Moral Relativism

“Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38a).

- John 18:38a

Jewish interpreters have long regarded the covenant with Noah as providing stipulations for all men, regardless of whether or not they follow the Mosaic law. From the few commandments given to Noah, say the rabbis, we can deduce practices such as marriage and the establishment of government, which are binding on all people.

The rabbis are not far off the mark. Since God made a covenant with all of Noah’s descendants (Gen. 9:9), the obligations laid upon him also bind all men today. In order that we might further study these ethical imperatives, we will base our next two weeks of studies on Christian Ethics, a teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

Today in the West, moral relativism prevails. The majority of people in the United States, for example, say that there is no absolute truth. Few would confess any objective standards for behavior, preferring to say, “What is right for me, may not be right for you, and I cannot condemn you if you do not conform to my ideal.”

One of the reasons for this relativism is our culture’s confusion of the terms ethics and morals. Historically, ethics has referred to the foundations of civilization. It has been a normative science, concerned with discovering the norms that must govern our lives. Ethics tells us what we “ought to do.”

Morals, on the other hand, is traditionally a descriptive science. It surveys a given culture and tells us what the majority of its citizens practice. Morals describe what “is,” not necessarily what should be.

What is considered ethical today is based on the descriptive sciences, not on the normative ones. People look around and think that if the majority of people are acting in a particular way, then those actions must be okay. We have confused “isness” with “oughtness.”

However, Scripture tells us again and again that there is often a difference between what people are doing and what people should be doing. Just because most people act a certain way does not make it right. What the government grants us to do legally, our Father may in fact forbid. Our ethics must be based on the imperatives of His Word, not on the prevailing behavior of those around us.

Coram Deo

The government legally permits us many things that the Bible disallows (for example, abortion). What determines how you live your life? Take some time today to make a list of the things your rulers may allow but which Scripture forbids — explicitly or implicitly. Then, look at how your life conforms to the list. If you are doing things condemned by God’s Word, turn from them today and ask the Lord to help you live properly.

Passages for Further Study

Gen. 2:16–17
Eccl. 12:13–14
1 Peter 4:3–5
1 John 3:10

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.