Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought

Protestants have a generally common understanding of moral behavior: they largely agree that good works cannot save a person—only God can—but those who are saved will amend their lives to reflect their faith. Protestantism teaches that the individual is made right with God through faith in what God has done, not through any kind of virtuous behavior. That said, there is a wide variety of beliefs within Protestantism about how good works cooperate with God's saving grace, or follow upon salvation.

Lutherans and Reformed Protestants believe that good works play absolutely no role in salvation. Salvation consists in the forgiveness of sins, which is a completely free and un-prompted gift from God. Zwingli and Calvin agreed with Luther that even those elected by God to receive God's grace cannot perform works that merit salvation. The elect remain sinners, even after they have been justified through faith. This does not mean that any of the reformers taught that good works were not important at all. They were important to the reformers, and they are to most Protestants today. The only question was what role good works played in the life of a believer.

John Wesley and the Methodists following him (and much of American Protestantism in the wake of Wesley's influence) taught that good works—though performed only with the help of God's grace—definitely will accompany salvation, and that those who are saved can, through their own efforts, contribute to the process of Christian holiness, understood as thoughts, words, and deeds being motivated solely and purely by the love of God. Leading a life that is not marked by good works and that is marked by evil or immoral behavior can lead to the loss of one's salvation; thus the believer's behavior has a pivotal role in the ongoing experience of salvation, and thus the warnings against "backsliding."

All Protestant churches, therefore, have high expectations for moral behavior. Luther did not think works could save, but he did think that a good tree bears good fruit. The saved, freed from anxiety about their own salvation, can devote their attention to helping their fellow humans. They do so because the same work of the Holy Spirit that brought them to believe that their sins had been forgiven continues to work in them to do God's will. They do so because service to fellow humans glorifies God. And they do so because as they grow in the life of faith they become more Christ-like and so take on aspects of Jesus, such as seeing the image of God in everyone, even enemies, and reaching out to the poor and imprisoned, etc. While moral works are not necessary to retain salvation, such works will in fact characterize those who are saved.  (The German sociologist Max Weber argued that Calvinists tend to be driven to perform works, not because they think works will save them, but because the ability to perform good works can be seen as a possible indication of God's grace, and a sign that one is among the elect.)

Calvin was also clear that even those who are not saved can and should also have high moral standards. Calvin makes this case as he argues (against those who think that the doctrine of predestination makes God into an unloving tyrant) that God cares for and showers grace on all humans, the saved and the unsaved. On the list of things that God gives even the non-elect are reason and will: reason to discern the good, and will to follow the good. In other words, the fact that there are well-ordered human societies in which it is possible to live and prosper is the direct result of God's endowing humans, whether saved or not, with a moral sense and the will to obey it. (But again, according to Calvin, moral behavior will not get a person into heaven.) Moral standards are clear, Calvin thinks, simply through the observation of nature (which, like the Bible, Calvin compares to a book written by God in which God's nature and will can be discerned). And since sin has blurred the vision of nature, God has in addition given the scripture (which acts in Calvin's metaphor like a pair of spectacles to sharpen vision), to clearly outline what God expects.

Debates in the Protestant tradition about moral principles have often originated in different interpretations of the Bible or in different applications made of the teachings of the Bible. For a long period in American history there was a fair amount of agreement on moral principles found in the Bible, largely derived from the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) and Jesus' teaching (especially the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5:1–7:27). These include both moral virtues—such as honesty, marital fidelity, generosity, loving your enemies, business integrity, patience, care for the poor, humility, forgiveness—and Christian practices, such as regular prayer, almsgiving, fasting, community worship, etc. (The obvious exception to this common platform of values was whether the Bible allowed or forbade slavery.) Protestants joined together in the temperance movement, prison reform, labor laws, etc.

This general agreement fell apart in the early decades of the 20th century during the modernism controversies. Churches split over whether or not the Bible was compatible with Darwinism, and over historical criticism (the claim that the Bible is best understood as written by various authors for specific audiences in specific historical contexts, rather than as an inerrant message for all the ages). Liberals (modernists who want to accommodate science and historical criticism in their interpretations of scripture) tended to focus more intently on the biblical passages that emphasized social justice issues rather than those that addressed doctrine or personal piety, and therefore increasingly leaned toward political and cultural activism, such as civil rights, the ordination of women, the approval of same-sex relationships, abortion rights, etc. Conservatives tended to emphasize the biblical passages that addressed individual moral behavior and the salvation of souls, and therefore leaned toward issues of personal holiness, such as sexual chastity, avoidance of alcohol, regular prayer and worship, evangelism, etc.

In the last decade there have been several shifts in the conservative/liberal split, and new issues that are difficult to fit into these categories. Rick Warren, for example, author of The Purpose Driven Life, is a Baptist who is "conservative" on issues of sexual morality, but "liberal" on issues of climate change and combating AIDS in Africa. Lynne Hybels, wife of Willow Creek Community Church founder and pastor Bill Hybels, has become a major advocate on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Some of the "mega-churches" (like Warren's Saddleback Church in California or Hybels's Willow Creek in Illinois) have integrated racially more easily than mainline congregations. This is the result of a concentrated effort to reach out to unchurched people rather than rely on the traditional neighborhood or families of people who are church members already to provide a flow of new members. It is also the result of an effort to create a "relevant" worship style that cuts across the worship styles historically associated with certain ethnic groups. The use of rock bands and gospel choirs tends to appeal across ethnic lines in a way that the traditional use of organ music does not.


Study Questions:
1.     Do Protestants believe that good works are necessary for salvation? Explain.
2.     Do salvation and good works always go hand in hand? Explain.
3.     How did liberals and conservatives develop different moral priorities?

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