Think with me this morning about the matter of ethics in our lives. Ethics, as you know, have to do with the choices about right and wrong that we have to make in our lives from day to day. Ethics have to do with whether we are guided by moral standards and values in our actions and our deeds as we go about daily life. We cannot live either with each other or with ourselves without ethics that guide us in a real and valid way.
We might illustrate this with reference to events from the daily paper over the last few weeks. If you have paid attention, you have noticed that ethics, or the lack thereof, have brought news about the actions of various political leaders. One man, for example, has been in the news very recently for driving way too fast in his district and running a stop sign and causing someone else to lose his life. Ethical matters have caused a great deal of upheaval in the business world, too. There have been groups of individuals who have lost not only jobs but great amounts of money because of ethical failure on the part of some executive or some group of business people. Ethical questions have even invaded the sports world. There have been controversies and difficulties that have ranged all the way from coaches who have submitted false academic records in their own applications, to various sports figures who have been found guilty of some violation, or even other ways in which standards have not been lived up to and so difficulties have come. We all depend on ethics for the functioning of our lives in this world.
Christian ethics are different, not only at times because of the standards by which we live, but also because of the reasons for which we do things. I can illustrate what I mean by that statement just by asking you to consider the plan followed in most of the epistles in the New Testament. The book of Ephesians is a great example of what I am talking about here. The first half of the letter will be used to describe for us in doctrinal terms what God has done for us, how God has blessed us, how God's plan or purpose has unfolded, what has been done for us through Jesus Christ. And then that statement of these great Bible doctrines will be followed by teaching about how we ought to behave in our everyday lives by teaching about the moral conduct and the behavior of God's children in this world.
In other words, there are two sides to being a Christian. On the one hand there is belief - what it is that we hold to be true, what it is that we stand for, what it is that we believe God has done for us - and on the other hand there is behavior - how we live out what God has done for us in our everyday lives. The ethical behavior or the ethical conduct of God's children can be gathered together by a few statements about our intention of how we are going to go about living. I want to use these statements that I think we can find, especially in Ephesians, chapter 4, to lay out before us today a foundation for our ethical choices as Christians.
The first statement that will guide each one of us if we are God's children is "I will do the will of my father." I want to do, I intend to do, the will of my Heavenly Father. One reason for that statement's importance is just the fact that we want so much to be like our Father. Like any child will be influenced by, and will want to imitate, his parents, we want to be like our Father. So, our ethical conduct as his children is going to be influenced by what kind of God he is. Here in Ephesians 4, Paul has corrected some misunderstandings and in verse 24 he urges these people "to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." Notice the emphasis on the "likeness of God" and that bringing righteousness and holiness into our behavior. In chapter 5, verse 1, he says, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children."
Now that means that we are going to be concerned with one great guiding principle in our choices from day to day. The thing that will settle the matter for God's children is "this is the will of God." In I Thess. 4, for example, at verse 3, Paul writes, "This is the will of God, even your sanctification." He is dealing with their sexual conduct, their sexual moral behavior in that passage, and "the will of God," he says, must be the guiding principle. In Peter's writing in I Peter 4, verse 2, Peter uses "the will of God" as the guiding principle. He says, "So to live for the rest of your time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God." It is as if he says you have two choices - the will of God or the will of people - the will of God or human passions and lust. The ethical thing for God's children is for us to be guided by God's will, by the will of our Father. When he has said something, then that becomes the standard for us. If you watch news events, you may wonder about whether religious groups ought to meet or have conventions and vote on what kind of conduct morally, sexually, or ethically would be recognized or accepted. Well, the point I am making here is that some things have already been settled by the will of our God, by what kind of God he is. We don't vote on what God is like. He is who He is. We don't then vote on how to be like him. He is who He is.
In Paul's writings especially, he indicates that failure morally and ethically in our lives indicates an ignorance of God, a lack of knowledge of who God is. He is not just talking about intellectual knowledge. He is talking about a living relationship with God. Here in Ephesians 4, verses 17 and 18, he is urging us to not live any longer like the pagans do. He says in verse 18, "They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity." Notice the ignorance of God that causes then improper moral and ethical conduct in our daily lives. The first guiding principle for Christians, then, is "I want to do the will of my Father."
