Given that America’s public square seems like the combination of a war, a carnival, and a B-rated Hollywood movie, perhaps now is the time for American Christians to work even harder to convince ourselves and our fellow citizens of the value of God’s transcendent moral law. Specifically, we should focus on the moral law as revealed in Scripture, using the Bible’s internal categories to address our life in this world. In so doing, we can ascribe sovereignty to God, recognize the fixed moral order that flows from his character, and affirm that his law is absolute—it applies to all people, all places, and all times. In fact, the most basic moral law is implanted in the hearts of all people, whether they are Christian or not, whether they have been exposed to Christian teaching or not.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach “right” and “wrong.” The most popular American approach is “consequentialism.” In this view, a person’s action is considered “good” if the person thinks that action will bring about the greatest amount of overall good. In other words, human actions are not inherently good or bad; human actions are a means to an end.
Christians should not be consequentialists. Although we should care very much about the results of our actions, and although we want to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we must allow God to define right and wrong. Besides, consequentialism fails in a number of ways. Human beings are not all-knowing and thus often we cannot predict accurately the outcomes of our actions. Further, no human being should have the power to define what is the greatest good.
The second approach is often called “deontological;” this is a fancy scholarly term meaning that it is a “duty ethic.” Actions can be right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. The Christian ethic is a version of deontological ethics. Christian Scripture teaches us that God has made the basics of his moral law known universally. God has written his moral law on the heart of all people and that law can also be known by studying the design of God’s world, the design of the human being, and the natural consequences that stem from good and bad actions. Further, God has elaborated on this moral law in the pages of Christian Scripture.
Often, Christians are confused about biblical “law” because the Old Testament contains some laws that seem quite odd and inapplicable to us today. One helpful way of understanding biblical law is to recognize that it comes in three varieties: moral, civil, and ceremonial. And, in a nutshell, the moral law applies to us today while the civil and ceremonial law do not.
Civil laws are those given to govern Israel’s theocracy. They are based on moral law but are applications of moral law to a specific people, era, and cultural context. The civil law shows the incredible breadth of the moral law in its application, thus suggesting that the moral law still today has application across the totality of life in this world.
Ceremonial laws are given to govern Israel’s sacrificial system, including not only the tabernacle and temple, but also the feasts, holidays, and dietary regulations. They are designed to remind Israel of her need for a clean, unpolluted heart, and thus to serve as a preview of Christ’s work on the cross. They were given to a specific people in a specific era in redemptive history.
Unlike civil and ceremonial law, God’s moral law is universal and applies to all people today. Moral laws are those that are based on God’s character, are written on the hearts of his image-bearers (Rom 2:14-15), and demand conformity to God’s character. The moral law is well-summarized in the Ten Commandments, or “Ten Words.”
An understanding of the Ten Words, therefore, is necessary for American Christians today. We must understand both its personal, social, and cultural implications. And, as I will attempt to show in this series, we must work hard to understand its implication for one particular sphere of culture—government and politics.
In the next installment of this series, we will examine the Scriptural “prologue” to the Ten Words. This prologue is especially significant because it is how God himself introduced these Words to Israel, and how he introduces them to us today. After examining the prologue, we will post ten installments—one apiece for each commandment. Finally, we will post a concluding installment that addresses the relationship of the moral law to the Christian gospel.