethics. The revealed doctrinal principles necessarily produce the authoritative ethical principles. Strictly speaking, ethical principles may be categorized under doctrinal principles, since they are still doctrines, only that they are doctrines about thought and behavior. For example, the divine command, “You shall not murder,” is a doctrine about the preserving and the taking of human life.

Ethical doctrines are logically preceded by and dependent on epistemological and metaphysical doctrines, that is, doctrines that closely relate to the first principles of the biblical worldview. These include the necessity of Scripture, the reality of God, the depravity of man, the divinity of Christ, and so on. Continuing with the above example, the authority of the command, “You shall not murder,” is derived from the sovereignty of God, his identity as the Creator, the nature of man as his creation and subordinate, our innate knowledge of the moral law, the reality, authority, and perspicuity of written revelation, and other relevant metaphysical and epistemological doctrines.

Nevertheless, the distinction between doctrines and ethics is merely a practical one, made for the sake of convenience in discussion. In reality, we mean doctrines about the metaphysical aspects of the Christian worldview, or the epistemological aspects, or the ethical aspects, and so on. These doctrines are interrelated, and some are more foundational than others. This means that the doctrines can be logically prioritized, but they are equally authoritative. In other words, the existence of God is more foundational and logically prior to the divine command, “You shall not murder,” but the doctrine of the existence of God and the divine command that forbids murder proceed from the same absolute authority, and are therefore equal in truth and power, compelling agreement and obedience.

It is a common occurrence in religious discussions to evaluate metaphysics on the foundation of ethics, or to use ethics to evaluate metaphysics. The logical priority of metaphysics alerts us as to the error of this approach. This fallacy has influenced the way some Christians present the gospel and challenge unbelievers, and as a result has obscured the rational superiority of the Christian faith.

To illustrate, suppose a non-Christian affirms that it is morally acceptable or even commendable to murder all those who disagree with him. It is often suggested that such a principle is morally repugnant, and on this basis, any view of truth and reality that produced this principle must be false. But the principle is determined to be morally repugnant only by a different view of truth and reality in the first place. This unbeliever finds the principle acceptable or commendable because of his own view of truth and reality. In fact, in his view such killings would not be considered murder. It would not be the unjust killings of innocent people.

This approach assumes agreement on an ethical principle and argues for the metaphysical propositions that best account for the ethical principle. Suppose that the unbeliever opposes mass murder. The believer then demonstrates that the unbeliever’s metaphysical assumptions cannot produce such an ethical principle, but that only the biblical worldview can account for it. The believer seems to think that the ethical principle is nonnegotiable, and assumes (hopes?) that the unbeliever thinks the same way. But if the unbeliever is more faithful to his metaphysics – his “god” – than the believer is to the Christian God (the believer should not place ethics before God in the first place), then the unbeliever would maintain his metaphysical assumptions and abandon the ethical principle on which the believer bases his argument.

The Christian, of course, is correct in both his metaphysics and his ethics. He is right in thinking that mass murder is wrong, and he is right in thinking that only biblical metaphysics can account for this judgment. But although he is correct in terms of his knowledge of truth and reality, his approach fails to demonstrate this because it does not maintain the logical priority of metaphysics over ethics. In other words, what is good depends on what is true and what is real. What kind of universe is this, in which mass murder is wrong? Is there a God who reigns supreme, and who has created all living and nonliving things, and thus carries absolute authority to define right and wrong, and has indeed defined right and wrong for us?

Appeal to agreed ethical principles is often legitimate, but it depends on the purpose for which such an appeal is made and the role given to it in one’s system of thought. If it is to determine the correct view of reality, then it is a fallacy, since the ethical principle is not fixed unless the metaphysical assumption is first fixed, so that the unbeliever may abandon the former in order to save the latter. Now if the unbeliever abandons his metaphysics to save his ethics, then in terms of intellectual ability he is even more foolish then the believer first assumes. But the unbeliever might react this way because he somehow finds that in this case the ethical principle is nonnegotiable, whereas his view of metaphysics is not.

