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St. Paul & ethics

In the Pocket Dictionary of Ethics, Grenz & Smith write, “Paul sought to understand the significance of Jesus’ entire life, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation for ethical living.  He also attempted to apply Jesus’ teachings to the situations faced by the early churches under his care” [1]

These words seem to imply that Paul the apostle had not fully understood the significance of Jesus’ life for ethical living.  In addition, these words suggest that Paul may have been deficient in applying Jesus’ words to the matters of his day.  However, the very words of Paul in his letters[2] demonstrate otherwise.

Take for example Paul’s words as recorded in Romans 12, where he writes, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (v3), or these, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10 Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (v9-18).

Specifically, these words of St. Paul the Apostle, inspired by God to write what he wrote, indicate not a seeking to understand, but certainty, in applying Jesus’ words to how God’s people are to live.  St. Paul knew and understood what he was writing about, not, however, due to experience, but due to the revelation of Christ (i.e. 1 Corinthians 14:6; Galatians 1:12ff; 2:2; Ephesians 3:3).

St. Paul the apostle was not seeking to understand how to live.  He sought to preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2).  He sought to the please God who had sent Him.  Ethically speaking, Paul knew how he was to live and how others were to live.  He knew and believed what God had revealed to Him.  The issue was not in Paul’s understanding, it was in actually doing what God said.

Read Romans 7:7-25, for example.  Here, Paul speaks of the struggle between his sinful flesh and the spirit.  His problem was not that he did not “know” how to apply the teaching of Christ.  He certainly did.  Rather, his problem concerned the battle of the flesh and spirit, not only within himself, but also within everyone who has believed in God and His promises since the Fall of Adam and Eve, even into our day, even to the end of this world (see Galatians 5:16-26).

Instead of seeking to understand Christ’s teaching for everyday living as God’s people, Paul sought to preach and teach the truth of God’s Word.  In doing so, Paul actually did apply Jesus’ teaching to the everyday situations of the church in his day.  He did not merely attempt to declare God’s law and judgment upon sin, and to preach the forgiveness of sins.  He did proclaim these very truths, as God Himself had given him to do.  Had the hearers of his preaching and teaching not believed or acted according to the words of Paul, this would not have been due to what Paul had said, but to the hardened hearts of those who heard him speak.

Grenz and Smith’s use of the word “attempt” is unfortunate, for it leads the reader to assume that Paul failed to faithfully apply God’s Word.  But look at the letters of Paul, and you will find something quite different.


[1] Stanley J. Grenz & Jay T. Smith, Pocket Dictionary of Ethic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2003.

[2] Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & Timothy, Titus, Philemon.

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