A Place for Everything: Tackling and Teaching the Key Insights of Lutheran Ethics

A Place for Everything: Tackling and Teaching the Key Insights
of Lutheran Ethics


Rev. Dr. David Coe, Assistant Professor of Theology, Philosophy, and Biblical Languages, Concordia University, Nebraska
David.Coe@cune.edu

What has happened to many of you happened to Joanna and me this past summer: new jobs, new town, new home, new church, new friends. Best of all, our new son Samuel was coming due in January. Some old friends gave us some good advice: “Be sure to get everything done before baby arrives because you won’t have time after he does.” We took their advice and put the pedal to the metal. We unpacked the boxes, put up the shelves, stained the deck, refinished the furniture, readied the nursery, filled the freezer, and got ‘er done! For those fast few months before Samuel arrived, Joanna and I motivated ourselves with the old motto, “A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place.”

“A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place.” Let’s use this old motto as a means to tackle and teach four key insights of Lutheran ethics.[1] Ethics answers, “What’s the difference between good and evil?” “What’s my motivation for doing good?” All of us can give pretty good answers to these questions, but how do Lutherans look at these? After introducing (1) the First Article and (2) the First Commandment, Lutheranism’s first two insights, we’ll take a short intermission to tackle four secular ethical options that have been around since ancient times: (1) Relativism, (2) Epicureanism, (3) Platonism, (4) Aristotelianism. When we tackle these four secular options, the four insights of Lutheran ethics will be more meaningful to teach. Then we’ll conclude with Lutheranism’s other two insights: (3) the Second Article and (4) the Third Article.[2] Let’s begin at the beginning. Lutheran ethics confesses that God has created a place for everything, and therefore, Lutheran ethics looks to place everything in the place God created it to go.

Lutheran Insight #1

The First Article: “I believe that God Has Made Me and All Creatures”
God Has Created a Place for Everything,
and God Created Us to Help Place Everything in its Place.

In the Beginning, God Created a Place for Everything  Because the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to “make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” Lutherans believe Scripture is God’s inspired word (2 Timothy 3:15-16). Hence, Lutheran ethics is Sola Scriptura, which means we are content to believe, teach, and confess what Scripture scripts. Being Sola Scriptura, Lutheran ethics begins where the Bible begins: “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). In the beginning, God created a place for everything, and God placed everything in its place. On the first three days God created the sea, the sky, the land—a place for everything. On days four, five, and six, God placed everything in its place: lights in the heavens, fish in the sea, birds in the sky, animals on the land. God saved the best for last: “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26).

Made in the MIRIR Image of God  What does it mean to be made in the image of God? I use the acronym MIRIR to teach my students that we are created in a five-faceted “mirror” image of God. God is a Moral (Isaiah 6:3), Intelligent (Psalm 147:4–5), Relational (1 John 4:16), Immortal (Revelation 22:13), Responsible (Psalm 97:2) being. While we lack the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of God, God still created us Moral (Genesis 2:17), Intelligent (Genesis 2:20), Relational (Genesis 2:18), Immortal (Genesis 2:17), Responsible (Genesis 1:28) beings in His image.

King David looked at how big the heavens were: “The moon and the stars, which You have set in place” (Psalm 8:3), and David then saw how small he was: “What is man that You are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). David had compared himself to Goliath before, and again David discovers that size doesn’t matter. It’s the image of God that matters. “You have made [man] a little lower than angels” (Psalm 8:5).[3] Made in the MIRIR image of God, God has made man Responsible: “Be fruitful and multiply—fill the earth and subdue it—have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that lives on the earth” (Genesis 1:28), a responsibility King David resounds (Psalm 8:6-9).

Everything in its Place: Dominion with the Dominus  Since my students are made in the MIRIR image of God, I teach them to be Responsible—to “Have DOMINION with the DOMINUS.” “Have dominion” comes from Jerome’s Latin “dominamini” in the Vulgate version of the Bible (Genesis 1:28). Each time he came across the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), the four-letter Hebrew name for God, Jerome translated it “Dominus,”—Latin for “Lord.” Made in the MIRIR image of the Dominus, the Dominus has made man Responsible: to have DOMINION with the DOMINUS—to have dominion over creation with the Creator. To “Have Dominion” doesn’t mean to have our way with the world however we please. No, God has created a place for everything, and God created us to help place everything in its place. To “Have Dominion” means to mirror the way the Dominus has dominion. How does the Dominus have dominion? He has eternal care and concern for His creation (Romans 8:18–25). He looks after life on His earth (Matthew 6:25–33). He creates a place for everything and places everything in its place. When you and I express the same kind of ethical care and concern for God’s creation, that’s having DOMINION with the DOMINUS. That’s doing what the Dominus wants our special species to do. In the beginning, God created a place for everything, and God created us to help place everything in its place.

Lutheran Insight #2

The First Commandment: “We should Fear, Love, and Trust in God above All Things”
God Has Created a Place for Everything,
And When God Gets First Place, Everything Else Falls into Place.