The biblical explanation is that this ethical principle is part of the innate knowledge of God’s moral laws that he has written into the hearts of all men, so that they can find no excuse for their many sins. The unbeliever instinctively knows that the ethical principle is nonnegotiable, because he instinctively knows that it is a divine law, founded on the authority of the Christian God, a view of metaphysics that is also nonnegotiable. Yet he suppresses this instinctive knowledge, and is therefore unable to articulate it, and is seemingly unaware of it.

In any case, in speaking to the unbeliever, we must not base metaphysics on ethics, but sooner or later, we must make it clear that our ethics is based on our metaphysics. Sooner is better. Because ethics is not fixed without metaphysics, ethics must never be the point on which the whole discussion turns, especially if the debate is ultimately about metaphysics, as in the existence and character of God.

Nevertheless, although logical priority belongs to metaphysics, to begin an apologetic encounter with ethics is legitimate when the purpose is to draw attention to metaphysics, or to draw attention to fixed innate and revealed moral principles, which again draw attention to metaphysics. The point is not that we must never begin a discussion with ethics, but that we should never give the impression that metaphysical principles can be judged by seemingly shared ethical principles. The worst that can happen is for us to give non-Christian the impression that our God is merely a heuristic assumption.

The logical priority of metaphysics must also be maintained when teaching those already converted to the Christian faith. The doctrines of Scripture, God, Christ, and so on, must be given logical priority, if not always chronological priority in teaching, before the ethical principles that dictate the believer’s thought and behavior. It is an error to give the impression that we believe what we do about God because we believe what we do about right and wrong. Instead, we believe what we do about right and wrong because we believe what we do about God, because we believe about God what he has revealed to us about himself.

Only when this logical priority is maintained – only when God precedes ethics – does it make sense to say that to reject this system of ethics, the biblical system of ethics, is not to reject mere man, but to reject God himself (v. 8). And only when there is a system of ethics the rejection of which is not to reject mere man but to reject God himself does that system of ethics carry authority to compel agreement and obedience. That is, a system of ethics carries authority only when the rejection of which amounts to the rejection of God, and not the rejection of mere man. It can be said on behalf of such an ethical system, “Agree, or else…” and “Obey, or else…” – only such a system can define merits, carry threats, and promise rewards.

To put all of the above in simple words, because God says so, this is right, and because God says so, that is wrong. God commands such and such, and therefore you must do it. God forbids such and such, and therefore you must not do it. You are to believe this because God says it is true. You must renounce that because God says it is false. You must think this way because God tells you to think this way. You must not think that way because God tells you not to think that way. This is the essence of biblical ethics.

Christian ethics is based on the divine command system. This stands in contrast to ethics that are based on naturalistic determinism, subjective intuition, cultural norm, relative judgment or preference, projected utility, projected effect, universal obligation and applicability, and other principles. All non-Christian ethical systems are failures in that they lack coherence and justification, and in many cases, it is impossible to carry them out in thought and practice.

For example, the idea that the right or good course of action to follow in a given situation is the one that yields the highest good for the greatest number of people is impossible in practice. First, the calculation requires omniscience to accomplish. Second, what is “good” for people requires either a definition that does not come from this principle, or another calculation that requires another calculation before that, thus generating an infinite regress for every moral decision. Third, it must be decided whether the calculation is done concerning the short-term or long-terms effects of the action, that is, if the calculation can be made in the first place. The only way to salvage this theory is to uproot the whole thing and place it on the foundation of the divine command system, since only God can define what is good and make the relevant calculations. But placing this theory on the divine command system destroys the theory itself. Moreover, only God has the right to say that this is the right principle in the first place, but he does not say this.

On the other hand, the divine command system supplies specific content for moral reasoning and decision-making. Another point of superiority is that it can be taught. There is no need to advance the proposition, “You shall not murder,” as an intuitive ethical principle – many people might not share this intuition, even if they should. Rather, we can expect them to learn, “You shall not murder,” because we tell them, “You shall not murder,” as a command from God. It follows from this that it is possible under the divine command system to resolve disagreements and to expose rebellion by appealing to a common, public, and absolute authority.

