Levels of Ethical Evaluation

by John M. Frame

It is important that we understand the different ways by which God in Scripture evaluates our actions. Reformed people tend to think of ethics exclusively as the application of moral commands, perhaps because of the traditional Reformed emphasis on the Decalogue. I agree that the Decalogue is central. But I think we need to be aware of all the ways in which Scripture holds us responsible. I would enumerate these as follows:

  1. Command: This is of course the most obvious, and it is very important. Contrary to the antinomian spirit of our age and of many Christians today, we must insist on the binding character of God’s law. More on this under the “normative perspective.”
    1. Prohibition: This is simply a negative command. It tells us what not to do. Our catechisms describe sins of commission (doing what God forbids) and of omission (failing to do what God commands). Both these categories are important. Many Scriptural commands are negative in form (notably commandments 1-3 and 6-10 of the Decalogue), although as we shall see the overall thrust of biblical ethics is positive, and even the negative commands have positive implications.
    2. Divine commands and prohibitions define what is sinful, or at least what we may regard as sinful for purposes of mutual exhortation and church discipline. Fundamentalists and others have often been charged with “legalism” in the sense of going beyond scriptural commands to define what is sinful. I do think the matter is more complicated than that, as we shall see below, and in our later discussion of the adiaphora. Many questions of this sort are questions, not about what is absolutely commanded or forbidden, but about what is better or best as opposed to merely being good. There are also questions about the application of biblical commands which cannot be answered from the text alone, as we shall see under the situational perspective.
    1. Permission: Sometimes Scripture gives explicit “permissions,” as in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul “permits” (but does not command) marriage in certain cases, or when Moses “permitted” divorce in the Old Testament even though God did not actually approve of it (Matt. 19:8). Other times, permissions in Scripture are inexplicit. It is important for us to be aware of the differences between commands and permissions. Later we shall see
    2. that in some Reformed thought the rule for everyday life is “whatever Scripture does not prohibit is permitted,” while in matters of faith and worship, “whatever is not commanded is prohibited.” I take issue with this traditional account of things. For now, let us simply be aware of the distinctive meaning of “permission.” Permission tells us what we may do.
    1. Approval: Approval is stronger than “permission” but less strong than “command,” as a means of impelling us to behave a certain way. (In Medical Ethics I call this level of evaluation “praise.”) In one sense, all permitted and commanded acts are approved by God. We may never declare an act to be sinful when God has commanded or permitted it; in that sense, God approves of all acts which he commands or permits, and disapproves of all acts he forbids. Still, Scripture distinguishes among human acts between good and better, and between bad and worse. Among acts which are good, some are given special divine approval. For example, the heroism of David’s three mighty men, when to fulfill a passing wish of their commander they fought to bring him a drink of water from the enemy-held well at Bethlehem, is definitely approved by God (2 Sam. 23:13-17). But would they have sinned if they had not done this? I don’t think so. Consider also the poor widow who put “everything” into the temple treasury (Mark 12:44). Would she have sinned had she put in only one mite instead of two?
    2. Roman Catholic theology describes such acts as “supererogation,” that is, beyond the requirements of God’s law. In one sense this is true: these are good acts, approved by God, which are not strictly commanded. However, this way of putting it is very misleading. Note: (1) The goodness of these acts is defined by Scripture; so in one sense it is not “beyond” the law at all. (2) Even after such moral heroism, we must confess to God that we are unworthy servants. Our motives are impure; there is sin even in our heroism. This is far from the Roman idea that we can do more than God requires. (3) The deeper meaning of the law is to be found in the righteousness of Christ. The standard for Christians is nothing less than his self-sacrificing love, the ultimate in “moral heroism” (Matt. 20:26ff.; John 13:34ff.; Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 3:16; and many other passages). When God “permits” something less than this ultimate, he does it “because of our hardness of heart” (cf. Matt. 19:8). (4) The Roman Catholic idea that by doing morally heroic things I may accumulate merit which may be somehow transferred to others is anti-scriptural and confuses the very Gospel of grace.
  2. Disapproval: This of course is the opposite of approval. Although God disapproves of all acts which he prohibits, there are also some acts which he permits which he nevertheless disapproves. An example is divorce in the Old Testament period, which Moses permitted because of the people’s hardness of heart, but which God did not actually approve (Matt. 19:8-12; cf. Mal. 2:16).

It is important in the Christian life to be concerned, not only with what is commanded/permitted/forbidden, but also what is approved/disapproved. Preoccupation with the former group of categories can lead to a mentality that asks “How much can I get away with?” Thus some Reformed Christians, preoccupied with the doctrine of Christian liberty (and reacting against fundamentalist “legalism”), have sought to be as much like worldly people as they could be, while remaining (barely) within the sphere of divine permission. But a biblical ethic is never merely an account of “how much we can get away with.” The Christian life is always a striving for the perfection of Christ (realizing that we will not attain perfection in this life) (Phil. 3:7-16). We must always ask, not only, “Is this permitted?” but also “Is this the best choice?”

I admit there are some residual unclarities in this account, but I think we have carried these distinctions about as far as Scripture warrants and no farther. This formulation does not explain everything we might want to know, but we may here be brushing up against “the secret things” which God has kept to himself. We should not, for example, tie ourselves up in knots worrying how these distinctions will be handled in the final judgment. One might be tempted to ask, “When the hearts of men will be revealed, what about those who divorced their wives in the Old Testament period for reasons rejected by Jesus? Will God excuse them, because he had ‘permitted’ such divorces, or will he chasten them because he hates divorce?” Perhaps the “permissions” have more to do with church discipline on earth than with the final judgment. But one might ask, “If God permits something, how can he later hold it against us?” The answer, I think, is that the final judgment is a judgment of the heart, and the standard will be God’s omniscient knowledge of the heart. No one will argue the fairness of God’s evaluations on that day. Detailed questions of legal interpretation, under those conditions, will seem quite irrelevant. Further, all of this will be somewhat moot for those who trust in Christ for salvation. For believers know that their individual sins, though great, are overshadowed by the greater sin of all of us in Adam, and our righteous deeds are literally nothing compared with the righteousness of Christ by which alone we are justified. For although the secrets, even of believers, will be manifest on

that last day, our acquittal is based not on our works but on the
righteousness of Christ.