What should I do? What does God want me to do in any given situation? What is the Christian thing to do? Is God concerned about everything I do? Does God care if the Packers win or lose? These are questions Christians face every day. The Bible does not give us instructions to cover every contingency, yet the expectation is there to be holy. The purpose of this series of articles is to attempt to explore how we might establish a standard of obedience.
This topic has interested me for years. As a college Dean of Students (a long time ago), I was interested in trying to balance the pragmatic needs of a college campus filled with young men and women with the biblical instructions found in the text of Scripture. I was struggling with how to handle the commands of the Old Testament, some of which were routinely used as a basis for behavior in the preaching and teaching I had heard through much of my life. As a theologian, I had studied well the theology of sanctification; it is a regular topic in systematic theologies. The treatment of sanctification, however, is usually limited to the theological side of the issue. Rarely do these books deal with any specifics of what to obey, outside of a discussion (frequent and sometimes lengthy) of the value of the Old Testament for the New Testament believer (covenant theologians) or the relation of the Christian to the law (mostly dispensational theologians).
Some theologians caught my attention, for they did try to address these issues. The Southern Baptist E. Y. Mullins (The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression) gave a short list of what he called the “Moral Ideals,” although he did not indicate how he developed his list. Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (Systematic Theology) discussed freedom and love and included a helpful examination of historical reactions to the concept of freedom. The Lutheran Francis Pieper (Christian Dogmatics) discussed the value of good works, but did not define a methodology to determine what those works are. Dispensationalist Lewis Sperry Chafer (Systematic Theology) discussed the believer’s responsibility relative to obedience, but focused his attention on the filling of the Holy Spirit and the resultant power to overcome evil and do good.
Eighteenth century Baptist John Gill wrote A Body of Practical Divinity in 1770 which consisted of his teaching on worship, the ordinances of worship, duties to one’s spouse and duties to the magistrate. He listed five categories of good works—natural works (eating, drinking, etc.), civil works (support of family, work, etc.), relative works (as husband, wife, parent, servant, etc.), beneficent works (charity), and moral works. He argued that a good work has four characteristics—it accords to the will of God (Heb 13:21; 1 Cor 15:10), it springs from love to God (1 Tim 1:5; John 14:15), it is done in faith (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:4-6), and it is done to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).
Baptist Millard Erickson (Christian Theology) included in his chapter on the continuation of salvation a short section on the Christian life. He discusses briefly the believer’s union with Christ and Christ’s role as a friend. He also discusses at length the relationship between law and grace and concludes with a short discussion of separation.
These all contained helpful information, but still left me wondering, as a theologian, “How does a person, especially someone without formal theological training, figure out specifically what God wants them to do? If these men can’t figure out the specifics, how can anyone?”
I then turned my attention to the Arminian theologians, assuming that since sanctification was a key to keeping their salvation, they would be more concerned about the practical aspects of obedience. William Burt Pope (A Compendium of Christian Theology) included a section on Christian ethics. He proposed the following principles for determining right and wrong actions: the Lord is the supreme lawgiver, Christian morals are founded on specific Christian truth, every doctrine has an ethical side, and the law to be obeyed is an internal law, set up within the believer (Heb 8:10). This law, he argued, is the law of conscience (Acts 24:16). All external laws are only safeguards against antinomianism. He also saw that love is the strength of ethics (Matt 22:40). He viewed the Old Testament ceremony as dissolved and the Old Testament moral law as ratified in the New Testament. However, he offered no system of ethics in the New Testament, but only the application of certain principles to individual cases.
W. T. Purkiser (Exploring our Christian Faith) established a criterion of value and coined the term theoaxia, “the criteria of all value claims.” He identified six theoaxia: that which is good for the body (1 Cor 6:15-20), recreational, familial (the home is the key to learning love, God, authority, and values), educational (Rom 1:20), vocational (Gen 2:15), and aesthetic (Eccl 3:11; Phil 4:8).
Again, there was helpful information here, but it was all pretty general.
One of the more helpful systematic theologians was Presbyterian Charles Hodge. He definitely appealed to the theologian in me. He dealt at some length with what he termed “things indifferent” (adiaphora). He began with the supposition that the Bible “contains the whole rule of duty for men in their present state of existence. Nothing can legitimately bind the conscience that is not commanded or forbidden by the Word of God.” (3: 262) His next logical step was that “a thing may be right or wrong according to circumstances, and, therefore, it may often be wrong for a man to do what the Bible does not condemn.” (3: 263) For instance, Paul circumcised Timothy but also told the Galatians not to allow themselves to be circumcised. Hodge’s conclusion was that “a thing indifferent in itself may become even fatally wrong if done with a wrong intention.” He listed five principles to govern this issue of things indifferent: no one can call sinful what God does not forbid; it is a violation of the law of love to use liberty to cause others to sin (1 Cor 8:9, 12; Rom 14:20, 21); nothing indifferent in itself can be the ground of permanent obligation; it is a matter of private judgment when to abstain from things indifferent (Rom 14:3-5); what a man does in liberty cannot be the ground of church censure or withdrawal of fellowship. (3: 264-65) This helped with some direction. It was general (and the whole concept of trying to figure out how to set standards of conduct has to be a general approach), but he made better sense to me than most of the preceding.
I then checked out a few books on Christian ethics and found them to be generally not helpful in outlining a methodology to determine what commands a Christian must obey; most simply discuss a variety of specific topics and give the author’s viewpoint on those topics. A notable exception was Carl F. H. Henry’s Christian Personal Ethics.
So with this background I set out to see what I could do to nail this topic down.