Carl Henry: Ethics Proceed from Atonement

Sometimes we hear Christianity spoken of as a system of salvation, a means by which we find God.  At other times we hear Christianity spoken of as a way of life, a code of conduct.

Carl F. H. Henry, dean of twentieth-century evangelical theologians, shows how the two are bound by a cord that one cannot cut.  Copy and paste this text–you’ll want to save it for future reference.

“Christianity is a religion of redemption, and it is equally an ethics of salvation. Christian salvation is no unmoral and unspiritual scheme. From start to finish, in and through the atonement, its ideal life is a life of vital ethical experience through a living union with Christ.

While it may be true that examples can be found of those who presume on Divine goodness by living a life of unholiness while they fool themselves with the hope that they will escape the consequences of their sins through Christ’s sacrifice, this is not characteristic of the evangelical temper. Note the sobering word of James: “show me your works and I will show you your faith” (Jas. 2:18). The atonement is regarded as God’s counter-stroke to sin. While the penal theory does not start out with the subjective significance of the atonement, nonetheless it firmly insists that the atonement must directly touch and transform the moral life of man.”

From his exceptional essay, “Christian Ethics as Predicated on the Atonement” in Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 375.

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  • Chris Brauns


  • Jeremy Treat


    This is a great quote. So much of ethics or “social justice” today has no grounding in Christ’s atoning work, and therefore no true grounding at all. God’s plan is “to reconcile to himself all things…making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20) The implications of the cross were never intended to stop at our souls.

  • owenstrachan

    Appreciate the response, JT, and agree with your words. That essay is exceptional and formalizes what many of us think but would not necessarily know to connect explicitly. He refashions the moral-influence view in a unique way, I think.

    Chris, your brief but heartfelt response is also appreciated.