An Ethical Faith

“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

E. Stanley Jones, prominent 20th Century missionary and theologian, in his book,“The Christ of the Mount – A Working Philosophy of Life,” asserts that embracing Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is the only way to live as a Christian.  The creeds we recite, such as the Apostles Creed and others, are fine as far as they go, but believing them can leave our lives untouched and unaffected.  How would things be different, he asks, if our creeds emphasized belief in Jesus’s teachings and our intent to follow them with the help of the Holy Spirit?  Jones holds the view that Jesus’ teachings are not only at the ethical center of the Christian life, but intending to follow them is the only way we can follow Christ.  If these fail in their essential purpose of drawing us closer to Jesus and his way of life, then there is not much remaining of our Christian faith.  As Jones writes, “if Christianity cannot hold us at the place of ethical conduct, if it loses the battle at that place, then what is left is not worth fighting over.  For mind you, if the ethical side of our gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless. The center and substance of the Christian’s ethical conduct is in the Sermon on the Mount.  If this is unworkable, then there is not much left.”

Others have written about the disconnect between Jesus’ teachings and the gospel that is commonly preached today.  For example, Dallas Willard asserts that “The contemporary Christian … has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life.” (The Divine Conspiracy)  He links statistics on the extensive unethical and immoral behaviors of “Christians” in the U.S. to a gospel message that is almost totally based on the forgiveness of one’s sins.  Now forgiveness of sins is certainly an important part of the good news that we have as followers of Christ.  But forgiveness without repentance is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace,” which isn’t really grace at all, but license to sin.

True repentance is, of course, more that saying we are sorry for our sins.  It is a turning away from those sins and towards the ethical teachings of Jesus (and the other New Testament writers for that matter).  For example, consider the words of James, the brother of Jesus, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)  Or Paul, the apostle to the Gentles, if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2).  Or John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.  For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)  Indeed, Jesus himself said that not even those proclaiming him as “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but “only those who do the will of my Father.” (Matthew 7:21)

Two unfolding scandals of the past several months remind us once again of what can happen when our actions diverge from Jesus’ teachings.  In Pennsylvania, a massive cover-up of child sexual abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests was revealed; and at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, the lead pastors and entire governing board resigned over multiple allegations of sexual improprieties by longtime leader Bill Hybels.  If true, all have violated positions of authority, all have been disgraced, all have damaged the lives of others, and all have dishonored the church of Christ.  This is not to condemn those who stand accused, but simply to take note of stories that have seemingly become so commonplace that they almost fail to surprise us anymore – church leaders engaging in systematic patterns of sin, which stand in stark contrast to the ethical teachings of Jesus.

For those who don’t believe a faith commitment to Christ is essentially ethical in nature, I say “baloney.”  Jesus didn’t call the Pharisees hypocrites because they were teaching and living righteous lives.  It was precisely because they were not living righteously, in accordance with God’s ethical standards, that Jesus challenged them.  He quoted Isaiah when he said, These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8)  And Martin Luther didn’t challenge the leaders of the Catholic Church because they were teaching others to live virtuous lives by following the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Instead, they had institutionalized the road to salvation through the sale of indulgences. We shudder today at the thought that anyone could believe that right standing with God could bought for a price, and rightly so.  Yet somewhere during the past 500 years, the acts of the Pharisees and indulgences of the Catholics have become conflated with the ethical commands of Jesus.  So much so that any suggestion that we must intend to follow Jesus’ teachings to enter the kingdom of God is summarily rejected as “works.”  Nothing could be further from the heart of God.  As Dallas Willard has noted, grace is opposed to earning, not effort.  The pursuit of virtue is nothing less than the pursuit of Jesus by intending to keep his commands.  Surely there is nothing more central to our faith journey than the kind of life we are pursuing.

All of this begs the question of whether the Sermon on the Mount is workable?  I believe it is because I have witnessed it in the lives of Christian friends.
– I think of Brian who was facing bankruptcy after a business venture failed. He could have filed for legal protection, but rather than walk away from his debts, he chose to follow Jesus’ directive to “let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” (Matthew 5:37)  It took him three years, but Brian sacrificed until every creditor was satisfied.
– I think of Dave whose ministry came in conflict with those in power and he lost his job.  He could have blamed God, spoken bitter words against his oppressors, and succumbed to the fear of being jobless.  Instead, Dave pressed in closer to Jesus and believed him when he said not to worry about our daily needs, But [to] seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33). There were some dark moments, but the Lord provided Dave with a position where he continues to encourage and lead people to Jesus.
– I think of Joanie whose husband deserted her and their young children.  Struggling through years of hard times, Joanie resisted the urge towards bitterness and hatred, and made a decision to believe Jesus when he taught us to “forgive other people when they sin against you.” (Matthew 6:14)  She faithfully prayed for the man who abandoned her and refused to speak against him to their children.

And I can think of others who similarly understand their commitment to Christ as essentially ethical in nature.  Like all of us, these Christians have had times where they “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 8:23) Yet, their essential leaning and desire is to follow Jesus and his commands, such as in the Sermon on the Mount. When they stumble, His grace is sufficient to uphold them.  And critically, they are attuned to the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives who leads and strengthens them in their journey.  For theirs is an ethical faith.