David Jeremiah - When Morality Would Be in Freefall
February 26, 2011 was a sad day in our hometown of San Diego. You see, the San Diego State University Aztecs hoped to pay back the visiting Brigham Young University Cougars, who had defeated them on the basketball court earlier that season. But it wasn't to be. BYU beat our team soundly, and suddenly, BYU started looking like a contender, as one of the top seeds in the upcoming March Madness. We all know that is the Final Four of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. A week after the San Diego State game, BYU did something unusual. Their officials suspended one of their star players from the team, effectively negating any chance the Cougars had for a trip to the Final Four.
The player's offense was a violation of the university's honor code, a code signed by every student at the university. And it is a code with teeth. The school's no-tolerance policy for violations resulted in a star player's losing his spot on the squad, and the Cougars losing a shot at the National Title. Now, there was immediate pushback from the media. You wouldn't believe what happened. The public at large pushed back. How dare this university discipline a star player? But cooler, wiser heads began to speak out as if there just might be something to this honor thing after all.
Pat Forde, an ESPN columnist, expressed his personal assessment of the school's decision in these words. He wrote, "What makes this such a powerful testament is the fact that so many schools have cravenly abandoned their standards at such a time as this, embracing athletic expediency over institutional principle. It happens so often that we don't even raise an eyebrow at it anymore. Player arrests or other antisocial behaviors are just minimized as youthful mistakes. With strenuous institutional effort put into counter-spinning and negative publicity," end of quote.
And John Canzano at "The Oregonian" newspaper in Portland, Oregon wrote, "At a moment like this, watching BYU wave off a sophomore who started 26 games, it's evident that their success is not accidental. Just maybe the notion that good values and a willingness to think long term has some worth, because the alternative has left the rest of college athletics feeling like a slimy and dark underworld".
Having sat behind the president's desk of a college myself, I can tell you the heartache that comes from having to discipline a student athlete who is needed by his school's team. But I can also tell you that nothing will serve a young man better than learning early on in life that choices have consequences. Madison Sarratt, former Dean of Vanderbilt University, instituted an honor code system for all of the Vanderbilt students that remains firmly in place, even today. He is famous for having said to one of his classes something that serves as a credo for the university, quote, "Today I am going to give you two examinations. One in trigonometry, and one in honesty. I hope you pass them both. But if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry. For there are many good people in this world today who cannot pass an examination in trigonometry. But there are no good people in this world who cannot pass an examination in honesty".
You see, in order for fallen humans to survive in an orderly society, there has to be a moral compass by which one navigates his life. And it has to be absolutely essential in his life. Morality is more than just not cheating on a university trigonometry test. It is all encompassing, and it provides a guide to every area of life. I never thought I'd see the day when America's moral compass would so totally lose its orientation. But it has happened. Our moral compass seems no longer to have a true north. The needle spins crazily, looking for a direction on which to settle, a direction that can lead the nation on a path of integrity and morality.
Given these realities, it should come as no surprise that in January, 2011, Gallup reported that only 30% of Americans expressed satisfaction with the current moral and ethical climate in the United States. By the way, this is a new low. What's even more astounding, 76% of Americans say the moral condition of America is getting worse. Had I been polled in that survey, I would have voted with the majority in both cases. You see, the necessity of morality is more critical in America than in any other society on earth because we have more freedom. America is a democracy, and Americans have to be more self-governing, show more restraint, be more respectful of their neighbors.
Thus read a statement issued in conjunction with a meeting of the Council on Civil Society held at the University of Chicago in 1998. If morality is important in a democratic society, it is even more important in the spiritual society of Christ's church. Ladies and gentlemen, there are signs that morality is breaking down in Christ's church as well. The title of a study issued by the Barna Research Group says it all, "A New Generation of Adults Bends Moral and Sexual Rules to Their Liking". The report talks about attitudes of Christian believers who were born between 1965 and 1983, who were virtually identical, their attitudes were identical to the attitudes of non-believers regarding the 16 moral behaviors that were measured. These included: gambling, pornography, abortion, sex outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, and the use of illegal drugs.