Sin is the Substitution of the Creature for the Creator  First things first. God created a place for everything—even a place for Himself: first place. And when God gets first place, everything else falls into place. But when God comes in second, third, or last place, everything else falls out of place. St. Paul shows us how by defining sin this way: “Sin is the substitution of the creature for the Creator” (Romans 1:25). Sin is when we substitute something in this creation in the place of the Creator. Sin is when we exploit something in this creation, adulterating it into a “little g” god in the place of the “Big G” God. In other words, sin equals idolatry. God created everything in creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and everything created in creation remains “very good” when it is enjoyed as a good and perfect gift from an even greater Creator (James 1:17). But creation goes from “very good” to “very bad” when the gift is enjoyed more than the Giver.[4] For example, God created Lutheran Lemonade to be enjoyed as a good and perfect gift from an even greater Creator, but Lutheran Lemonade goes from “very good” to “very bad” when the gift is enjoyed more than the Giver. Made in the MIRIR image of God, our God-given Responsibility is this: to have Dominion over creation with the Dominus. But when, instead of the Creator, something in creation gets the best of me, that’s not having dominion with the Dominus; that’s creation having dominion over me—and that is the essential ethical problem. God created a place for everything, but when God doesn’t get first place, everything else falls out of place. Sin substitutes the creature for the Creator.

We should Fear, Love, and Trust in God Above All Things  Martin Luther affirms what St. Paul says. The First Commandment means that God gets first place: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”[5] Luther teaches that the First Commandment is not just the First Commandment; the First Commandment is the Foremost Commandment: “If the heart is right with God and we keep the [First] Commandment, all the rest [of the Commandments] will follow on their own.”[6] Every single sin penultimately breaks one of the Ten Commandments, but Luther insightfully taught that every single sin ultimately breaks the First and Foremost Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” For example, when Martin looks at and lusts after a woman other than his wife, Katie, Martin has penultimately broken the Sixth Commandment, but Martin has ultimately feared, loved, and trusted in the image of another woman (a creature) more than God (the Creator). Sin is when someone fears, loves, and trusts in a person, place, thing, or idea more than God. St. Paul says the same thing: Sin is the substitution of the creature for the Creator (Romans 1:25).

This is a key insight. It means Lutheran ethics worries a lot less about penultimately breaking Commandments Two through Ten and focuses a lot more on ultimately keeping the First Commandment first. Lutherans teach that the First Commandment is the prerequisite of all the other Commandments, as Luther preludes them all, “We should fear and love God (first) so that” we can keep all the other Commandments (second). Made in the MIRIR image of God, Lutheran ethics focuses on the Relational facet first. When the Relationship is right—when we fear, love, and trust in God above all things (first)—the Moral, Intellectual, Immortal, and Responsible facets all fall into place (second). God created a place for everything, and when the Creator gets first place, everything else in creation falls into place.

Honor God as God  Made in the MIRIR image of God, Luther rejoices in God’s Relation to him (first): “I believe that God has made me and all creatures…. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”[7] Made in the MIRIR image of God, Luther responds Responsibly (second): “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”[8] But in Romans, St. Paul laments, “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21), which is to say, “Look, everyone knows there is a God and that they ought to thank and praise, serve and obey Him, but they don’t.” Right here in Romans, St. Paul repeats the same sober point three times: “Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their heart to impurity” (Romans 1:24); “Therefore, God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26); “Therefore, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28). Paul’s point is this: Every single sin is a result of not honoring God as God (Romans 1:21). When we resolutely refuse to honor God as God (first), then God gives us up to sin (second).

God Has Made it Plain that He is Creator of Creation  I try to excuse myself: “Hey, how was I supposed to know there was a Creator I was supposed to fear, love, and trust above all things? If God exists, He hasn’t made it plain enough for plain people like me to see.” Scripture scripts that I am without excuse: “Ever since the creation of creation, God has made it plain that He is Creator of creation” (Romans 1:19–20). For example, when you and your students witness the order, purpose, and providence of creation and you wonder about its Creator, Designer, and Provider, you are wondering about what philosophers call the “Design Argument” for the existence of God. Philosophers also call the Design Argument the “Teleological Argument,” from the Greek word “telos,” which means “purpose.” Our English word “intellectual” also comes from the Greek word “telos.” When you are “intellectual,” you are able to intuit the “telos”—the purpose and function—of things in creation. Made in the MIRIR image of God, God has made man Intellectual, able to intuit teloi.

Since God made man Intellectual, Scripture confirms that man can intuit creation’s witness to its Creator. For example, on St. Paul’s first missionary journey, the crowds at Lystra mistakenly dubbed Paul and Barnabas as the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus. Paul and Barnabas responded the way you would if someone blasphemed your God—by ripping their robes and roaring, “Men, turn from these vain things to a living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). Paul and Barnabas appeal to Lystra’s Intellect, arguing the Design Argument for the existence of God: “[God] did not leave Himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). In other words: “Listen up, Lystra! It’s this simple. (1) Seed goes in the ground. (2) The ground gets watered. (3) Food grows out of the ground. TA DA, creation is provident! Now your Intellect has two options: (1) either this fortunate phenomenon is a chaotic coincidence or (2) there is a Creator who created a place for everything. You’ve got two options: (1) you can place your confidence in coincidence, or (2) you can place your confidence in the providence of God.” St. Paul says, “Choose the latter, Lystra!” Scripture confirms creation’s witness to its Creator. We are without excuse.