Secondly, Christians are to be guided by the desire to imitate Jesus. "I long to be like Jesus." That statement needs to guide us. Look at Ephesians 5 and verse 2. Having called on us to imitate our God like beloved children, Paul says, "And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Now the point there is for us to live in keeping with the example of Jesus, for us to be as Christ is, as the Lord has done for us. In Peter's writings in I Peter 2, when he is talking about unjust or unfair suffering, he brings up again this need for us to be imitators of Jesus. He says in I Peter 2:21, "For to this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps." A very real question, then, for a Christian's moral conduct is "Am I doing as Jesus has done and as Jesus would do?"
John also takes up this matter in his writing in I John. In powerful ways he stresses that if I am going to say that I am a Christian, then I need to imitate Jesus. In I John 2 at verses 5 and 6, he says, "By this we may be sure that we are in him. Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." That stands to reason, doesn't it? If I am going to say I am in Jesus, I ought to be headed in the same direction he is headed. John stresses it even more vividly down in chapter 3 of I John beginning at verse 4. He says, "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning. No one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." John has a great heart for human weakness, for people who are trying to do their best to walk in the light and who have human weaknesses and who, not as their normal practice in their lives, but out of weakness they have difficulty. He says to them at the beginning of chapter 2, "We have an advocate with the Father." But when we choose as a lifestyle, as a way of life, to practice unrighteousness, John says we are unrighteous. For us to walk around making unrighteousness our way of life and say "I am a Christian," John says is to make a joke of the whole spiritual world. If I do the works of the devil, then he says I am of the devil. So the Christian is guided by the conviction, "I intend to imitate Jesus."
A third guiding principle for Christian ethics is "I will respect the presence of the Holy Spirit." The life I have been given in Jesus Christ is given through the Spirit of God. It is even made known through the Holy Spirit and through what the Holy Spirit teaches in his word. The power to live the life that I am given in Jesus comes to me through the Lord's help, if you read Romans 8. The way that I put to death the deeds of the flesh or the way that any Christian does so, is with the help that God provides through the Holy Spirit who indwells his children. Therefore, morally and ethically in our lives, we must be guided by respect for the presence of the spirit. Here in Ephesians 4, again, Paul is urging us to be careful about what we say in verse 29. In verse 30, he says, "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." The idea that "I want to live in such a way that it does not break the heart of God's Holy Spirit" has a big influence on a person's mind and his way of thinking from day to day.
You may remember in Galatians 5, Paul contrast the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. The principle he lays down in verse 25 is "if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." In other words, surely if we have been given life through God's Spirit, we ought to live in keeping with God's Spirit. And then he contrasts the two ways of life, the two realms within which people may live. On the one hand, there is the flesh. He says in verses 19 and following, "The works of the flesh are evident, sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these." That is pretty clear. You can decide if something is at home in that kind of company. On the other hand, there is the fruit of the Spirit, which he says, "is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." A person who respects the presence of God's Spirit will be found with the latter kind of fruit in his life instead of the former kinds of works.
The New Testament is explicit in application of this type of a principle. In I Cor. 6, for example, Paul struggles with the Corinthians about the matter of sexual purity. He says to them toward the end of the chapter, "Don't you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and you are not your own, you have been bought with a price? You ought then to be careful what you do with your body and do what glorifies God." In I Cor. 3, verses 16 and 17, he deals with this matter again in talking about how we treat each other and whether there is unity in the body of Christ. He says again, "You are a temple." "You" (plural) are "a" (singular) temple of the Holy Spirit. He indicates that God will judge those who defile his temple.
A Christian then is guided by "I want to do my Father's will." "I intend to imitate my Savior." "I am concerned about respecting the presence of the Holy Spirit." And then a fourth principle to guide us is "I realize I won't be here forever." A Christian is guided by concern for a future which is in God's hands.
