Summary: How to preach a sermon on ethics
I hope to encourage the teaching of Christian ethics.
We can't read the Bible without confronting ethics. From the Ten Commandments to Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 we run across ethics. Like it or not, ethics is a subject confronting Christians on a daily basis. This chapter teaches preachers how to introduce topics such as abortion, justified warfare, capital punishment, sexual morality, confidentiality, misrepresentation and business ethics to the congregation.
We will first discuss the topic of ethics, that ethics is the ground of morality. We will look at ethics in the Bible and society, how to make ethical decision and how to prepare a sermon on an ethical subject.
Ethics Produces Morality
Every Christian needs to understand the process of determining right from wrong. The process is called ethics and the end result is morality. Ethics is the process of deciding whether or not things like abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, military service or the death penalty are right. Not every moral consideration is spelled out so simply in the pages of Scripture.
Christians bring to the community a unique perspective on social issues. They have experienced the mind of God to one degree or another. They can refer to statements and case studies in both the Old and New Testaments. They also claim to have the very Spirit of God dwelling in them. Though Christians also disagree among themselves on some issues, they overwhelmingly agree on most basic ethical considerations.
The Old Testament & Christian Ethics
Christianity grew out of the Old Testament which introduces us to the mind of God on many matters which the early New Testament church did not have to worry about. For instance, today many Christians are involved in political leadership, not possible for the first few centuries when Christians were persecuted by the State. Principles gleaned from the Old Testament for community, national and international relations, and filtered through the deeper ethical process of a church with the Holy Spirit as its guide, can be very useful today.
However, there are some differences in the Old Testament. For instance, the law gave fifteen reasons for the death penalty. Many Christians only believe this should be carried out under a few circumstances today and many believe it should not be used at all. Some Christians apply the Decalogue as the basic Old Testament law, yet others believe for instance that the adultery command is too simplistic alone as a moral guide for sex, and so must include broader principles than just marital infidelity. Another dilemma with the Ten Commandments is the Sabbath command. Some Christian communities have transferred this to Sunday, imposing legal penalties upon working or selling certain goods on that day. Yet, neither Jesus nor the Apostles specifically commanded either Saturday or Sunday as a Sabbath for the Church. If we use the Decalogue as a simple ethical guide, how should we transfer it to Christianity?
The opinions are endless. However, one thing most seem to agree upon is that the Old Testament reveals the gracious mind of God in a certain situation regarding a certain time and place, and there are many valuable principles to be learned from that. Real estate, safety, work and financial laws are among the many that give us valuable insight to God’s thinking on social regulation. These laws have formed the foundation of many modern civilizations.
The New Testament & Christian Ethics
Many theologians want to divide the law into the civil, ceremonial and social law. However, nowhere does the Bible make such distinctions, and others disagree with such arbitrary separation. What, for instance is the Sabbath – civil, moral or ceremonial? What was the law about usury – moral or civil? In the New Testament, no such distinction is made. Rather a new commandment is given – love. This commandment is also not new, but old.
Jesus reinterprets the law, which many Jewish leaders had misunderstood. After his death, Paul is inspired to say that the old covenant, the Decalogue no longer applies as such. However, he also explains that the law still applies in a transformed rather than a literal manner, and that the law was very good. The difference now would be the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament introduces us to grace in a different way than the Old Testament. Certainly, grace is part of both the Old and New Testaments. Although faith is the basis of New Testament ethics, this does not give the Christian free reign. He is still expected to meet certain behavioral standards. Among these are caring for the poor, orphans and widows.
Natural Law & Christian Ethics
British Common Law which is used throughout the English speaking world, from Australia to the USA, is ultimately based upon biblical ethics. If we throw the Bible out, our societies have no standards other than natural law to base decisions on. Christian ethicists have asked if God commands a certain law on a divine whim, or because that law is inherently good. If it is inherently good, it is because there is a natural law, a universal law, which exists at all times and in all places. This natural law is what even pagans often stumble upon without any knowledge of Scripture.