God Has Made it Plain that He is Maker of Morality  Ever since the creation of creation, God has not only made it plain that He is Creator of creation (Romans 1:19–20); God has also made it plain that He is Maker of morality. For example, ask your students why their consciences accuse them when they lean toward what’s wrong and why their consciences excuse them when they lean toward what’s right. When you and your students witness this—that the conscience is haunted by a natural knowledge of right and wrong—and you wonder how we came by that knowledge, students may respond, “Because we were raised that way.” With Paul, we invite them to reconsider and examine what philosophers call the “Moral Argument” for the existence of God.

Made in the MIRIR image of God, God made man Moral. Many philosophers refer to this natural knowledge of morality as “Natural Law,” a moral order built into human nature, not conditioned by culture or religion.[9] Scripture confirms natural knowledge of natural law: “When Gentiles, who do not have the law (i.e., the Ten Commandments and the Torah), by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law (i.e., the Ten Commandments and the Torah). They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:14–15). Scripture confirms natural knowledge of natural law. Made in the MIRIR image of God, God made man Moral, writing the moral law on everyone’s heart. We are without excuse.

Secular Option #1

Relativism: “Man is the Measure of All Things”
Since God Has Not Created a Place for Everything,
Then Man Can Place Anything Anywhere.

Lutheran ethics has two insights so far about good and evil and my motivation for doing good. The first is the First Article: God has created a place for everything and has created us to help place everything in its place. The second is the First Commandment: God has created a place for everything, and when God gets first place, everything else falls into place. Notice we’re tackling Lutheran ethics, but we have not yet taught anything about Christ. Neither does secular ethics. So before we teach Christ, this is the appropriate place to briefly examine four secular options that have been around since ancient times: (1) Relativism, (2) Epicureanism, (3) Platonism, and (4) Aristotelianism. My students breathe a sigh of relief when they see that the ethical options available today are the same ones that were available before Christ was born. Instead of yearning for “the good old days,” Solomon says, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Democritus: God Has Not Created a Place for Everything  Many moderns presume Relativism is a product of modern times, but Relativism has been around since antiquity. Four hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosopher Democritus of Abdera was the first to champion an Atomist/Materialist view of the universe. What is the universe made of? Atoms. How did atoms come to be? Atoms have always existed. How come the universe exhibits so much order, purpose, and providence? Atoms constantly move only in chaotic motion, so any appearance of purpose or design is merely chaotic coincidence. Democritus allows for no Creator or Designer; God has not created a place for everything. Materialism (the doctrine that nothing exists except matter, its movement, and modifications) is the whole shebang.

Protagoras: Man is the Measure of All Things  What does Atomism/Materialism have to do with Relativism? Protagoras, another Greek philosopher from Abdera, was the first to apply Democritus’s Atomism to ethics and profess Relativism. If Democritus is right that there is no Creator or Designer who has created a place for everything and anarchic atoms are all there is, then man can assume first place and place anything anywhere. Protagoras coined the motto “Man is the measure of all things,” meaning that knowledge is relative to each person, measured by what each person self-referentially perceives. Relativism leaves us with two options: (1) Subjective Relativism (right and wrong are relative to individual inclinations) or (2) Cultural Relativism (right and wrong are relative to current cultural norms). Protagoras professed the former but practiced the latter, valuing peace over pandemonium, valuing tradition over treachery.

Secular Option #2

Epicureanism: “Pleasure is the Measure of All Things”
Since God Has Not Created a Place for Everything,
Then Man Can Place Anything Anywhere, as long as It Supplies Pleasure.

Epicurus: Pleasure is the Measure of All Things  Epicurus lived in Athens 300 years before St. Paul ran into later Epicurean philosophers when he arrived in Athens (Acts 17:18). Epicurus wasn’t from Abdera, but like Protagoras, he adored and adopted Democritus’s Atomism. If Democritus is right that there is no Creator or Designer and anarchic atoms are all there is, then we are free to “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (Luke 12:19–20). Look up “Epicurean” in a dictionary, and you’ll find this definition: “Fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially eating and drinking.” Synonyms for “Epicurean” include “hedonist” or “self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking sensualist.” However, the dictionaries got Epicurus wrong. The real Epicurus wasn’t all Spring Break and Mardi Gras. The real Epicurus distinguished between high-quantity/low-quality pleasures and low-quantity/high-quality pleasures. The former have a high intensity but a painful aftermath (e.g., binge drinking, binge watching). The latter have a low intensity but bestow calm and repose (e.g., healthy habits, congenial conversation). The real Epicurus pursued the latter—the minimum that nature needs to be content—or what Epicurus called “The Pleasure Principle,” not to be confused with crass hedonism.  Since there is no God, no final judgment, and no afterlife and since there are plenty of high-quality pleasures to be had before dying, Epicurus shamelessly taught his followers to ignore the poor, whose needs and problems are too many and too time-consuming. The modern version of Epicureanism is Utilitarianism, popularized by nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Unlike Epicureanism, Utilitarianism is more egalitarian, promoting the greatest amount of high-quality pleasures for the greatest amount of people. Like Epicureanism, though, Utilitarianism believes pleasure is the measure of all things and that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness.

