Results tagged “Ethics” from Reformation21 Blog

"In" with the World


Over the last few weeks, former pastor and Christian author Josh Harris has made a public resurgence through his shocking Instagram announcement. This is sad news, and we should mourn over it. When any supposed brother or sister in the faith announces they have fallen away--whether publicly or privately--our response ought to be prayerful, gentle, and soaked with tears. 

However, his particular announcement also serves as a reminder of the sneaking temptation to seek affirmation outside of Christ. Even as Josh broadcasts falling away from the Christian faith, he goes on to offer an apology to the LGBTQ+ community, writing,

"I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry." 

No doubt Josh's apology is motivated by a sincere desire to extend love. He is acting on desires and themes he learned, believed, and preached as both a pastor and a Christian. Christ himself came to love the unlovable, to extend grace to those desperately needing it, to shine light where only darkness once reigned. Though we're not always great at it, humans feel deep in their bones the desire to be loved and accepted, and to extend the same to others. And there may be real places where apology to the individuals in the LGTBQ+ community is necessary. Every human should be valued and respected as a fellow image-bearer of God. 

With that said, Josh's apology brings up a timely and relevant issue: Misconstrued righteousness. As Reformed Christians, we are taught and believe that true righteousness comes only through Christ. We affirm that, in our mysterious union with Christ, his righteousness becomes our righteousness. As Paul writes, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). We who could do no good on our own must cling to Christ; only then will we have the righteousness needed to stand confidently before God. Christ is our affirmation and commendation before the Father. Righteousness is found only in the Person of Christ; we need not pursue affirmation from any other than Christ alone. 

In today's culture, however, there is another supposed means of righteousness--what I will call "worldly righteousness." I understand that the term "worldly" gets thrown around, so allow me to attempt a definition: By worldly, I have in mind the whole of the philosophies and ideas that coalesce in order to form a particular godless and humanistic worldview. In short, I mean the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. For instance, Christians believe that joy is found only in glorifying God through making him Lord and obeying his Word. The Zeitgeist claims that joy is found only in self-independence, self-affirmation, and self-love (these are the actual words used). This is a righteousness wholly distinct from Christian righteousness, acquired in whatever way the current age deems to be right and good and honorable.

Here is where Josh's recent post is helpful. He articulates this worldly righteousness regarding the very complex and difficult issue of LGBTQ+ tolerance and acceptance. According to the Zeitgeist, real righteousness, robust wisdom, and authentic love are found in the total acceptance and praise of another's lifestyle. To remain "in" with the world, one must adhere to and affirm what the world adheres to and affirms. And Josh has decided to do this, trading the truth of God's Word for the philosophy of the age. He has traded Scripture's definition of holiness and goodness for the holiness and goodness of the world. Specifically, he has traded Scripture's clear teaching regarding the sin of homosexuality for the teaching of the world which deems this perfectly good, holy, and beneficial. 

For this decision, he has gained, in a sense, the whole world. He has earned the world's respect for his authenticity and honest struggle against old confines. He will have new friends affirming, encouraging, and welcoming him with open arms. And these new friends will declare him righteous. 

Josh's story matters for Christians, because his temptation to worldly righteousness will become the ever-increasing temptation for every believer. The decision lies between two ways of righteousness: The biblical way finds the alien righteousness of Christ accounted unto the believer as a gift; the worldly way finds the self-declared and mutually-affirmed righteousness of the world... at the cost of forsaking biblical truth. And in the eyes of the world, that cost just a few archaic and intolerant ideas. 

The pressure to accept this cost is already mounting; whether in journalism, social media, or entertainment, there is an ever-ballooning pressure to become a friend of the world. If you do, you gain the world's affirmation, its welcome, and access to its table. You get to be on the inside. Most people want to be "in," something that C.S. Lewis wrote about in his essay, "The Inner Ring." In this case, accepting the worldly righteousness is the way to become (what Lewis calls) an "inner ringer," reassured that you are "in" with the world. And that will be your reward.

Jesus had something to say about this decision in Matthew's Gospel. After telling his disciples that the cost of following him would mean bearing their own crosses, he turns and asks a rhetorical question:

"For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26).