Against some objections, the divine commands are always clear and they never contradict one another, and it is possible to show this. Objections are raised not because people can discover rational or practical difficulties with the system, but because people wish to disobey the divine commands, or since it requires obedience to God in all facets of life, to dispense with the system altogether. Thus the divine command system of ethics is the most – the only – rational, authoritative, and perfect system, but it is also the most hated one.

Sometimes even professing believers find fault with it, as if it is inadequate to provide guidance, but this only exposes their foolishness and rebellion. It is not that the system cannot guide, but that people do not want to follow its guidance. There is a God who speaks and commands, but people do not want to hear and obey. Those who profess the faith but protest this system do not lend credibility to the objections, but rather weaken the credibility of their profession.

In any case, the main reason that the divine command system of ethics is the only legitimate system is that it proceeds necessarily from the only true system of metaphysics and epistemology. There really is an all-sovereign God (metaphysics) who has really revealed his mind in verbal propositions recorded in the written text of Scripture (epistemology), and this text includes an entire system of ethical commands that is sufficient to provide morally binding guidance to all of life. The person who heeds and obeys these instructions is “equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).

Paul is aware that he delivers instructions “by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (v. 2), and he reminds the Thessalonians of it. Since the instructions come from God, to reject these instructions is to reject not mere man, but to reject God himself (v. 8). No terrible consequence might come about for rejecting a mere man’s opinion, but to reject God’s command is to invite punishment, if not damnation (v. 6). The implication of a knowing and persistent defiance is that the person is not a child of God, and is doomed to suffer the everlasting torture of hellfire. This is the absolute authority and serious implication of the Christian system of ethics.

When we are reading or preaching from the Bible, we are reading or preaching a message recorded by the same Paul that delivered instructions to the people of his day “by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” And we are reading or preaching from the inspired documents produced by the same prophets and apostles who spoke by the authority of God. Since God the Father and the Lord Jesus still possess the same authority today, the doctrines and precepts that we find in the Bible also carry the same authority today. Because the doctrines and precepts in the Bible are revealed and delivered by the authority of God, those who reject the Bible do not reject mere men or a mere book, but they reject God himself. God will punish them for this defiance. The positive aspect of this is that to follow God’s precepts for living is to adopt a lifestyle that pleases him (v. 1). This is the ongoing authority and relevance of the Christian system of ethics.

Paul makes particular mention of sexual immorality (v. 3). It is possible that the Thessalonians still struggle to shake themselves from the perversions associated with pagan culture and worship, but the admonition is applicable in general. Christians ought to control their bodies, and to adopt a lifestyle that is “holy and honorable” (v. 4). This is said in contrast to “the heathen, who do not know God” (v. 5).

In Christian writing and exposition, it is appropriate to regularly draw attention to the depraved mindset and lifestyle of the non-Christians, and in contrast, the superior condition of the Christians. Paul makes the point: “The non-Christians do not know God, but now you are Christians, and you do know God. They are inferior, and you are superior, so act like it.” Sometimes Christians hesitate to assert that they are better than the non-Christians, thinking that it is humble to avoid the claim of superiority or to practice self-deprecation even in contrast to the non-Christians.

However, when we refer to aspects of our intelligence, personality, and lifestyle that have been addressed in redemption, self-deprecation soon crosses the line from admissions of personal shortcomings to blasphemies against the work of Christ. It is one thing to claim superiority on the basis of something inherent in ourselves – that comes from a prideful and self-righteous attitude. But it is another thing to declare that we are superior in intelligence and in character because of what Christ has done for us and in us – that comes from true faith and humility. God makes Christians superior to non-Christians by his sovereign grace through Jesus Christ and by his Holy Spirit.

The alternative is to declare that Christ’s work is futile, and that the Spirit’s power is ineffective. This is not humility, but a self-serving pretense to humility that denigrates the grace of God and the work of Christ. If you were just like other non-Christians before your conversion, but Christ has made you better than before through conversion, this means that you are now better than the non-Christians. The logic is unavoidable; false humility is self-defeating. As Christians, if we are not already better in some aspects, and potentially better in many other aspects, then redemption has no meaning and no effect, and we believe and preach the gospel in vain.