In a summary statement, David Kinnaman, the Director of the study, wrote these words. He said, "This research paints a compelling picture that moral values are shifting very quickly and significantly within the Christian community as well as outside of it". While the loss of a moral compass in society at large is troubling, it is even more troubling when followers of Jesus Christ, those who are called to be salt and light in the world, it is more troubling when they lose their moral compass. For today's Christians to bend moral and sexual mores to their liking says a lot about how they view the Bible as a source of authority in their lives. When challenged, some Christians appeal to the lack of biblical clarity. They say, "Well, the Bible's not clear about this". And they'll mention things like gambling, or drug use, or drinking alcohol.
And it's true. The Bible doesn't say anything specifically about the morality of these activities. But let's get real about this. There are certainly indirect biblical approaches to these subjects, like the stewardship of one's money, the stewardship of one's health. And there's a lot in the Bible about drunkenness. All of these moral values provide clear guidance for the Christian. And in other areas of life, like sexual, marital, and gender issues, the Bible provides clear and direct moral guidance. You need not doubt what the Bible means or says. So you see, it's really difficult to see how Christians could claim lack of biblical clarity on moral issues and use that as their basis for bending the rules. Rather, it always comes down to the issue of elevating one's personal desires over God's. It comes down to the issue of setting up one's self as the moral authority over the moral authority of God as revealed through his Word.
Let's review, for just a moment, the solid moral foundation for Christian morality. God's moral and ethical laws were given, first of all, to Moses in ten parts, referred to as, "The Decalogue," or, "The Ten Commandments". Later, 600-plus laws were added to expand the implications of the ten fundamental laws, to remain in effect for the life of the nation of Israel. Then Jesus Christ delivered a kingdom commentary on God's law in the Sermon on the Mount to highlight, not to negate, but to highlight their spiritual dimension. The spirit of the law added to the letter of the law, that was Jesus' intention.
The civil and the ceremonial laws given to Israel were not applied in the New Testament to the church. But the requirements of the Ten Commandments are all repeated for application to the church, all of them repeated in the New Testament except one, which is the injunction to keep the Sabbath day holy, the fourth commandment. And the most concise summary of God's laws for those who claim to follow Jesus Christ was given by Jesus Christ himself. Here's what he said, "'"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind". This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself". On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.'"
Now, "Love God," the first four commandments, and "Love your neighbor," the remaining six. The two simplest and most sublime statements of morality ever uttered, those statements by Jesus Christ. Basically, what Jesus is saying is that, "No person who loves God with heart, soul, and mind, and loves his neighbor as himself will ever be accused of bending or breaking God's moral laws". For those Christians who think that living under grace in the New Testament means morality is no longer the issue it might have been under the Old Testament law, well, the Bible offers several clarifications. Listen carefully. First of all, through the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament, God promised to take his laws off the stone tablets and put them in the minds and write them on the hearts of the people.
Jeremiah, chapter 31. That promise was part of the provision of what we know as, "The new covenant". And it was instituted through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. That's why every time we come to communion we hear these words, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which was shed for you". In other words, by the indwelling Spirit of God, the laws of God, his standards of morality, move from being an external to an internal reality. God's law is no longer something to be read, or examined, or debated as an intellectual matter. It becomes part of our hearts. It becomes part of our mind. It becomes integral to those who are united by faith in Christ.
One of the great Bible commentators, Matthew Henry, once wrote, "When the law of God is written on our hearts, our duty becomes our delight". The law changes from being a burden that keeps us from pleasure to a guide that leads us to a holy new kind of pleasure, the pleasure of walking in God's best for our lives. Jesus said it this way, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light". In addition, when we read the New Testament, we find that conforming to God's law in our hearts allows us to experience, in all activities of life, the specific kind of pleasure and satisfaction that God intended us to find in that particular activity.