We know this is a rhetorical question because the answer for Jesus is obvious: There is zero profit in gaining the whole world. For Jesus, the profit at stake is eternal life with himself, enjoying eternal fullness of love with God. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus made the point that for their hollow good works, the Pharisees "have received their reward" (6:2). That reward was the praise of people. The profit for gaining the whole world works the same way. For joining hands with the world, a person gains the fickle praise of other people, and that's all. It is just as Chaucer illustrated in The House of Fame: The praise of people amounts to nothing more than having your name etched in a wall of ice. 

For his apology, Joshua Harris gets his name added to that wall of ice. A similar offer stands open to us all. In whose affirmation and commendation will you rest your soul? In whose righteousness will you stake your profit? These are the questions before us. May we consider well our answer. 

Kevin Vollema is pursuing his Master of Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also an intern at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.

Related Links

Leaving the Faith: Reflections of a Prodigal by Lisa Robinson Spencer

Gurnall on Celebrity Pastors by Jeremy Walker

Apostasy Lit: Why Do They Leave? by Steve Nichols

Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear to Tread by Carl Trueman

Identical Equity?


The battle cry of "equity" serves as a summons to action, or at least outrage, wherever a person feels an injustice, or a passing over. The trouble for Christians is, in a field of politically charged verbage, words like "equity" or "individualism" tend to get obscured by the broader political tapestries these terms are woven into. Thus the politically conservative Christian will hear and react against a demand for equity without necessarily having a clear reason why, or knowing what they are reacting against.

God declares that He rules with infallible equity, and that His kingdom is one of perfect justice, righteousness and equity (Ps 67:4; 75:2; 98:9) The great promise of Christ is that He will not judge by appearances, but rather make his evaluations of all people, including the poor and meek, with righteousness and equity. (Is 11:4). Equity, or fairness, is deeply rooted in God's character, and one of the central pillars of His kingdom which Jesus establishes, and which Christians are called to testify to and display in our lives.

But what do we mean by equity? Is equity an echo of God's declaration that what matters is the heart-- the reason why He passed over Saul and chose David? Is it the desire to set up a fair competition where David the underdog can still triumph over Goliath? Is it taking up Jesus' imperative to the Pharisees: to stop judging by appearances, but to judge rightly? These are goals which Christians should cherish.

If, on the other hand, equity means identical existence and reality, God is the most inequitable being we could imagine. Taken in that sense, He is not equitable in whom He sets His love on: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (Rom 9:13). He is not equitable in whom He gives power to. He raises up kings and puts them down. (Daniel 2:21). He is not equitable in assigning race, or gender, or athletic prowess, or intelligence. Nor is this the sort of equity we would want.   

Surely no one imagines that equity is some sort of nightmarish carbon copied cul-de-sac, where everyone lives in the same type of house, wears the same clothes, drives the same car, and goes to the same schools? We recognize that a proper celebration of diversity celebrates the expansiveness of who God is, and what only He can hold together perfectly through His Spirit. No sane person would argue that establishing equity means to jettison, rather than accept and celebrate differences.

What most often lies at the heart of debates around equity are views on socio-economic differences. As the world's riches increase, so does the wealth gap, studies say.[1] It's questionable that a medieval serf working the land for his feudal lord would have agreed with this comparative historical assessment, but the question remains what are we to make of the issue of wealth inequity? This is where everyone has room to get a little uncomfortable.

God warns those who are rich in this present world not to set their heart on riches, but rather to be rich in good deeds, generous, and ready to share. (1 Tim 6:17) Followers of Christ cannot shelter behind hard work and a free market as grounds to do what they wish financially. Rather, wealthy Christians have an obligation to share and help those who cannot help themselves. We also must guard our attitudes toward rich and poor. James makes it clear that when we see a rich, well dressed person, and treat him better than a poor, homely person, that we are making distinctions which God does not. (Js 2:1-7)  

On the other hand, having wealth, even massive amounts of wealth, is not evil. Privilege is not something to be scorned and rejected, but rather stewarded. "Happy are you O land, when your king is the son of the nobility." (Ecc 10:17) Daniel rose to power in Babylon because he was born into Israelite royalty. Moses received the best upbringing and education in the world. Jesus submits to and does the will of God the Father.