I am a Christian, and therefore in intelligence, in character, and also in many other aspects I am superior to the non-Christians. This is not because I am inherently superior to them, or that I had always been superior to them. I was as foolish, immoral, and depraved in every way as they are before conversion, except for the divine decree for my conversion, still secret before it was carried out. I am superior because I am a Christian, but there is no room for boasting since I did not make myself a Christian, but I am what I am because of God’s sovereign choice. He sent Christ to save me, and he gave me his Holy Spirit. Therefore, although I cannot boast about anything in myself, I will boast about what he has done, including what he has done in me (1 Corinthians 1:31; Galatians 6:14). True faith relies on something outside of and other than oneself – namely, Jesus Christ – so that its confidence becomes as great as the object on which it relies.

This application of redemption also renders Paul’s ethical admonition reasonable, for it follows from the superior condition of the Christians, effected by the power of God at conversion. In light of the contrast between the believers and the unbelievers, how can we continue to indulge in sexual immorality, as if we are unintelligent beasts (Psalm 32:9), which are without understanding, and without the knowledge of God? The duty to excel has been placed upon us, and there is nothing to excuse us from it.

Sexual immorality is the norm for non-Christians. Paul calls us to think differently, to live differently, and to distinguish ourselves from the unbelievers, who do not know God. We must mention this over and over again because the devil is like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. It is vital to spiritual survival and progress for us to remain alert and vigilant. Failing this, many Christian families and congregations have been infiltrated by non-Christian beliefs and practices. And failing to remain aware of God’s unchanging standard and the Spirit’s conviction, some have lost sensitivity to the gross immorality among them and around them. Then, when one of them awakens to the divine command and voices dissent, he is ironically criticized and persecuted.

It should be unnecessary to point out that just because a sin is common does not mean that it is not a sin. The more common it is the more alarmed we should be about the situation. When we consider what Scripture says on this issue, and how often it goes unheeded, it becomes obvious that we have not been diligent and fierce enough in proclaiming God’s commandments. If the typical admonition is rare and weak, to outright condemn sexual immorality with threats of punishment is considered socially and even ecclesiastically unacceptable. No coward is qualified to proclaim the word of God, and alas, so few are qualified that the rest of us must take up the slack with a seemingly inhuman severity in our preaching. Such preaching is good and necessary, and Paul confers to us the authority we need.

It makes a difference if a person is an adulterer, a fornicator, a homosexual, or some other perverted person. Paul writes, “The Lord will punish men for all such sins” (v. 6b), and adds, “as we have already told you and warned you” (v. 6c). The topic assumes a prominent place in the apostle’s ethical teachings, and he considers it worthy of repetition, accompanied with threats. Verse 6 is better rendered, “the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (ESV). This is said in the context of the previous statement, “in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him” (v. 6a). In other words, God will take it upon himself to avenge not only his own honor, that his command has been disregarded (v. 8), but he will also avenge the party that has been wronged.

Therefore, it is nothing short of a gross dereliction of duty when a Christian minister fails to declare God’s command on this issue, and to do so accompanied by threats. Scripture compels us to preach, “If you commit adultery, God will punish you. If you are a homosexual, God will make you suffer.” God is the avenger – he will destroy your life for cheating on your spouse, for defiling a person’s husband or wife, and he will torture you in hell forever after he is done with you in this life. Anyone who thinks that this is false or at least too harsh for Christian preaching should start reading the Bible. Anything weaker than this is not the whole truth. This is Christianity – take it and obey it, or leave it and suffer.

It is fashionable to preach about compassion, understanding, reconciliation, second chances, and so on, toward adulterers and homosexuals. Scripture does not talk about sexual immorality in this manner. It defines and upholds God’s strict standard on the issue and condemns all those who transgress. There is indeed forgiveness in Jesus Christ, but notice that Paul issues his warning of God’s vengeance even to Christians. So no one should think that he can make a mockery of divine pardon.