So the law is entirely for our benefit. These laws are given not to prevent pleasure, but to increase pleasure. That's the first thing we need to remember. But notice, secondly, the Apostle Paul clarifies what grace doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that God's law has been nullified. In fact, in Romans chapter 3 we read these words, "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law". Paul says that, "We are not free to disregard God's moral laws just because we live under grace". And he confirms what Christ taught about love being the fulfillment of the law. As we have already discovered, we follow the law because we love God, knowing that his ways are always best for us, and they are given to us not to diminish our joy, but to increase our joy.
So New Testament Christians are in no way exempt from the moral and ethical requirements of God's law. No, friends, we have been given an even higher motivation for fulfilling God's moral law, and that motivation is love. "Grace" means "living a moral life not because we have to, but because we want to". And then the third thing I want you to notice is that Paul puts an even sharper point on making moral choices by saying this, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other's well-being".
Now, what that teaches us is simply this. There may be an action or a choice that breaks none of God's laws, yet it is still not helpful or edifying. The Christian gospel moves us all the way up to a higher plane in life. No longer are we just looking out for our own selves, and our own well-being, but we begin to look out at the well-being of others. And if something is lawful of the basis of the letter of the law, and yet it has the potential to hurt somebody else, or tarnish our testimony for Christ, then it becomes unlawful for us.
One last thing before we turn to Matthew chapter 5. When a Christian acts immorally, he or she negates the reason for the death of Christ on the cross. Considering everything that is bound up in the cross and the empty gave, our choice as believers to bend the moral requirements of the law is an outrageous affront to the one who suffered and died for us to free us from the power of sin. Why would anyone who claims to have accepted God's gift of forgiveness for breaking the law choose to insult the Christ who procured that gift through his own suffering? But having said all of these things, the most delicate take on the laws of God is the one provided by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount. It was here that he corrected human interpretations of the law with his own interpretation. It is here where he reveals to his followers the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Here he zeroes in on the importance of strength and light, and the power of the law as a foundation for Christian civilization.
One of my sons was a student at a college in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. We, on occasion, visited him during the winter. On one or two occasions, following a snow or ice storm. Now, if a storm brought a particularly wet snow or covering of ice, the tall, thin pine trees would be bowed over from the weight, or often toppled over due to their shallow root system. But in the midst of the trees that succumbed to the storm, there were others, the hardwoods native to the area. They would be standing erect and tall. Silently, like the gardens of their heritage, they would bear the weight of the snow and the ice, and they wouldn't bend, and they wouldn't break. And it was God's intent, in the Old Testament, for his people to be like those Appalachian hardwoods, the oaks and the maples, the ashes and the hickories of the human forest.
The laws of God were intended to be the fiber in the human trunk that enabled Israel to stand strong in the family of nations, bowing not to trouble, trial, or temptation. But showing the ways of righteousness, and then choosing those ways, that's what would set Israel apart from all other people on earth. Deuteronomy chapter 28, in verse 1, says it this way, "It shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all his commandments, which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth". So you see, it was Israel's job to preserve the character of God revealed through the law of God on the earth. It was always God's intent for salvation to go to the ends of the earth. This is repeated over and over again, even for the church.
In Acts chapter 1, and verse 8, here we are told that, "We are to take the gospel to the ends of the earth". That's not just a geographical reference, but a spiritual one as well. The ends of the earth is a dark place. To come from that place into a place of reconnecting with the Creator God of the universe requires light. And that which set Israel apart as a light in contrast with the darkness of the world was the law of God. If Israel walked in God's law, she could lead others into the righteousness of God, the light that dwelt in her midst. But if she ignored the law of God, she would become as dark as the nations around her. Israel's dual role of strength and light was depending on one thing: adherence to the laws of God.