We recognize the necessity, even goodness of inequity every day. A manager at McDonald's gets paid more than a front of house cashier, though within a given hour or day, the cashier may have the much harder work. But if we insisted on paying them the same amount, the restaurant would soon go bankrupt and no one would have anything.  

Christians should fight the hardest for equity of opportunity; Jesus did precisely that when he died on the cross to offer salvation free of cost or condition. The real danger comes when we view money or prestige as the indicators of our worth, and therefore become either arrogant or envious. Equity among humanity comes from our created endowment, bearing God's image. Yet differences of rank have always existed, and will always exist. Jesus says many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mt 19:30) Our goal should be to use our gifts to serve each other, each according to the measure which God has assigned (Rom 12:3), and, whether poor or rich, to boast in the equity we have as sinners in need of God's grace.


Justin Poythress (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the assistant pastor of student ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana.

An Extraordinary Love


Dying to self is the fertile ground from which love springs and the weeds of anger and hatred and jealousy cannot take root. When we die to self, we look more like the One who bought us and more like children of our heavenly Father. Let us shock the world by manifesting a Kingdom ethic they can't help but find alluring.

As Christians, ours is a different ethic--namely, a Kingdom ethic. We live by an ethic that comes from above. That truth is brought home as Jesus teaches, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'" (Matt. 5:43-44). This statement by Jesus launches the Christian ethic into the stratosphere of uniqueness. He says that we are not just to refrain hating our enemies back but we are to have a positive attitude towards our enemies! "Those who persecute you," Jesus says. He takes the worst of enemies. Are there any enemies more difficult to love than persecutors? And we are supposed to love those?

When Stephen is being stoned as the first martyr of the Christian church and Saul stands there holding the garments, Stephen utters his last words, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He is being executed unjustly and yet it is not anger that pours forth, but love. He prays for them.

"This just isn't possible," we might think. I agree, it isn't possible in our flesh. But it is possible for the child of God by the Spirit of God to love the enemies of God for the glory of God. Stephen possessed the power of Christ within Him. The same Christ, who hung upon the cross and cried out to His Father in prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing" (Luke 23:24).

Isn't this the crux (pun intended) of the Christian life? We look different because we are different. As Christians, we don't belong to this world, so we don't respond as the world with anger and hatred. Let them foam at the mouth, but not us. Let them be on a continual cycle of anger with the day's news, the day's injuries, the day's insults, but not us.

Jesus goes on to say, be "perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Jesus sets before His disciples the ethics of the Father and says, "See who He is; be like Him. Do as He does." Our life is to reflect the life of our Father and manifest His person and truth to the world around us. That is revolutionary, especially in our day!

How do we manifest love instead of anger and hatred? Only by His power. Only by reminding ourselves that we ourselves have no ground on which to stand. To inquire within, "How can I have anger and even hatred in my heart towards my enemies, when I was the recipient of God's love and grace when I was an enemy?" "Has a greater insult or injury been offered to me than I offered to God?" How can I not give what I have received? How can I not understand the grip sin can have upon another? How can I not be moved with compassion that they lack knowledge of the grace of God or don't know it to the degree I do?" We take a step back and look at our enemies with the lens of God's grace and love.

What impact could it have on this culture, a culture that desperately needs it, if every Christian transferred the fervor of hatred, ridicule, and anger towards our enemies into fervent prayer for them instead? What if we prayed with the same zeal with which we ruminate upon the injustices done to us? What kind of impact could that have?

