Justification and Ethics

In Michael Bird’s recent post on Rom. 2, he concludes that the righteousness through faith should produce “an ethic of mutual tolerance”, to borrow from Robert Jewett. The logic is: If God’s verdict on Jew and Gentile is the same by means of the righteousness one receives through faith, then how Jew and Gentile relate to each other must be normed by the justifying event of faith in Christ.

In other words, no longer can a Jew say they are more faithful to God by virtue of their Torah observance.  But just as well, a Gentile cannot assume he is more faithful to the purity of the gospel, simply because he does not observe all that Jewish stuff. In the end, both need to recognize the gospels verdict of righteous, which is freely received through faith in Christ (contra works of the law).

Together then, Jew and Gentile must learn the “ethic of mutual tolerance.” If faith in Christ is what grants salvation vertically, then it must also be the ground for our ethics horizontally.  And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak; implications of the gospel (ethics) cannot replace the grounds of the gospel (rule of faith).  But at the same time, we could delineate, that the gospel’s normative ethic is unity.  Or to say it more clearly, union with Christ and his people is “the” ethical issue the church continually needs to fight for.

So might it be the case, that unity in the gospel is of greater importance than the plethora of implications that one can draw from the gospel.  If so, then this challenges many evangelical idiosyncratic movements that pride themselves on having discovered the “real” essence of being Christian.  The “real” however, is not the essence, but actually just an implication. But when the “real” is seen as the “essence”, Christian unity becomes Christian homogeny, which is many times achieved through power and spiritual coercion (guilt tripping, shaming, etc.).  But apostolic Christianity embraces diversity, not homogeny.  This can relate to both cultural gifts (common grace) or even spiritual gifts (covenantal grace).

We see Paul dealing with these types of things when he warns the Ephesians in ch. 4 to bear with one another, to be patient, to be humble and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.  These imperatives come just prior to Paul speaking about the gifts Christ gives to his church.  These gifts are meant to unite the church, not divide the church.  Most likely, Paul had in mind Christians who were eager to use their gifts and were “sold out” for the Lord, but who were also devastatingly toxic for Christian unity.  Paul’s point to these Christians is that unity is the true sign of maturity (Eph. 4:13-16), not simply ones giftedness or eagerness to use ones gift.

Paul would rather see a diverse community bound by the Spirit, than a homogenous community all playing the same tune. In his understanding, the greatest mystery ever revealed, is that Gentiles are now fellow heirs with Jews. And it is  this new humanity bound by the Spirit that is the greatest evidence of the gospel’s power.

Yet in saying all of this, we should not assume that implications are not important.  Rather, it just means that they actually might look different for different folks (e.g., culture, race, upbringing, socio-economic position, location on the sanctification spectrum, etc.) and this is where discernment and the ethic of mutual tolerance has its place.  But in the end, the gospel must be the norma normans non normata.