Cultural beliefs and biases determine your outlook on life.
For example, Aristotle pushed “all things in moderation”. You’ve probably spouted that phrase yourself. It sounds intelligent. Especially when you’re dieting and you really want a taste of something “forbidden”. The cultural belief influences you going and having that taste. “All things in moderation” make that taste acceptable.
Or Utilitarianism pushes “the greatest good of the greatest number”. Such a fantastic statement as well, right? We all want the greatest number of people to be blessed and affected positively in life. This cultural belief influences how your treat others and the decisions you will make in order to assure “the greatest good of the greatest number”.
These are what’s called situational ethics statements. They help govern how we make our decisions in any given situation.
The most common situational ethic in our postmodern culture is “it doesn’t matter what you do so long as nobody gets hurt”. Or in other words, truth and morals are relative. You do you. Go ahead and count how many times you’ve said that statement this past month. It sounds non judgy and kind doesn’t it?! This ethic or deep belief in your heart from this one statement determines how you make all sorts of decisions and relate to others.
But when we look at the Bible to determine our ethics, we quickly realize Biblical ethics are not merely situational statements. Instead, Biblical ethics are theological which simply means that every single decision is directly related to how we view God.
Every choice we make directly relates to how we view God, his character, his will, his actions, and his purpose.
What Do I Mean By How We View God?
A majority of the United States would say they believe in God. But this statement doesn’t necessarily affirm they believe in the God of the Bible. Most who respond yes are simply stating they believe in a higher power of some sort. The God of the Bible is just the most common “higher power” for people to refer.
God knew this would be an issue for the Israelites as well. Almost every single nation in the Old Testament would answer “do you believe in god?” with an affirmative answer. However, we see God wasn’t wanting an affirmative answer. He wanted them to KNOW him.
Throughout the entire Exodus, we read God state over and over again, “and then you shall know that I am the Lord”.
This wasn’t an ego trip by God. This was a statement of a deep belief of the heart. God was instructing us by stating “don’t just affirm there is a God. Know God deeply and out of that knowledge, you will make your decisions.”
The Bible doesn’t supply situational ethic statements that simply tickle your ears or makes you feel good about your decisions.
The Bible demonstrates a Biblical ethic centered around the character of God that determines HOW you choose to live your life and make your decisions. In other words, understanding Biblical ethics and your view of God should determine your life’s choices, not a cultural belief or statement.
God’s Identity and Character
When we step beyond simply affirming that God exists and get to know him, we discover his identity and his character.
Let’s take it off the abstract for a minute and be practical. My kids know Brent and I value honesty. We’ve modeled it. We taught it. We’ve practiced it even when it’s hard.
So last year one of my kids came to me in tears confessing “I’ve kept this secret from you for a few months and it’s torn me up. I need to tell you what I did.”
Yes the prompting from the Holy Spirit led to the confession, but the knowledge that at our very core, we value honesty helped this child listen to the Spirit and respond correctly.
The same is true about how we view God. When we know his identity and his character, we recognize when the Holy Spirit prompts us to act in certain ways and then respond accordingly. This response to life does not happen by a mere acknowledgment that God exists.
Nor does it happen when we don’t study His Word. Just like the Israelites couldn’t know God until they had walked WITH him and seen him in action, we can’t know God if we don’t make an effort to get to know him as HE shows himself to be through his Word. Knowing God is how we start understanding Biblical ethics.
God Acts First
God always demonstrates his character before we are asked to respond with an ethical decision.
For example, he initiated grace and redemption towards us and then asks us to respond in light of his action. Our ethical response then is due to a personal encounter with God and not out of a blind obedience to some rules or regulations. We respond to who God is and what he has done for us. We don’t respond wanting to earn something from God.
We see this throughout the Exodus story.
God doesn’t give the laws to Moses at the burning bush encounter. He doesn’t ask the people to follow a set of guidelines at the beginning and IF they follow the laws, THEN he will free them.
Instead He acts first and desires a response second.
He revealed himself through the plagues, freed them from slavery, led them through the desert, and provided for their needs. THEN he made a covenant with them asking them to respond to who they now know he is. God acted and made the Israelites his people first. They didn’t have to earn it. Once they understood his character and identity, they responded to it with their ethical decisions. Their response was based on who they knew God to be not on the cultural beliefs surrounding them.
So what should our response be? Guilty obedience because God has done so much for us? Is God trying to back us into a corner to force us to “pay him back”?
You have to read the whole story of the Bible to see this is not God’s character. God invites the people over and over again to get to know his character. He gives them laws to demonstrate what he values. He punishes to show behavior that will lead to destruction. He blesses to demonstrate choices leading to godliness and life abundant.
Over and over again, scripture points out the character of God to help us in our understanding of Biblical ethics.
And our response should be to mirror that character out of a love for him.
Our Moment by Moment Decisions are Directly Related to Our View of God
If we intimately know God, we reflect the character of God in our choices. The pithy ethical statements and cultural beliefs of our time should be held up against the truth of who God is and always has been. We look to God’s example to determine our next steps.
Intimately knowing God, not just affirming God exists, is the first step in truly living out your faith and understanding Biblical ethics.
This is why it is important for you to find Bible studies that aren’t simply topical and cause you to focus on yourself and your own problems. Those studies are great BUT they won’t necessarily help you know God better. You’ll just understand your own sinfulness better.
In addition to topical studies, make sure you dive into the whole story of Scripture and look for God as he reveals himself to you. You can not begin understanding Biblical ethics without truly studying how God shows himself throughout all of redemptive history.
Your First Steps
If studying the scriptures seems intimidating, here is a free resource for you that will take you step by step through how to read your Bible. Sometimes simply following steps gives you confidence to get started.
Next, grab this 1 John study and begin practicing those steps using this inductive study. It is a short study that will immediately help you practice the steps laid out in your free resource in an easy to use way. You’ll finish this study feeling more confident to jump into God’s Word on your own and start the life-long journey of knowing God better and thus reflecting his character with your choices.
Overall, intimately knowing God is a must if you want to truly live out your faith and make your decisions based on the truth and not simply on the current societies situational ethic. God is timeless and basing our ethics on him and who he is will always produce a better life than simply following the crowd or beliefs of today.
(If you are interested in Biblical ethics, Old Testament Ethics is a great resource for you!)
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