"Love your enemies," Jesus says. He doesn't say we have to like them. Some have done such horrible things, that we may never like them. But we can love them. We can take a step back and remind ourselves of the sinner they are and the need for God's grace they have, just as we are and have need. As Christians, we don't take our ethical standards from the community we live in--thank God. We don't look to society to set our standard for what is right and wrong. We don't look horizontally to determine who we should be. We look vertically at who He is; and, He is love. He is our Father. His only begotten Son is our Savior. This God sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45). He gives good gifts to all. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). That is love. We were enemies and He loved us. So, our love is to surpass that which the world evidences. Not just exceed them in quantity but in quality. Ours is a different love. Ours is to be an extraordinary shocking love.

Pitying Criminals and Imprisoning Society


In addition to the many rich theological insights one will glean from working through Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, there are equally profound sociological observations from which we could benefit today. When he came to tackle the question of crime and punishment in a society that has cast off biblical definitions of God and sin, Bavinck made the following profound observation about the inevitable consequences and implications regarding criminals in such a society. He wrote:

"The decline of the ancient Christian worldview has also resulted in the modification, indeed the abolition and banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment. Along with belief in the justice of God, belief in justice on earth disappeared as well. Atheism proved to be the annihilation of all justice and morality: no God, no master. The modern, positivist, evolutionistic worldview, after all, though it cannot deny the fact that there is something like good and evil, sin and virtue, guilt and punishment, looks at and attempts to explain these things very differently. Sin and crime are not traceable to the evil will of individual persons, are not their responsibility nor imputable to them personally, but are, generally speaking, remnants or aftereffects of the animal ancestry of humans and to be explained in terms of their nature or of their environment.

...Others regarded every criminal case separately and individually and viewed criminals as victims of heredity, people who stayed behind in the evolutionary process...[and] crime as a symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity...From this position, naturally, it becomes impossible to maintain the justice and essential character of punishment. For if crime can, in fact, be totally traced to the innate animal nature of humans or to the environment in which they grew up, and their own evil nature need not or may not be taken into account, criminals are completely free of blame, and society loses all right to punish them. Rightly considered, the roles are even totally reversed. Criminals have nothing on their conscience vis-à-vis society, but society bears an enormous burden of guilt toward them...Society has failed to nurture and educate them into civilized moral beings. Just as nowadays many educationists tell us that the parents are to blame for the badness of their children, so also many criminologists have adopted the opinion that society is to blame for its criminals.

It is difficult, however, to be consistent in this connection. For then we would have to pity criminals and imprison society as the really guilty party. But since this is impracticable, people commit two inconsistencies. The first is that they accuse society of every possible injustice; the criminal is excused, defended, sometimes even praised and glorified, but to modern criminologists, educationists, and sociologists, society is proportionately all the worse. No words are sharp enough to condemn it, no columns of print long or wide enough to properly castigate it. But if in the case of crime the evil will, personal responsibility, accountability, and culpability may not at all be considered, where do people then derive the right to bring all these ethical factors to bear in the case of society? Criminals can only be the persons they are, but can society be other than it is? Does society not have a past to which it is bound, from which it came into being? Does society have a free will, the very thing that is denied to all its members personally? Clearly, those who throw away ethical standards in the case of the crime of the individual cannot again pick them up when it concerns that of society."

1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 163-165). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Deuteronomy and the Decalogue

It's a common observation, beloved by Reformed folk, that Deuteronomy reflects ancient near eastern suzerainty treaties--international covenants enacted between a superior suzerain power and inferior vassal state. Such treaties follow what we now think of as standard covenant formulary: a preamble introducing the parties and historical prologue tracing the relationship between them, followed by an outline of the terms, an enumeration of blessings and curses, and miscellaneous other items like calling on witnesses, instituting some sort of public sign, and making provisions for depositing an official copy of the treaty and holding a renewal ceremony from time to time.

Deuteronomy fits the pattern extremely well, making it, in W. L. Moran's words, "the biblical document of the covenant par excellence." A rough outline looks like this:

Preamble and prologue: Dt 1:1-4:43
Terms: Dt 4:44-26:19
Blessings and curses: Dt 27:1-28:68
Miscellaneous other items: Dt 29:1-34:12

This is conventional wisdom, probably familiar to most of you. One bit that remains unsettled, however, is how to outline that long middle section that presents the terms or stipulations of the covenant--the body of the book.