Failure to keep God's law, meaning failure to manifest the character of God in the earth, would result in the loss of both strength and light. And sadly, that is what happened to the nation more than once. It is no surprise then to find Jesus, in the introduction to his teaching on the law, in the Sermon on the Mount, picking up the themes of strength, and uniqueness, and light. Matthew 5:13 and 14, "'You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world.'" What does it mean? What does it mean to be salt and light? Salt is strong because it overcomes bacteria that would cause food to rot and decompose. It is unique in that it adds flavor to food and creates thirst in those who consume it. We are to do the same.
As we keep God's law and manifest his character, we preserve the character of his creation. We prevent the deterioration and degeneration of human society. And yes, we add a unique flavor to it. And hopefully, create a thirst for God in those lives that we touch. The role of light is obvious. Light is a picture of bringing truth into darkness. And what truth are we to bring? Here it is again, "'"To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind," and "To love your neighbor as yourself".'"
Think how different, men and women, our world would be if those two summary laws on which hang all the laws and the prophets, just think how different our world would be if they were kept by all the human race. And think how much more powerful and effective the church of Jesus Christ would be if Christians were not bending God's rules to satisfy themselves. No, the warning to today's church is this: going through the motions of morality is not the morality God desires. Clean hands do not make a clean heart. But the opposite is true. Moral hearts will make moral hands. If we commit to keeping the spirit of the law, the letter of the law will, by default, be kept as well. And that is precisely the message that Jesus delivered on that mountainside in Galilee.
You have no doubt heard people say, perhaps you have even thought it yourself, "Surely, God does not expect me to risk my job by refusing my boss's orders to break my word with a client". Or maybe this one, "Surely, God doesn't expect me to stay married to a husband I no longer love". Or try this one on, "Surely, God doesn't expect me to change my lucrative career just because I can't be with my family on the weekends". "Surely, God doesn't expect me to," and you fill in the blank with any standard of morality or ethics that seems to rob you of your expectations. That kind of thinking permeates morality today. Yes, it permeates our churches, even among those who profess to follow Jesus Christ.
Men and women think to themselves, "I won't actually have an affair, but I'll allow myself to have an emotional affair with my coworker, and God will understand". Politicians say to one another, in essence, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". They're not willing to stand by their convictions without a promise that it won't cost them. Spouses divorce one another without biblical cause. "God knows my needs," they say, "and they aren't being met in this marriage". People harbor grudges and wait for an opportunity to pay back a wrong suffered. Angry people justify harsh words towards others by the fact that they are not physically attacking the person. Words become an acceptable substitute for murder. And those who have had disagreements appear cordial on the outside, but choose not to forgive in their hearts. They think, "God expects me to be nice to this person, even if I can't forgive him or her".
Now, to be sure, America is not a completely immoral, out of control society. That's not what I'm saying. But we have chosen to live with certain areas of immorality. We have allowed ourselves to go this far, but no further. And yet, where we are today would have been absolutely unthinkable in the recent past. Which means that in the not too distant future, we will likely be at a place we consider unthinkable today. If we don't draw a line in the sand and close the morality gap, the consequences will be impossible to imagine. The religious environment of Jesus' day was very much like ours today. Religious leaders were willing to conform themselves to the outward demands of God's law while reserving a reduced realm of internal immorality.
And Jesus spoke about this morality gap in the Sermon on the Mount by addressing six errors that people commonly make when they apply biblical morality to their personal behavior. The overall effect is a major correction to the misconception that the appearance of the kingdom of God removed the requirement of God's law upon its citizens. As we explore these six moral and ethical topics, keep in mind that they were important issues in the civil and religious culture of Jesus' day. And while our issues today might be somewhat different, many of them are quite the same. And the way Jesus dealt with these six moral issues gives us the picture of how we're to respond to the law in our culture. Six illustrations, here's the first one, what you have heard said about murder.