If we are to reflect the scriptural emphasis on this issue, then it is necessary for us to multiply the accusations and condemnations in our preaching, instead of to avoid or reduce them. Preachers who refuse to hold out the inflexible standard of the word of God in this crooked and depraved generation (Philippians 2:15-16) should admit that they are unfit for the ministry and resign. If they wish to be positive in every way, they ought to become motivational speakers, and motivate their hearers straight to hell. They should stop pretending to be pastors and prophets to God’s people.

Verse 9 illustrates that not every admonition corresponds to an existing shortcoming among Paul’s readers. He says that there is no need to tell the Thessalonians to walk in love, since they already exemplify this godly characteristic. The admonition is that they should do so “more and more” (v. 10), but it is not as if they are not doing it at all. The reason that they have flourished in this area of their faith is attributed to God’s guidance, that they have been “taught by God.” We may be certain that, in his initial interactions with these converts, Paul had mentioned the virtue of love and how it flows from genuine faith in Christ. But as he says elsewhere, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:7). He may say it, and indeed this is a necessary part, but only God can make them do it. This principle inspires both humility and confidence in ministers of the gospel. Humility, because the success cannot be credited to us. Confidence, because the effect is not limited by us.

No matter how talented and resourceful, a minister can never produce the result that he desires by his own power, bringing his hearers from conversion to perfection by his own words and efforts. We are dealing in matters of the spirit, and after some distance the power of man reaches an end, and only God can bridge the gap and cause the process to bear fruit. And even the things man seems to be able to do are caused and energized by God. There is a vast difference between one who is sent with nothing but human credentials, and one who is sent by God’s sovereign ordination, and who goes forth with invincible confidence, accompanied by divine power.

The application of this truth extends beyond ministry to others. The more personal and immediate question is whether we ourselves have been taught by God. Many believers take a deistic approach to their Christian life, but the Scripture indicates that healthy disciples should be conscious of God’s illumination and endowment. The Thessalonians have been “taught by God.” Then, it is said that God works in the Philippians “to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). And God would “make clear” to them some aspects of Paul’s teachings (Philippians 3:15). Also, Paul writes to Timothy, “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7).

Verse 11 might not seem severe, but its content would trouble some people. Against a culture that entices one to crave adventure and greatness, to achieve and to become the extraordinary, it is as if Paul writes, “Be ambitious to be unambitious,” “Make it your ambition to have no ambition,” or “Strive hard to be ordinary.” It is not that there is a paradox within the verse, but when non-Christian standards are used to define worthy ambitions, then the verse shows that the Christian faith contradicts these non-Christian ideals. The verse stands against the non-Christian philosophy of life, and it is a corrective for the believers who have adopted an ungodly way of thinking. God indeed calls some people to lead unusual lives, but even then he defines greatness and excitement differently, and in a way that does not contradict verse 11.

The admonition is associated with a teaching against meddlesomeness and idleness, and indeed this modifies the sense of the “quiet life” advocated, although the above usage is not excluded. Sometimes it is assumed that a number of the Thessalonian Christians have misapplied that teaching of Christ’s second coming, using it as an excuse to escape the normal routines and stations of life. Although the admonition is broad in application, and thus is certainly relevant to such an assumption about the Thessalonians, there is in fact no clear indication of a connection between the two, that is, between the doctrine of the second coming and the unproductive lifestyle. It might be that these converts avoid labor for some other reason.

That said, eschatological frenzy has produced precisely this problem among many professing Christians in our own day, so that the assumed imminence of Christ’s return is used as an excuse to forsake normal routines and stations, and this often translates into meddlesomeness, idleness, and dependence on the charity of others, all the time casting themselves as eschatological heroes who have been called “for such a time as this.” These individuals fail to “win the respect of outsiders” (v. 12), but giving reason for unbelievers to consider us bums and fools, they dishonor the name of Christ and bring shame upon us all. To them, Paul’s instruction is most appropriate: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you.” This directive comes from a chosen apostle by divine authority, so anyone who disobeys it cannot at the same time present himself as a devout Christian, faithfully awaiting the Lord’s return.