Epicurus and the Problem of Evil  Everyone is familiar with the problem of evil. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then why does evil exist? My students are startled when they find out that Epicurus, an atheist whose purpose was the pursuit of happiness, was the first philosopher to pose this theological problem. The problem with this problem is its presuppositions. The problem presupposes (1) that God has not created a place for everything; (2) that man can place anything anywhere, as long as it supplies pleasure; and (3) that God, if He exists, ought to care more about our comfort than our character. In contrast, Scripture scripts (1) that God exists and has created a place for everything; (2) that real consequences (i.e., evils) occur when men made in the MIRIR image of God place things where God has not created them to go; and (3) that God exploits “all things,” both good and evil, to restore man back to the Moral, Intelligent, Relational, Immortal, and Responsible MIRIR image God intended man to mirror (Romans 8:28-29). Scripture scripts that the ultimate purpose of life is to have DOMINION with the DOMINUS (Genesis 1:28). Happiness may happen, but it is penultimate. Epicureans who have a problem with the problem of evil erroneously presuppose the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate purpose of life.

Relativism and Epicureanism: Marring the MIRIR  As Democritus gave birth to both Protagoras and Epicurus, so Materialism gives birth to both Relativism and Epicureanism. Both Relativism and Epicureanism deny that God has created a place for everything. While Relativism accounts for the positive influence God created parents, peers, and society to have,[10] Relativism can’t give a real reason why Nazi Germany, Islamic Terrorism, and child abuse are always wrong. Either “Might Makes Right,” or morality is measured by the majority. While Epicureanism accounts for the positive influence God created pleasure and pain to have,[11] Epicureanism can’t account for “counting it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2; Romans 5:3–5). If Democritus is right that there is no Creator, then man and his pleasure principle is the measure of all things. If Scripture is right, then Relativism and Epicureanism both mar the MIRIR image of God. Both Relativism and Epicureanism yield these results: they (1) reject the Moral law written on man’s heart, (2) rebuff man’s Intellectual ability to intuit teloi, (3) renege on Relations if they are inconvenient, (4) reject Immortal life after death, and (5) renounce Responsibility. If there is no Creator and the Creator has not created a place for everything then, look out.[12]

Secular Option #3

Platonism: “Reason Takes the Reins”
Since There is a Place for Everything,
Reason Must Place Everything in its Place.

Socrates: Fulfill Your Function  While Relativism and Epicureanism deny that God has created a place for everything, Platonism and Aristotelianism place too much pressure on man’s own reason and strength to place everything in its place. Four hundred years before Christ, Socrates saved ancient philosophy from the anarchy of Democritus and Protagoras. Although his theism is vague, Socrates observed the order/purpose/providence of creation and concluded that there is a place for everything. All species always have a specific function. Birds fly and build nests; bees buzz and make honey. When each species fulfills its specific function, that species is “functional” and “good.” When it does not, it is “dysfunctional” and “bad.” What is man’s function? Specific to our species, man is Intellectual—able to intuit teloi—able to intuit the purpose and function of things in creation. Being Intellectual, man intuits the place where everything ought to go, and being Responsible, man helps place everything in its place. In other words, man’s specific function is to act in rational ways. When he acts rational, he fulfills his function, and when he fulfills his function, he is “good.”

Plato: Reason Takes the Reins  The modern version of Socrates’s ethics is Kantianism, proposed by eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. If Lutherans are Sola Scriptura, Kantians are Sola Ratio—reason alone is the only trustworthy source of moral guidance.[13] Kant agrees with Socrates: Man is “good” when he fulfills his function—when he acts rational. Socrates and Kant credulously believe that immorality is merely a result of ignorance. Provided that man knows what is right, then he can’t not do what’s right. Plato gives a better explanation of why man does not always act rational. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato divides the soul of man into three parts. Man is not only reason (Intellect); he is also spirit and appetite. Plato illustrates this three-part soul of man as a charioteer (reason) reining in two wild horses: a white horse (spirit) and a dark horse (appetite). The white horse, our spirit, is our heart, emotions, passion, will, ambition, drive. The dark horse, our appetite, is our body’s desire to avoid pain and overindulge in pleasure. As the charioteer, the role of reason is to rein in these two horses with wisdom, justice, and moderation, neither ignoring nor indulging them, but giving each of them their due. If reason ignores the spirit, then a man has no spiritual drive to fulfill his function. If reason ignores the appetite, then a man has no physical energy to fulfill his function. If reason indulges the appetite, then a man is all Spring Break and Mardi Gras. If reason indulges the spirit, then the spirit rejects reason and abets the appetite. But if reason can keep a tight rein on spirit and appetite, says Plato, man can be “good.” Again, Plato places a lot of pressure on man’s own reason and strength to place everything in its place.