Jesus said, "'You believe the Bible teaches, "You shall not murder".'" And you should believe that, Exodus 20 says that's part of the law. Does this need clarification? In the physical sense, no. If you don't murder a person, you've not broken the law. If you do murder a person, you have broken the law. Seems clear enough. But Jesus was goin' for something much deeper. Jesus is saying, "Murder is the taking of a human life". But Jesus is suggesting, in his writing, that there is more than one way to do this. Attacking a person with a knife or a gun is one way, but attacking someone with anger or hateful words is another. And Jesus says that the latter method of attack may not take a person's physical life, but they can certainly kill a person emotionally or spiritually.
And another thing to consider, and that is that anger is often a prelude to physical violence or murder. If you are angry enough to rage at someone with hateful words, you might be near the tipping point. So don't feel morally superior just because you have kept the letter of the law and you have never physically murdered anyone. Jesus said, "Your angry or hateful words have violated the spirit of the law. And in the kingdom of God, taking a person's emotional or spiritual life is as bad as taking his or her physical life". That's how Jesus applied the spirit of the law to the issue of murder.
Illustration number two, what you have heard said about adultery. As with murder, the prohibition against adultery was clear in the law: "You shall not commit adultery," Exodus 20:14. Now, obviously, this referred to a married person engaging in sexual acts with someone besides his or her spouse. But as with the illustration of murder, Jesus takes the issue beyond the physical to the spiritual. And Jesus tells us that, "For a man to look at another woman lustfully constitutes the same betrayal as to engage in a sexual act with her". Why? Because it reveals the same lack of respect for that person, the same disrespect for one's spouse, and the same discontent with one's place in life. The consummation of a sexual act is just the outward manifestation of a sin that has already occurred in one's heart.
So we have heard Jesus' take on murder. We have heard his take on adultery. Notice, thirdly, he uses the issue of divorce. Divorce was not specifically addressed in the Ten Commandments, but it was addressed in Deuteronomy 24 as an adjunct to the prohibition against adultery. Moses proscribed a certificate of divorce when a man divorced his wife as a legal form of protection for her against further exploitation by the divorcing husband. Not addressing those technicalities, Jesus gets to the very heart of the moral matter here by saying that, "Any man who divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery". "Don't talk to me about certificates and procedures," Jesus is saying, "God never intended for there to be divorces. He allows it only because of the hardness of your hearts".
Of Jesus' six 1st century illustrations of shallow ethics and morality, this one applies most to the 21st century church. Christian husbands and wives, in deplorable numbers, have broken their marriage covenant with the spouses of their youth without a biblical reason. This is not a call for condemnation or guilt of these people. Neither on Jesus' part nor on mine. We're not on a witch hunt against divorced people. That's not what this is all about. But it is here in the Bible and it is given as a stark reminder as to how easy it is to drift from God's standards when his standards conflict with the convenience or comfort of our own lives. What Jesus said about murder. What Jesus said about adultery. What Jesus said about divorce.
Here's an interesting one. Illustration number four, what you've heard about oaths. When most people read the third of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain," they think that it is all about using God's name as part of a curse word. And it certainly could include that. But in reality, it addresses something far more important. It addresses using God's name in an oath or a promise, swearing on God's name that you will do the thing you promised. For example, expressions like, "By God," or, "May God strike me dead if I don't". If you swore by God and then didn't keep your oath, you would have used God's name in vain. You would have used the trust people have in God to get them to trust you. This means you would risk making them feel negatively toward God if you failed to follow through in your commitment.
The only reason oaths were necessary at all was because people weren't true to their word. And Jesus said that, "Oaths are not necessary for people with integrity". Jesus said, "Just let your, 'Yes,' be, 'Yes,' and your, 'No,' be, 'No.'" And we betray the same mistrust in people today when we say, "Do you promise? Do you promise? Will you cross your heart"? Truly ethical people don't have to swear or promise. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say. So Jesus gives a whole new picture of oath taking in the Sermon on the Mount. Here's number five, what you've heard about retaliation and payback. And this is in Matthew 5:38 to 42. The law of retaliation is based on the Old Testament teaching which says, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot".
