“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This thesis is the first of ninety-five that Luther posed for debate over indulgences in 1517. And this thesis is thematic for our life under the Gospel—a life, unavoidably, of Christian ethics.
This is the Lord’s world, both the natural order and the human history acted out within it; and He is forever active within it and toward it. His love will not let go, despite the foolish pride of humanity that would marginalize or even sideline Him. What’s more, His celebratory love delights in and embraces the remarkable inventiveness of people in all our endeavors. Redemption means that nothing is wasted as He accomplishes His purposes. He simultaneously judges and saves, crushes and cares in both kingdoms … in the Left in a broad, providential way, and in the Right with the specificity of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Faith sees that. And only faith sees that, for such a view is hidden to reason twisted as it is by pride and fear. Apart from faith, everything is idolatry whether it’s our sophisticated explanations of reality or our labors to define ethical values and behavior. Alternately faith is the expression of repentance, the surrender to have values and behavior shaped by the Father’s claim on us. Faith and repentance are the “changed mind,” the Spirit-created way of seeing and reflecting on the Lord’s world and our place in it from the Lord’s viewpoint instead of our own.
By such faith, the Christian responds from a Lord’s-viewpoint approach to ethical undertakings. We live in trusting obedience and obeying trust in the Lord who lays claim on our life under the word of the Gospel that is constantly being experienced and lived out. Such faith and life can never be separated from love both for God and for the neighbor. In the instant that we are satisfied we have loved enough, we have brought ourselves under the idolatry of self-justification, which brings us to a consideration of ethical decision-making. Quo vadis?
The history of philosophical grappling with ethical thinking proposed three broad classifications: deontological systems (rules matter above all), teleological systems (the results matter above all), and virtue ethics (the personal development of qualities matters above all). Each of these has been transposed into various Christian approaches to Christian ethics. Are there commendable aspects of any of these that assist the repentance/faith experience of life? I suppose. But for all their commendable insight, I think they share an important risk. While each can serve to stimulate profound and important reflection, each in its own way can also appeal to the idol factory of the human mind and heart as subtle temptations to self-righteous self-content.
Deontological systems can leave me so focused on my standing before the rules, that my neighbor becomes a defined thing instead of a person. My behavior is measured according to some human economy—e.g., Pharisaism—instead of divine grace operative toward me and in and through me. Teleological systems—so thoroughly part of the American culture of pragmatism—invite me to play God in creating my (our) own version of utopia. Here read Romans 1:18-31. Enough said! Virtue systems isolate me in either self-contentment or the self-torture of constant insufficiency—consider pietism—that call the Gospel into question.
Faith operates in love and with love, receiving and giving. My response-abilities in faith/repentance can only be powered by the Lord who then puts my naked, hungry, angry, empty neighbor right in front of me. The Jewish postmodern philosopher Immanuel Levinas helps us see a powerful reality here. “The face (of another person) opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation … [T]he Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me.”[i] Levinas implies an answer similar to Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Hmmm!
My neighbor’s immediate presence calls out to me; and I am forced to decide whether and how I am going to respond. If I turn away, if I dismiss her, if I categorize him, I have brought the same on myself … even before the Lord. At the same time, my neighbor’s needs and hopes and plight ignite the fear in me that my own resources of time, energy or wealth will be dissipated, divesting me of self-sufficiency and I will have nothing to depend on for self-care (or care for other neighbors closer to my own interests). Hmmm, again! Doesn’t that bring me back to faith and repentance? And Luther reminds us that this, of course, is what the Lord has in mind.