Secular Option #4

Aristotelianism: “Practice Makes Perfect”
Since There is a Place for Everything,
Reason Must Repeatedly Place Everything in its Place.

Aristotle: Practice Makes Perfect  As Socrates influenced Plato, so Plato influenced Aristotle. Aristotle agreed with Socrates and Plato: (1) when species fulfill their specific function, then they are good; (2) man’s specific function is reason; and (3) when man is rational, then he is good. As Plato’s reason reins in spirit and appetite with wisdom, justice, and moderation by neither ignoring nor indulging them, so Aristotle valued virtue as the moderate mean between two vices: (1) the vice of deficiency and (2) the vice of excess. The virtue of courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice (a vice of deficiency) and rashness (a vice of excess). The virtue of temperance is the via media between starvation and gluttony. The virtue of generosity is the moderation between stinginess and prodigality. Aristotle’s ethics is an expansion of Socrates and Plato’s ethics, and his additional contribution was his recognition that practice makes perfect. Just as a piano student can’t take one lesson one morning and play Beethoven the same afternoon, so a man cannot practice one virtue for one morning and be called “virtuous” the same afternoon. Virtuosity requires repeated practice over time, building a healthy habit. A good man, then, is a practiced, tried-and-true man. Practice makes perfect.

Aquinas: Grace Perfects Nature  Ancient Aristotelianism would not be a modern option without the mediation of Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Doctor [or teacher] of the Church. Although Aristotle was a pagan, Aquinas had no qualms with Christianizing his favorite philosopher. For Aquinas, Aristotle’s ethics—the reasoned, repeated practice of virtue—is the natural path to “goodness.” Again, a guitar student can’t take one lesson one morning and play Hendrix the same afternoon. Practice makes perfect—that is the natural path to human perfection. For Aquinas, the grace of God does not nullify this natural path. In fact, for Aquinas, the grace of God walks us down this natural path. Like Popeye eating spinach, God gives us the grace that gives us the power to practice good works. With enough grace and enough repeated practice, man can merit the title “virtuous,” “good,” and “righteous,” just as a Boy Scout can merit the title “Eagle Scout.” Aquinas and Roman Catholicism call this Aristotelian kind of righteousness “Infused Righteousness”: God does His part, infusing us with grace, to give us power to do our part, to merit salvation.  Since practice makes perfect, reason must repeatedly place everything in its place in order to be “good” and to be “saved.” Grace does not nullify nature; grace perfects nature.

Lutheran Insight #3: The Second Article:

“I believe that Jesus Christ has redeemed me”
God Has Created a Place for Everything,
and Jesus Christ Has Placed Everything in its Place.

One Man Messed Everything Up  Contrary to secular ethics, Scripture scripts that sin is not a result of reckoning the wrong amount of reason or pleasure. Every single sin, as we said, is a result of not honoring God as God, not being grateful to the One who has been gracious to us. St. Paul laments, “Everyone knows there is a God and that they ought to thank and praise, serve and obey Him, but they don’t” (Romans 1:21). Why? Anyone who values human reason or pleasure as the measure of all things isn’t going to like Scripture’s answer: “One man’s sin, Adam’s sin, spread sin and death to all men” (Romans 5:12). That is not fair, right? If one of my students fails an exam so bad that I give Fs to the whole class, that’s not fair. When the copilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 intentionally crashes the plane into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, killing all 150 people on board, that’s not fair. Yet Paul insists that Adam’s sin not only marred the MIRIR, making all men imMoral, unIntelligent, disRelational, Mortal, and irResponsible; this one man’s sin infected and defected all of creation (Genesis 3:17–19; Romans 8:18–22). That’s not fair!

It’s not that Original Sin is unfair. Rather, Original Sin shows us how serious sin is. Plato and Aristotle see sin as something simple—a condition I can avoid or escape if I put my mind to it. Solving sin ought to be as simple as separating the bad apples from the good apples. But Scripture’s account of Original Sin shows sin to be dead serious. One man’s sin, Adam’s sin, upset the whole apple cart. One bad apple, Adam’s apple, spoiled the whole bunch. After the Fall, man still in some respect possesses the MIRIR image of God (Genesis 9:6), but the MIRIR has been marred. Man is still Moral, but guilty (Genesis 3:7); still Intelligent, but confounded (1 Corinthians 2:14); still Relational, but resentful (Genesis 3:12), no longer Immortal, but mortal (Genesis 3:19), still Responsible, but heavy laden (Genesis 3:17–19). The old proverb applies: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Original Sin teaches that all of us are bad apples fallen from Adam’s apple tree. “No one is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Given Original Sin, what then can we say about any sort of Christian ethics?