One popular approach is to divide this section between general stipulations and specific stipulations at Dt. 12:1. There are good reasons to do so but another approach, perhaps compatible with he former, is even more helpful. Advanced by Stephen A. Kaufman (The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law, 1979) and others after him, including my fellow RTS faculty member John Currid (Deuteronomy in EVP, 2006), this alternative approach views Dt 4:44-5:33 as a summary statement of the moral law set out under ten heads (the decalogue), and Dt 6:1-26:19 as an explication and application of each head of the moral law to Israel. In other words, Dt. 6:1-26:19 is a kind of divine commentary and practical guide to the decalogue. This highlights the continuing priority of the ten commandments as a summary of the moral law within this administration of the covenant of grace--a priority, originating in Eden, that carries over to the new administration of that same covenant of grace, as Rick Phillips recently noted here.

Here is the most common way of outlining this part of Deuteronomy on this view:

First: Dt 6:1-11:32
Second: Dt 12:1-32
Third: Dt 13:1-14:21
Fourth: Dt 14:22-16:17
Fifth: Dt 16:18-18:22
Sixth: Dt 19:1-22:12
Seventh: Dt 22:13-23:14
Eighth: Dt 23:15-24:7
Ninth: Dt 24:8-16
Tenth: Dt 24:17-26:19

To read Deuteronomy this way is insightful. Consider the light it sheds on the relation of the first commandment to election (Dt 7:1-26), or the third commandment to those peculiar dietary laws (Dt 14:1-21). It's also instructive to read the laws related to tithes in Deuteronomy 14:22-29 as an application of the command to rest in God or the regulations concerning judges, kings, priests, and prophets (Dt 16:16-18:22) as applications of the fifth commandment and those concerning cities of refuge, war, and tasseled garments (Dt. 19:1-21:23) of the sixth commandment.

The pattern fits very well until we reach the transition from the eighth to the tenth commandments. The issue lies with identifying what portion of Deuteronomy 23:15-26:19 deals with the ninth commandment.

Deuteronomy 24:8-16, the oft-proposed candidate, is not very satisfying. Though Currid follows this division, his comment on Deuteronomy 24:8-9 on skin diseases is telling: "It is uncertain how this law fits into an exposition of the Ninth Commandment." Though the remaining six verses on collateral and paying day-laborers has a little better claim to taking up ninth commandment issues, I think the primary concern of this set of "miscellaneous laws" remains on "justice in contracts and commerce, . . . rendering to everyone his due," which is how the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 141 summarizes the scope of the eighth commandment.

This concern, it seems to me, continues through Deuteronomy 25:12. It's not until Deuteronomy 25:13-16, concerning the use of just weights in the marketplace, that we encounter a passage that seems to be a solid candidate for the ninth commandment's concern for honesty or "the preserving and promoting of truth between" people (WLC Q&A 144). But even this passage on fair weights and measures falls under the eighth commandment's focus on justice in commerce.

It's not surprising to find one kind of activity covered by more than one of the ten commandments. Using such an activity as a transition from one to the next also makes sense--Deuteronomy 13:1-18 is another example. But this observation suggests another possible solution to the riddle of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy: What if the ninth commandment receives no distinct discussion but is a moral enthymeme of sorts? Perhaps the point is that truth inwardly and outwardly is a necessary condition of keeping all the other commandments. If so, then the treatment of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy 6:1-26:19 may be distributed over the elaboration of the first eight commandments. If you've been studying your way through those, by the time you reach the ninth commandment its elaboration is obvious and requires no distinct discussion.

Whatever we make of the riddle of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy 6:1-26:19, it is clear that honesty or truth inwardly and outwardly is a necessary condition to keeping the rest of the commands--to being the kind of person we were created to be and have been redeemed to be by the one who is "full of . . . truth" and is "the truth" (Jn 1:14; 14:6).

Advice for Sabbath-keeping

Having preached a sermon that touched in part on the Christian Sabbath (the text was John 5:9-18), I followed it up with a pastor's letter that gave advice to those learning to keep the Sabbath.  I though it might be of benefit to our readers here as well.