The simplicity of Paul’s ethical mandate for believers is unmistakable in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever then you eat or you drink or whatever you do – all unto God’s glory you are to do.” In that context Paul challenges the Corinthian believers specifically to handle freedoms pertaining to eating and drinking in a such a way as to contribute to the purpose for all activity: to glorify God. If God’s own purpose in His activities is His own glory (e.g., Eph 1:6, 12, 14), then it should come as no surprise that the stated singular purpose in our activities is that we should likewise glorify Him. This is the ought of Christian ethics: that we should glorify God, and it is important that we also understand the is upon which the ought is grounded.
If an ought is not grounded on an is then the ethical mandate is arbitrary, and there is no sufficient basis (ontological reality) of motivation for fulfilling the ought. Even a child recognizes the need for an is to ground the ought. This is why, predictably, when challenged with an ethical mandate, the child wonders (usually out loud), “Why?” This is a commendable trait in children, and while sometimes that investigative spirit must be guided and directed, it is nonetheless illustrative of our overall need to have good reasons upon which we can base our actions.
Parents, for example, certainly have the right to offer in reply to their children’s request (for an explanation of the ontological reality governing a particular ethical mandate), “Because I said so.” And sometimes this is the most appropriate answer, because it can teach the child to trust that the parent is looking out for the child’s best interest, that God has endowed the parent with authority to pursue that course, and that the child is to submit to that authority. On other occasions, though, it is more appropriate to offer an explanation beyond the simple reminder of authority, so that the child can begin to learn how to think through ethical intricacies for themselves (and hopefully develop the ability to make wise choices on their own). With respect to the primary ethical mandate for believers, the Bible provides straightforward answers to the question, “Why?”
Peter notes that “the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” (1 Pet 1:11) are a grounding for the therefore which subsequently introduces the call to action (1 Pet 1:13). Peter adds a reminder that the eschatological hope is not merely grounded in a general future reality, but is grounded in the precise revealed reality that God is the Judge (1 Pet 1:17). Incidentally, this is Solomon’s basis for ethics as well (Ecc 12:13-14). As God is the Judge, He determines that standard, and that standard is revealed directly by God in Leviticus 11:44: “…be holy for holy am I.” Peter echoes that standard in 1 Peter 1:16, as the basis for Christian practical holiness, and he adds an important component closely associated with the concept of God as Judge: eternal security (1 Pet 1:3-5). The principles Peter identifies can be stated as follows:
- God is the Judge, and determines the purpose and standard for ethics (1 Pet 1:17).
- The purpose is God’s glory (1 Pet 1:7, 21).
- The standard is God’s holiness (1 Pet 1:16).
- The motivation is not by fear of condemnation, but by certainty of inheritance (1 Pet 1:3-5).
Just as Paul implored the Romans “by the mercies of God” (Rom 12:1), so Peter urges his readers not to work for their position but to work from their position. Likewise, Paul reminded Timothy of a supreme motivating principle: “For unto this we are laboring and striving ourselves, that we are having hoped upon a living God…” (1 Tim 4:10). We have hoped in a living God. This is why the ontological reality of the resurrection is so central to the Christian walk: if God is dead, then the believer’s hope is of no value beyond the grave, and is not grounded in any power that can overcome the grave. On the other hand, if God is not dead, then the reality that God is Judge – and all that such a proposition implies – is inescapable.