One Man Placed Everything in its Place  God has written His law on everyone’s heart (Romans 2:14-15), and His law holds us responsible, shows our sins, stops our mouths, declares us guilty, and justifies no one (Romans 3:19–20). Humans have a natural knowledge of natural law but do not have the capacity to fulfill it. What’s more, humans do not have any natural knowledge of the supernatural Gospel. For example, I ask my students to define “perfect,” and they naturally answer, “Flawless, faultless, never messing up.” I tell them Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and they naturally think He means, “Never mess up.” Then we read Matthew 5:48 in context, beginning at verse 43, and I ask them to answer, “Now, how is your heavenly Father perfect?” Students are astounded: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45)—He gives grace to the ungrateful and love to the unlovable. The natural definition of perfection means “never messing up,” but the supernatural definition of perfection means “loving those who don’t love you.” Humans have natural knowledge of natural law, but humans do not have natural knowledge of the supernatural Gospel: God the Father’s gracious gift of the life, death, and resurrection of His Son for the forgiveness, life, and salvation of humankind—the gift of the God-man with an unmarred MIRIR for immoral man with a marred MIRIR. So like an emergency broadcast interrupting our regularly scheduled program, God graciously interrupts our natural knowledge of natural law with the supernatural message of His perfect love: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are now justified through Jesus by His grace, as a gift, paid in full, through His blood, received by faith” (Romans 3:23–25). Scripture reveals what natural knowledge and secular ethics could have never conceived: One man, Adam, messed everything up; one Man, Jesus, placed everything in its place (Romans 5:18–19). “No one is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10); no one, but One—Solus Christus.

Lutheran Insight #4: The Third Article:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength”
God Has Created a Place for Everything,
and the Holy Spirit Places Everything in its Place.

No One Can Accept, Except …  To paraphrase St. Paul, “No one can accept Jesus Christ, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:11–14; 1 Corinthians 12:3). Luther affirms what St. Paul says, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”[14] The Holy Spirit’s title equals His task—to make us holy.[15] God created a place for everything, and the Holy Spirit makes a person holy by placing us in His holy Christian church, where the Gospel is published and proclaimed in Word and Sacrament, through which the Holy Spirit illuminates and inflames hearts.[16] Scripture pictures the Holy Spirit as a dove (Mark 1:10), and the Holy Spirit makes man holy by pointing people with His pointy beak to Jesus: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Helper” (the “Paraklete” in Greek); like a pair of cleats, the Holy Spirit helps us by helping us get a grip on and ground our feet in Jesus. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” No one can accept Jesus Christ, except by the Holy Spirit.

Motive Matters: from MERIT to MERCY  God has created a place for everything, and God wants us to place everything in its place. We naturally know that He is Creator of creation and Maker of morality and that we are saddled with sin. We naturally assume with Aristotle that practice makes perfect, and we naturally assume with Aquinas that we are under pressure to prove ourselves and merit God’s mercy the way a Boy Scout merits merit badges or a student merits good grades. Merit makes us anxious: how many merit badges must I merit, how many A’s must I achieve to merit God’s mercy? Scripture doesn’t say. Instead, Scripture graciously interrupts our natural knowledge of natural law with the supernatural message of the Gospel: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). As we hear this, the Holy Spirit convinces us: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). That means that there is now no need to merit God’s mercy. God is merciful to me not because of my merit but because of Christ’s merit in my place. Made in the MIRIR image of God, Lutheran ethics, again, focuses on the Relational facet first. When the Relationship is rectified by God, the Moral, Intellectual, Immortal, and Responsible facets all fall into place. The Relationship is now right: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1). That means my motive can move on from merit to mercy—from law to grace, from the Pharisee Saul to the Apostle Paul, from Aquinas to Luther—from the pressure to prove to gratitude for grace.[17] What’s my motivation for doing good? Lutherans do good works not to merit mercy; Lutherans do good works to say, “Merci for mercy,” (if you’ll pardon my French).

Gratitude for Grace: The Third Use of the Law  Seeing the difference that motive makes, Lutherans divvy up three different ways the law, the Ten Commandments, motivate good works: (1) Curb, (2) Mirror, (3) Guide.[18] First, the law curbs our sin when the law warns, “No, you may not,” or, “You must,” and I cower, “I’d better not,” or, “I’d better!”  Second, the law shows our sin when the law says, “Look what you’ve done (or not done),” and I confess, “I am guilty.” But after the Holy Spirit shows us God the Father’s grace in Jesus Christ, Lutherans see the law in a new light: as a Guide—the Third Use of the Law. With the new motive of mercy rather than merit, the Holy Spirit uses the law to show us how to be grateful for grace. Instead of asking, “Do I have to?” we ask, “Because God has been so gracious to me, how can I respond to Him with gratitude?” The Holy Spirit answers, “Your heavenly Father loves it when you honor your father and mother (the Fourth Commandment). He loves it when you help and support your neighbor in every physical need (the Fifth Commandment).” We reply, “He does?!” “He sure does!” And the Holy Spirit reminds us again, “But first and foremost, you can fear, love, and trust in Him above all things (the First Commandment) because He forgives, loves, and treasures you first” (1 John 4:19). When God gets first place, everything else falls into place. Thus, the Holy Spirit moves our motivation for doing good from the pressure to prove to a gratitude for grace—from the First and Second Uses of the Law to the Third Use of the Law. Or, we might say, from a list of no-no’s to a list of love languages for God and neighbor. “Love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10).

