A Dead Ethic is Not Axiomatic

Channing CrislerChanning Crisler, Theology

[gravatar email=”ccrisler@andersonuniversity.edu” size=”100″ title=”Channing Crisler” alt=”Channing Crisler” class=”user-picture” align=”right”]An axiom is simply a self-understood truth, and something quite invaluable in communication.  Imagine a linguistic world where nothing could be taken for granted.  Books, text messages, tweets, and every other mode of speech would be weighed down by a constant necessity to explain what should be obvious, or “axiomatic.”  For example, a trip to the drive-thru would be even more challenging than it already is.  Even if you cleared the hurdle of being heard in the first place, it would only be to fall into an ever deepening pit of language qualification.  The standard order of a quarter pounder with cheese, fries, and a coke would have to be qualified as follows, “I would like, and by “I” I mean the person sitting in this car, the I who thinks and therefore must exist, unless Descartes thought wrongly, in any case my stomach thinks I am hungry, a car being a mechanical device by which I traveled from my home to your restaurant, by travel I mean the movement from point A to point B, point A being my house and point B your restaurant, by “point A” I mean a geometrical point that is linked by a straight line to “point B,” by geometrical I mean that field of mathematics best articulated by the Greek Classicists Thales, Pythagoras, and  Plato’s Timaeus.”  I think you get the point.  An axiom is simply a self-understood truth, and something quite invaluable in communication.

Nevertheless, there are some truths which are far too valuable to ever be taken as axiomatic in communication, especially in the church.  For the Apostle Paul it was the relationship between the crucified Jesus and Christian ethics.  In his letters, one finds a “dead ethic” that is rarely implied or assumed.  To the contrary, he explicitly states it in a number of texts and through a variety of ways.  By “dead ethic” I mean Paul’s incessant reference to Jesus’ death as the basis and means, the only basis and means, for Christian obedience.  The examples are legion, but two will have to suffice.

In Romans 6 Paul answers his own rhetorical question posed in v. 1 of the same chapter, “What then?  Shall we remain in sin, in order that grace might abound?”  His resounding “may it never be” in v. 2 is predicated on the believer’s death to sin through the crucifixion of Christ.  Here we find a thoroughgoing “dead ethic.”  The basis for Paul’s exhortation throughout Romans 6 is nothing less, or more, than participation by faith in Jesus’ cross, “Therefore, we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, in this way we also might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4; cf. Gal 3:27; Col 2:12, 3:2-3).  According to Paul, obedience is predicated on the obedience of Christ, the latter of which he discusses at length in Romans 5:12-21 just prior to his comments in Romans 6.

Of course, Romans 6 is one of the more well-known and obvious examples of the connection between Jesus’s death and the believer’s obedience.  However, there are also instances where Paul’s “dead ethic” is less nuanced—albeit not to the point of becoming a mere axiom.  For example, in Romans 12:1-2 we find the well-known exhortation for the Christians in Rome to “Present their bodies as living sacrifices.”  Yet, the most essential component of Paul’s imperative is the means through which that sacrifice is carried out, namely “through the mercies of God.”  The obvious antecedent of the “mercies of God” is the gospel Paul laid out in Romans 1-11, a gospel in which God’s righteousness is revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the basis and means for Christian obedience is nothing less than Jesus’ death.  Similar phrases in Paul, rich with a “dead ethic,” are not difficult to find (see e.g.,1 Cor 9:23, 15:10; Gal 6:14-15; Eph 2:8-10).  One could look at the many words and catch phrases such as “in Christ,” grace, mercy, and the like, all of which signal for Paul the death of Jesus.

In a certain sense, I have done nothing more than state the obvious.  Yet, that is precisely my point.  Those who preach and teach God’s word must resist the temptation to see the death of Jesus as axiomatic to ethical exhortation.  Paul, a once self-righteous Pharisaic Zealot of the Mosaic Law, could not fathom, speak, or write about an ethic severed from the cross and its power for righteous living.  He did not merely posit the cross as an example in ethical exhortation.  Even in those instances where Paul exhorts a particular course of behavior in light of the example Jesus set at the cross, he does not mean to say that Jesus’ death is merely exemplary for Christian ethics (see e.g., Eph 4:31-5:2).  Instead, Jesus’ death is the basis and the means by which one can be ethical.  The classical interpretive paradigm of splitting Paul’s letters into the “indicative” and “imperative” is defunct.  It cannot account for the fact that mixed in with the indicative and the imperative is the death of Jesus.  Therefore, Paul could not stomach, nor should we, a sermon lush with ethical exhortation but constantly deprived of the basis and means for carrying such instruction out.  Unfortunately, this is too often the norm.  Jesus’ death is relegated to the invitation, because in all that is said prior to that moment, it’s axiomatic, right?