The Basis of Ethics

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

- Judges 2:11; 21:25

Moral relativism is the rule for most people today, which is clear whenever we hear it said, matter of factly, that “you cannot legislate morality.” Of course, any common-sense appeal this statement might have vanishes immediately when we realize that the sole purpose of law is to legislate morality. The only question is whose morality we are going to legislate. The most ironic thing of all about moral relativism is that moral relativists consider it to be an absolute truth, as seen in the objections that are raised each time someone tries to define ethics objectively. Yesterday, we were reminded that our culture believes in moral relativism. If, however, all people have the “right” to believe whatever they want, relativists cannot be consistent in their relativism and condemn those who adhere to universal, objective standards.

The book of Judges reveals that when society embraces a consistent ethic of relativism, it is in for disaster. We read in 2:11 how Israel practiced evil during the time the judges ruled Israel. Moral relativism led to this evil, for Judges 21:25 tells us everyone in Israel did what was right in his own eyes in that day. Refusing to obey God, Israel pursued autonomy with a vengeance, and each person became a law unto himself.

The author of Judges evaluated this autonomy as evil because he knew that the Lord determines ethics, not the individual. Biblically speaking, ethics are theonomic — determined by God’s law. This objective standard must bind the consciences of all people, for our Creator has put the basics of ethics on the consciences of everyone (Rom. 1:18–32). There is no excuse for immorality; as creatures, we owe the Creator our all, and we are rightly condemned for insolently refusing to bow to Him.

Though God has built the basic standards of right and wrong into creation itself, He has also provided Scripture as a fuller and sufficient revelation of His standards. These standards are based on the Lord’s own holy character and make up what the Reformed tradition has often called the moral law. This law is the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), reflected in the Ten Commandments and the ethical teachings of the apostles.

Finally, describing Christian ethics as theonomic is not to endorse reconstructionist theonomy, which argues that the civil penalties of the Mosaic law are still in force. All we are doing is affirming the permanence of God’s ethical rules (1 Cor. 6:9–10).

Coram Deo

The way in which the Mosaic law applies to believers today is a contentious matter, and there are many different opinions on the subject even within the Reformed tradition. All agree, however, that the coming of Christ did not suddenly make the Ten Commandments and the other ethical portions of the law of Moses invalid. Let us endeavor to know the moral law, that we might live in a way pleasing to our God.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 5:16
Matthew 19:16–22

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