Mixed Motives: Simul Iustus et Peccator  Contrary to secular ethics, Lutherans are not ethical idealists; Lutherans are a mixed bag of motives. I wish we were all Holy Spirit/Gratitude for Grace/Third Use of the Law people all the time, but nothing we do is as pure in motivation and execution as we wish it were. For example, I wish I were all Third Use of the Law for my Monday morning 8 a.m. class, praying, “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have redeemed me. I can’t wait for the Holy Spirit to show Your wisdom and love to these students through me!” But, honestly, sometimes I don’t “feel” like that, and I must be threatened by the First Use of the Law: “Either get up and teach that 8 a.m. class, or start thinking about some other place to serve!” intones my provost.[19] St. Paul and Luther know what I’m going through. St. Paul called a spade a spade and confessed, “I have the desire to do what’s right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19). Lutherans lay their cards on the table and confess with Luther in Latin, “We are Simul Iustus et Peccator—simultaneously saint and sinner—simultaneously Jesus and Adam—simultaneously unmarred MIRIR and marred MIRIR.”[20] This paradox is simultaneously both a bane and a blessing, keeping us honest and keeping us dependent upon the Holy Spirit. I am perfectly justified—just as if I’d never sinned—because of Jesus. Simultaneously, I can honestly confess that my best efforts still suffer from the imperfections of my sinful nature because of Adam. Lutherans never pass the point where they don’t confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[21] The Marines are Semper Fi—always faithful. The Coast Guard is Semper Paratus—always prepared. Lutherans are SEMPER Simul Iustus et Peccator.

BURY and BUOY: The Battle of Baptism  Since I’m Semper Simul Saint and Sinner, that means I can keep on sinning, right? God will keep forgiving![22] St. Paul replies in Greek, “May Genoito,” which means, “No Way, Uh-Uh, Forget It,” and reminds us of our Baptisms: “How can we who died to sin still live in sin?” (Romans 6:2). “I’ve died to sin? When did that happen?” “When you were Baptized,” says St. Paul: “All of us who were Baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into His death. We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3–4). Here, St. Paul reminds us that Baptism is not only the beginning of Christian life (Matthew 28:19–20); Baptism is also the daily battle of Christian life. Luther affirms, “[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam (my marred MIRIR) in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man (Christ’s unmarred MIRIR) should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[23] To teach Romans 6:3-4 to my students, I tell them, “There are only two words you need to remember about Baptism. They’re easy to remember because they both start with a “B,” as in “Baptism,” and they both have only four letters, three of which are the same: Bury and Buoy. Baptism buries our sins in the crucifixion of Jesus, and Baptism buoys our lives in the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:4). So when I think I can lord it over the Lord and dominate the Dominus, and I contemplate, “Can’t I keep on sinning? God will keep forgiving” (Romans 6:1), that’s the time to engage in the Battle of Baptism (Romans 6:2–4). St. Paul says, “The death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God” (Romans 6:10). Because Baptism buries us in the crucifixion of Jesus and Baptism buoys us in the resurrection of Jesus, St. Paul says you have the right to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). Since we are Semper Simul Saint and Sinner, Lutheran ethics buries the sinner and buoys the saint in the daily battle of Baptism.

Conclusion: A Place for Everything

Tackling and Teaching the Key Insights of Lutheran Ethics
God Has Created a Place for Everything,
and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Are Placing Everything in its Place.

You cannot teach what you do not know; you cannot lead where you will not go. Tackling and teaching the key insights of Lutheran ethics means tackling and teaching them to ourselves first. We can concoct hypothetical situations in class, but the best time to tackle Lutheran ethics is the moment of temptation outside of class. For example, I’m working hard on the clock at work, and I need a break. My smartphone won’t stop ringing and dinging, practically begging me to check the latest and the greatest. What should I do? Instead of a text message, I could send myself a mental message of the four key insights of Lutheran ethics. (1) The First Article: God has created a place for everything and has created me to help place everything in its place. Has God created a place to check the latest updates? Yes—at home or on a break, not at work or on the clock. (2) The First Commandment: God has created a place for everything, and when God gets first place, everything else falls into place. First things first, I am going to need to fear, love, and trust in God first so that I will not get my boss’s money in any dishonest way second. (3) The Second Article: God has created a place for everything, and Jesus Christ has placed everything in its place. Have I ever broken the First and Seventh Commandments before? This is most certainly true! Have I been forgiven for breaking the First and Seventh Commandments? This is most certainly true (Romans 8:1)! I can fear, love, and trust in God above all things because God forgives, loves, and treasures me first. (4) The Third Article: God has created a place for everything, and the Holy Spirit places everything in its place. “Holy Spirit, I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength fear, love, or trust, bury or buoy, or place anything in its place. Call me by the Gospel, enlighten me with Your gifts, sanctify and keep me in the true faith.” God has created a place for everything. Made in the MIRIR image of God, God created us to have dominion with Him as Moral, Intelligent, Relational, Immortal, Responsible beings. God the Father graciously gives God the Son and God the Holy Spirit so that we may mirror God’s MIRIR image again, placing everything back in its place.