Of course, ultimately, there is the matter of the Lord's final coming and of the end of things here on this earth as we know them. In II Peter 3, verse 11, Peter says, "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?" Well, answer that question. Knowing that we are not here forever, knowing that history is headed toward a goal, knowing that responsibility will be determined, how should we behalf as individuals?
Peter uses the same argument again in a little different way in I Peter 4, verses 7 and 8. "The end of all things is at hand," he says, "therefore," (and then he talks about inner qualities) "be self-controlled and sober minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep on loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling."
Back over in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, in Ephesians chapter 5, verse 5, this concern for the future becomes clear. He says, "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immortal or impure or who is covetous (that is an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things, the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience." That is not as pleasant a thought, but it is reality. There are some things that you and I can't do as a way of life and then expect to sit down in the kingdom of God as our eternal destiny. That is the fact of the matter, according to the New Testament. So there is the fourth thing that guides us. What about the future, which is in God's hands?
And then there is a fifth thing that must guide us in our moral and ethical behavior. That is "I want to be a good influence on other people." I know my life will have an effect on others and I want it to be the right kind of an effect on other people. The idea that you and I can do things and it is nobody else's business, the idea that we can make moral and ethical choices and no one else will ever know about it, the idea that it is just me and my private behavior and it will effect no one else - that thought is one of the ways in which the evil one has deceived us. It doesn't happen that way. You and I know deep down that it doesn't happen that way because our lives touch each other.
The New Testament lays down the thought, especially here in Ephesians, that ethics has to do with how our lives will touch other lives. Just consider some of the statements from Ephesians 4. Look at verse 25. "Therefore, having put aside falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another." Now look at what it is saying. Tell the truth. Don't lie. Why, though? Because honesty is the best policy? No, because we are members of each other. You know when someone lies to himself mentally, etc., that individual will end up with emotional problems. When we lie, spiritually speaking, we are lying to ourselves because we are members of each other. That is going to cause us tremendous difficulties.
Skip down if you will to verse 28 where he talks about work. "Let the thief no longer steal but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." Well, there is another moral or ethical question. We ought to not steal but instead work. Why, though? Because of others. And then there is the question of what we say - our words. Verse 29 says, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion that it may give grace to those who hear." There is that question again. Speak good words. But why? Because there are going to be people who hear and your words are going to touch them and their lives. Christians are especially urgently concerned about their influence, how their lives and their behavior is going to affect the family of which they are members.
We are also to be concerned about how our behavior will affect the world. If we allow the gospel of Christ to be dishonored and disrespected in the world, Titus 2, verse 9 and 10 suggest, then we are falling short. If we in our conduct and behavior cause people to look at the faith which we hold and say, "I wouldn't want anything to do with that."
If that is what it does to someone's life, then we have difficulty.
So we have found here five principles that stand out to guide us morally and ethically in our lives - to do the right thing but also for the right reason, - the will of our Father, the example of our Savior, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the fact that there is a future, and the matter of our influence on other folks. The life that we live as Christians is to grow out of the salvation that we enjoy. When you and I became Christians, it was like we were raised up from the dead, it was like we took off filthy, soiled clothing and we put on a new garment, which is Christ Jesus. Those pictures are what Paul uses in Col. 3. Let us enjoy living instead of being dead, and wearing garments of righteousness and holiness instead of the dishonorable robes of dirtiness and of failure.
Years ago, Bernard Ramm wrote a book on Christian ethics which he titled "The Good, The Right, and The Happy." His point in titling that book that way was to make the long-standing historical point that those three things are a part of the same one thing. Goodness and rightness and happiness come in the same package. You are not going to find one of them apart from the other. Today, may we as we have examined ourselves, take a look at our moral and ethical behavior and determine to be guided by our devotion to Jesus Christ each day this week.
Maybe the look in this mirror causes us to see our need. Maybe we are people who need to be washed by the blood of Jesus by obeying the gospel of Christ. Maybe as individuals we can see that we haven't been walking in the light and we need to confess that and to seek the Lord's cleansing through prayer. If you are here today and we can help you in one of those ways, won't you indicate it by coming while we stand and sing together?