Our Ethical Basis

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

- Judges 21:25

Twenty-first-century America is full of citizens who profess that there is but one absolute truth, and that is that there are no absolute moral standards. It is a self-refuting belief system to be sure, for if one denies that absolute truth exists, that rules out any absolute denial of absolute moral standards. Nevertheless, people hold to this denial most absolutely, and the social cost has been enormous.

Modern America is not the first culture to have embraced moral relativism, denying that there is a fixed, objective, transcendent standard of right and wrong. Israel during the time of the judges also embraced moral relativism. The book of Judges depicts a recurring cycle of events in which the ancient Israelites sinned, God handed them over to their enemies, the Israelites cried out for deliverance, and God delivered them. At the end of each cycle, the whole process would start over again. The concluding verse of Judges explains the reason for this trouble: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).

Here we have an important insight into human nature, particularly fallen human nature—without a king, people will quickly descend into doing whatever seems right to them. The absence of the king in the period of the judges was twofold. First, there was no human king, no representative of God’s righteous rule to direct the people. More importantly, there was no king in the sense that the Israelites did not acknowledge or obey the one, true King, namely, Yahweh, who created all things.

Yahweh, although He had a special relationship to Israel, was not only the God of Israel. He gave a law to Israel that contained many commandments designed only for the ancient Israelites, but as the New Testament shows us, His law also contains transcendent norms designed for all people (Rom. 2:14; 13:8–10). In fact, even the culturally bound rules in the law of Moses reflect transcendent principles.

If there is only one God and He has a law, it is not only Christians, Jews, Muslims, or people in any other religion that are bound by this law. Everyone God creates is answerable to His law. God and His law are the universal basis for ethics—not just for Christian ethics but for human ethics. This law reflects the very moral character of our Creator, of our King, and we cannot please Him or do what is right if we do not know His law.

Coram Deo

Dr. R.C. Sproul notes that Christian ethics are theonomic, that is, governed by God’s law. This does not mean the church is called to institute a theocracy in the civil realm. It does mean that no correct ethical decision can be made apart from reflection on God’s law. Many Christians neglect the study of the law of the Lord, but if we do not seek to understand His commandments, we will lack the wisdom needed to discern between right and wrong in our decisions.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 37:30–31
Matthew 5:17–20
Romans 7:12
James 2:12

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