The point of the law was to limit retribution. Punishment for a crime was not to go beyond the amount of the victim's loss. But Jesus turns the law around and he says, in effect, "You don't have to pay anyone back for evil done to you at all. Instead of being careful to limit the judgment against an evil person, do whatever you can to avoid conflict altogether". If someone sues you, it is better to give him what he wants than to get embroiled in a court battle. In fact, Jesus said, "If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your coat also".
Kingdom ethics and morality do not focus on revenge and retaliation. They focus instead on peace. And Jesus makes this clear in his commendation for peacemakers early in the Sermon on the Mount. In God's economy, evil is not overcome with more evil, but evil is overcome with good. And then, here's number six. So far, we have heard Jesus talk about murder from a New Testament perspective. We have heard him give his understanding of adultery and divorce, and giving oaths and taking oaths, and retaliation and payback. And here's number six. Here's the final illustration. In Matthew 5:43 to 47, Jesus talks about what you've heard about enemies. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" is a central part of the Old Testament law. Jesus cited this as the second most important commandment.
But notice, here in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns man's morality on its head, and essentially says, "In the kingdom of God, we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbors". As we can see, by Jesus' six-point exposition, the spirit of God's law requires total transparency in the life of the Christian. The world around us may either ignore God's moral standards or comply with them for the sake of expediency or appearance. But the Christian cannot do either one. We are to obey the spirit of all God's laws in order to represent him faithfully in this world. Or as Jesus put it, "Ye shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect".
Just a few decades ago, I never imagined that we would live in a time like today. It's a day in which many obvious violations of God's absolute moral code are not only committed openly and without shame, but even enshrined into law. And lawmakers are being urged to enact laws legitimizing immoral behavior. But as I've said before, we shouldn't be surprised or disheartened. Historically, Christians have, more often than not, lived in a world that ignored or was hostile to the moral law. More and more, every day, we see our uniqueness as followers of Christ, standing as light in darkness, and salt in the midst of decay. It's therefore incumbent upon us as Christians to be that salt and light that God has called us to be, to live in such a way that we not only respect and observe absolute morality, but we also live above the minimum physical standards, as Jesus enjoined us to do in his sermon that we have just talked about.
God has honored us with the crucial responsibility to be those tall trees in the midst of the storm, to stand with strength, and be a representation of the character of God. Surely, we are flawed, and we will make mistakes. But at the core of our heart is this hunger and desire to be righteous, holy people and to live in the midst of decay and immorality as pictures of Jesus Christ being lived out in flesh and blood incarnated in our lives. We can be eternally thankful that the one who is perfect has given to us this promise, that he will give through his Holy Spirit the power to live this kind of life, to the glory and honor of the one who loved us. The Bible tells us that there's only one purpose in all of this. And Scripture puts it this way, "Let your light so shine, that men may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven".
The Bible tells us that we are to live holy and righteous lives. Over the years, many times people have come to me as their pastor and said, "Pastor, can I do this? Can I do this"? And what they're saying is, "Can I get this close to the edge of what is right and still be okay with God"? And that's simply the wrong question. The question ought to be, "How can I live so centrally in the picture of God's purpose for my life that every day I get up with this sense of confidence that God is in me? And through his power, through his Spirit, through the indwelling Christ, I can live this life, which, humanly, is impossible, humanly, is beyond ability. But through the supernatural power of the Lord Jesus Christ is certainly possible. Not only is it possible, it is what God expects of us who belong to him".
Yes, we live in a morally corrupt and decaying culture. But what an opportunity for us to stand strong and be God's people. We can make a difference if we will just be willing to live differently, differently according to the principles of the Word of God. And let me just suggest to you that if you do not know Jesus Christ, your problem isn't that you don't try to do good things. Your problem is you don't have the right heart. You have to have the heart of God to live this way. And God will give you his heart if you will put your trust in him. And you can do that today.