Making Right

by Craig Smith

A common question I get asked a Christian teacher:  what makes some things right and some things wrong?

The simplistic answer often given to this important question is that the Bible defines right and wrong, but there are two problems with this answer.  First, the Bible doesn’t directly address every question of right and wrong that we will encounter.  Second, the Bible is a means of revelation, not of determination.  In other words, the Bible doesn’t determine right and wrong, it merely reveals it, like turning a spotlight on a fence in a dark field.  As soon as you see the fence you know if you’re on the right or wrong side of the fence, but without the spotlight you might not even know there was a fence.  But the spotlight isn’t the fence, it merely reveals the fence.  So what is the fence?  What makes the authoritative determination of what is right and what is wrong?

As I see it, there are essentially three thee loci of right/wrong:  the nature of God, the nature of God’s creation and the nature of God’s will.  While there is some interconnectedness of all three, they can be thought of as distinct loci.

The first locus is the nature of God.  These are moral truths that depend on what God is like.  For example, lying is wrong because God is truth.  God Himself cannot lie (Heb. 6:18)  because His essential nature is truthful. Faithfulness is right because God is faithful, love is right because God is love, etc.  These are necessary (in the philosophical sense; i.e. they can’t be any other way), transcendent and unchanging truths.  God could never make a world where these moral truths didn’t apply because God Himself never changes in His essential nature. 

The second locus is the nature of God’s creation.  These are moral truths that emerge from the way God set the universe up.  I believe the prohibitions against homosexuality fit into this category.  There is no particular reason why we have to have 2 genders (male and female) that come together in marriage and produce children.  God could have made it so that there were 4 or 48!  He could have even created us so that there was only 1 gender and we spawned children like polyps!  If He had created humans in one of these other ways, the prohibitions against homosexuality wouldn’t apply.  However…we don’t live in that universe.  The universe that we inhabit was set up with 2 genders and homosexuality was forbidden because it goes against the way God created this universe to function.  These second kind of moral truths are also unchanging, at least so long as we inhabit this universe.  They are not, however, necessary because they do not directly emerge from God’s unchanging nature.

The third locus of right and wrong is the nature of God’s will.  So, for instance, God told the Israelites not to eat pork.  There is nothing inherently wrong with pork.  In fact, before His covenant with Moses and the people of Israel, God allowed people to eat pork (see Gen. 9:3).  Moreover, Jesus declared all foods clean in Mar. 7:19, so pork was and is acceptable food for humans generally…but not for the Israelites during the O.T. covenant.  Why?  Well, we can speculate on why, but I think it boils down to making the Israelites noticably distinct.  But that’s another discussioin.  My point here is simply this:  pork isn’t inherently bad, but God told the Israelites not to eat it.  If they did eat it, it was considered a moral lapse and atonement was required.  In other words, this instance of right and wrong emerged from what God told them to do.  The same holds true for individuals.  If God told me to go into ministry and I didn’t, I would be sinning.  But if you haven’t been called to ministry, then not going into ministry isn’t a sin.  Again, what makes the choice about not going into ministry right or wrong is God’s will for each of us.  So, this particular locus of right and wrong is neither transcendent nor unchanging.  It can change as God reveals a new phase of His plan for His people (either corporately or individually).

So there’s my take on making right:  right emerges from the nature of God, from the nature of God’s creation or the nature of God Himself.