End Notes

[1] Robert Benne, “Lutheran Ethics: Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges,” in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, eds. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 11–12, worries, “I believe Lutheranism as a living tradition is at risk. In another generation or two the Lutheran church itself may be merged into a generic amalgam of declining American Protestant groups. This may occur because of their inability to transmit particular Protestant traditions to new generations, especially in the face of the rampant individualism of postmodern American culture.” This article seeks to help address this issue by transmitting Lutheran ethics to new generations in meaningful, fun, insightful, and congenial language.
[2] Benne (Ibid., 27-28) also worries that Lutheran ethics “downplays the role of the First and Third persons of the Trinity” and has “shied away from contemporary explications of the Decalogue.” This article seeks to help address these Trinitarian and Decalogue issues, as well.
[3] Angels are also Moral (Luke 15:10), Intelligent (Mark 13:32), Relational (Matthew 18:10), Immortal (Luke 20:36), Responsible (Psalm 103:20) beings.
[4] See Augustine’s concepts of disordered and ordered love in Of the Morals of the Catholic Church in Samuel Enoch Stumpf and James Fieser, Philosophy: A Historical Survey with Essential Readings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015), 111–112.
[5] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles Arand et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 351.
[6] Ibid., 392.
[7] Ibid., 354.
[8] Ibid., 355.
[9] Gifford A. Grobien, “What is the Natural Law?: Medieval Foundations and Luther’s Appropriation,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011), 18.
[10] J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), 200–201, notes that every ethical option is not a new morality, but an adulterating of God’s morality. This adulteration occurs when one moral precept from God’s morality is chosen and its scope and importance are exaggerated and used as a club to beat down the other precepts of God’s morality. For example, in the case of Cultural Relativism, God created parents, peers, and society to have a positive influence (Exodus 20:12), but this good moral precept is exaggerated when it is used as the only moral precept against all others. In the case of Subjective Relativism, God created individuals with a good instinct to preserve their lives (Genesis 3:8), but this good moral precept is exaggerated when it is used as the only moral precept against all others. Other moral precepts of God’s morality (e.g., honoring God as our ultimate Father [Matthew 10:37] and as the Giver and Taker of life [Job 1:21]) must also be recognized.
[11] Ibid. In the case of Epicureanism, God created pleasure and pain to alert us to the consequences of our behavior (Genesis 3:7), but this good moral precept is exaggerated when it is used as the only moral precept against all others.
[12] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 19, writes, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson.”
[13] Benne, “Lutheran Ethics,” 29.
[14] Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 355.
[15] Ibid., 435.
[16] Ibid., 435–436.
[17] Through the influence of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas, Aristotelian virtue ethics is having a substantial modern influence upon Protestant ethics. See “Virtue Ethics and its Application within Lutheran Congregations” by Jeff Mallinson in this edition of Issues in Christian Education, Summer 2017, Vol. 50, No. 3. See also A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics by Joel Biermann (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014). Made in the MIRIR image of God, Lutheran ethics focuses on the Relational facet first. When the Relationship is rectified by God, the Moral, Intellectual, Immortal, and Responsible facets all fall into place. Because of this Lutherans must be careful not to put the cart before the horse—character before the comforter—the fruits of the Holy Spirit before the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). And we might say, do not let your left hand pat your right shoulder on the back.
[18] Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 502.
[19] “Concerning the difference between the works of the law and the fruits of the Spirit, we believe, teach, and confess that the works performed according to the law remain works of the law and should be so called, as long as they are coerced out of people only through the pressure of punishment and the threat of God’s wrath. The fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works that the Spirit of God, who dwells in believers, effects through the reborn; they are done by believers (insofar as they are reborn) as if they knew no command, threat or reward” (Ibid., 503).
[20] “We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified through faith. For even if they are reborn and “renewed in the spirit of their minds” (Ephesians 4:23), this rebirth and renewal is not perfect in this world. Instead, it has only begun. Believers are engaged with the spirit of their minds in continual battle against the flesh, that is, against the perverted nature and character which clings to us until death and which because the old creature is still lodged in the human understanding, will, and all human powers” (Ibid., 502).
[21] Ibid., 355.
[22] Timothy J. Wengert, A Formula for Parish Practice: Using the Formula of Concord in Congregations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 62-63, says not to worry if people pose the question, “Shall we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). That question is a good sign that folks are tackling that God’s grace is unconditional.
[23] Kolk and Wengert, Book of Concord, 360.

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