As an ethicist, I often get asked whether something is good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy. It is more common for me to be able to answer a clear “no” than for an absolute “yes.” In fact, many times my response is a very robust, “It depends.”
Whether something is morally praiseworthy depends on more than the act itself. It also depends on the circumstances and the reason for the action, at least. Processing moral events in our lives through three particular considerations is the start of the ethical decision-making process. We need consider at least the action, the circumstance, and the reason behind it.
I believe that some version of a triperspectival approach to ethics is the most helpful. The most prominent advocate for triperpectival ethics is John Frame, but the foundations of the system are built on a much earlier theological tradition.
The Heidelberg Catechism, asks this pertinent question in question 91:
Q. What are good works?
A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.
There are three basic elements to this: (1) done out of true faith, (2) conforming to God’s law, and (3) done for God’s glory. For each action we need to consider the action itself, our reason for doing it, and the circumstances in which we do it. For example, eating shellfish is morally permissible, since Christ declared all food clean. However, if you believe you are sinning by eating shellfish because you misunderstand the law, then by violating your conscience you are sinning; your attitude is set against God. Or, if you eat shellfish in the knowledge that it is morally permissible to eat, but you do it to show how spiritual you are or simply out of gluttonous motivations, then you have stepped into sin.
All moral acts have at least these three components: (1) the action, (2) the circumstance, and (3) the reason. The first question to ask is whether the action is morally permissible. If Scripture puts it out of bounds, then it is sin to voluntarily perform the action. This is a fairly simple process, typically, but not always.
The second question is whether the circumstances support that act being just. So, for example, if I kill someone out of self-defense, Scripture makes clear that is not sin. However, if I kill an innocent person, then the same physical act becomes sin. Or, as another example, sex is a morally permissible action, but only with my spouse in the bounds of marriage. Who I am and what the situation is makes a difference as to whether something is morally permissible.
The third question is whether the motive is correct. If I kill someone in what appears to be self-defense, but I’ve really wanted to kill him for years or at that moment I hated him because of whatever he did, then that would be sin. If a couple has sex within the bounds of marriage but the man’s mind is solely on his own satisfaction and not on the glory of God and the good of his wife, then that sexual act became sin for him.
Nearly everything we do is tainted by the reason or motive for which we do it. That is the power of sin in this world and our lives. Repentance and prayer must be an ongoing process, because even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon quickly become tainted by our sinful motivations. Thank God for the cross.
A Case Study
For those still concerned that triperspectivalism is a form of moral relativism, I assure you it is not. However, I will offer a more complete example to illustrate the process.
If a hardworking janitor at the local hospital dresses in scrubs, goes into the maternity ward, and delivers a baby, we would consider that a morally impermissible event. Most of us would nod our heads in agreement if we saw the headline, “Hospital Janitor Gets 25 Years Baby Delivery.” That janitor is not the appropriate individual to perform the function of the doctor.
However, if we simply change the situation a little, the expert cleaner goes from criminal to hero. Consider the alternative situation where the same janitor helps a woman deliver her baby on a remote stretch of highway when her car had broken down. The action was the same, the individuals were the same, but the circumstances changed the situation radically. What would have been deemed a criminal action in the hospital is a heroic action for that janitor when there is no doctor available.
These are the two layers that the law and human society can consider. The action and the circumstances are the only things that we can measure and judge. However, God’s judgment goes a layer deeper, which further enhances Christian ethics.
To be a praiseworthy action, the action must be in accordance with God’s law, supported by the circumstances, and done with the appropriate motivation. If the heroic janitor delivered the baby on the side of the road for his own glory, with a view to getting into the newspapers, then that is a societally beneficial action, but it becomes sin in the eyes of God.
The Pervasiveness of Sin
Moral relativism tends to minimize sin by arguing that circumstances make an otherwise impermissible action permissible. Thus, some argue that killing a human is sin, but there may be circumstances (e.g., self-defense) in which it is permissible. Triperspectivalism takes the opposite approach. It argues that there are many events which may be morally permissible, but that other factors may make them morally impermissible.
Killing a human is not sin in and of itself, otherwise God would be liable to the charge of sin, because there are unquestionable examples of God ending the life of a human in Scripture. However, killing an innocent human is a sin. Thus, murder is prohibited, while being a combatant is not. And yet, simply donning a uniform is not enough to make killing an enemy combatant morally praiseworthy. If a soldier kills for the joy of it (i.e., selfish pleasure) or out of pure hatred, then that event has become sinful and must be repented of. We must consider the action, the circumstances, and the motivation.
Similarly, sexual intercourse is not inherently sinful. Intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily sinful either, since the victim of rape is not responsible for the action being perpetrated on his or her body. However, willing sexual intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is sinful because the circumstances violate the norms of God. And yet sex within the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily without sin. Even with the correct action and circumstances, if the event occurs out of selfishness (e.g., a concern only for one’s pleasure), then it is morally impermissible and therefore sinful.
The reality is that most of what we do is tainted by sin. Even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon is often done with, at best, mixed motives. Our hearts are idol factories. We often do “good deeds” as much to get noticed or receive thanks as to honor Christ. The God of the universe is a jealous God, he will not share his glory with his creatures (Is. 42:8).
Total depravity is real. Sin taints every aspect of human existence. Aside from our blatant violations of God’s laws, our motives are likely never pure. This enhances the miracle of grace. We must continually repent of our sin and strive to serve faithfully, but ultimately any praiseworthiness of our actions is due to God’s undeserved grace toward us. Much like a child bringing a shaky drawing to a father, our actions are little more than colorful scribbles. Yet, out of love for us as adopted children, he takes messy works done imperfectly from a heart of faith, sees them as good in Christ, and puts them on the refrigerator. This is why Hebrews 11 extols imperfect people who did imperfect things for doing them through faith.
Ultimately, we are incapable of doing good outside of the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our worthiness is not based on doing good works (though we should strive to do them), because to do so might lead us to believe we should get to heaven. We can’t do truly good works anyway, because of our sin. However, God has called us to live faithfully and to strive to be holy, just like him. That command leads us to reject obviously sinful actions and circumstances and to pursue actions that do not violate clear revelation of Scripture. At the same time, we must recognize that on our best days we are but sinners whose only hope is the substitutionary death of Christ.
Christian ethics is far from a simplistic set of cases where going to movies is bad, but reading the Bible is good. Both are likely to be tainted by sin. The truth is that we are much worse that we like to believe we are. Our sinful actions and attitudes should continually cause us to repent, turn back toward God, and place our hope in Christ for forgiveness of our sin.
Christian ethics should never lead us to be triumphalistic––that is, to look down on others who commit obvious, public sin––but should push us toward repentance. The judgment on those of us who are redeemed, who have been given the Holy Spirit, and yet who continue to be selfish would be much greater than those without that gift, were it not for the cross.