Behaving Properly: General Principles (1)

Don Johnson

We find the topic of personal standards of holiness under continual attack in modern Christianity. What amazes us is that many otherwise conservative believers either directly or tacitly endorse behaviour that would shock previous generations of Christians. We wonder, what kind of church will be left for our children and grandchildren in days to come? How many shipwrecks are to come because of frequent dalliance with the world and the things of the world?

Yesterday we posted a blog called Anemia in Fundamentalism. The title suggests that the problem is not limited to “them” but it includes “us.” To the extent that it is “us”, we need to sit up and take notice. We need to learn how to think biblically and behave properly.

On the subject of proper behaviour, the apostle Paul has some very blunt words for the Christians of Rome:

Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. (Rm 13.13)

Some versions turn the exhortation to the honest walk simply thus: “behave properly”. Three categories are then raised in a series of pairs to lay out for us what Paul has in mind when he talks about “becoming behaviour.”

  1. Alcohol related sin (“rioting and drunkenness” – “carousing and drunkenness”)
  2. Sexuality related sin (“chambering and wantonness” – “sexual promiscuity and sensuality”)
  3. Personality (anger/strife) related sin (“strife and envying” – “strife and jealousy”)

Taking the last category, we can easily see that someone who explodes in a screaming fit against someone else, calling on others to shun them, actively campaigning to oust them from a group, etc., is probably guilty of a violation of God’s will, wouldn’t you agree?

But suppose someone else does something and you are annoyed. Maybe you don’t verbalize it to others, but you become persistently annoyed by the other person. You start interpreting all they say and do in light of your annoyance. You have “an attitude” towards them.

Have you sinned? How would you know?

Most of us would probably say both “levels” of anger are sin — the visibly expressed outward anger, the invisible stifled and hidden inner anger — both fail to meet God’s standard of holiness. We almost instinctively know this as believers. The Holy Spirit witnesses this truth in our heart.

More than that, though, we have biblical authority for thinking this way. In fact, we have the authority from the lips of the Lord Jesus himself. In this article, I plan to show you how this works and the way Christians ought to think as a result. (This is how Christians have come to conclusions about “standards” in the past.) In a later article, I want to make some specific applications that ought to be guiding the lives of believers today. Sadly, many ignore the Scriptural principles that Jesus himself taught us.

Our primary source for biblical thinking about God’s will is the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5.21-48. In this section of the sermon, Jesus offers a well-known refrain, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” He does this six times: Mt 5.21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44. In this section Jesus is teaching us how to think about expressions of God’s will. In some cases, the expressions are exactly as God gave them, in others they are as misused by men (the Rabbis and the Pharisees, among others). Here are the six topics:

  • The Law of Murder: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill (21)
  • The Law of Adultery: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery (27)
  • The Law of Divorce: It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement (31)
  • The Law of Oath-Taking: Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths (33)
  • The Law of Justice: Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth (38)
  • The Law of Love: Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy (43)

The last four of these especially involve that special legalism of the Pharisees where they get around the law by legalistic maneuverings. For example, when confronted with the law to love one’s neighbour, you can see some Pharisaic rabbi sharply saying, ‘Well, now, the law doesn’t say you can’t hate your enemies.’ Thus the laws of Love, Justice, Oath-Taking and Divorce were ‘fine-tuned’ by unscrupulous men to turn them on their heads and rob them of their meaning (and God of his glory in his people).

It is the first two of these teachings that really give us our authority for Biblical thinking regarding God’s will about a wide variety of matters. The Pharisee among us may well think he is completely in God’s will as long as he hasn’t actually violated the commandment “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not commit adultery.” How often have you witnessed to someone and heard on the proclamation of “All have sinned” the protestation, “Well, I haven’t murdered anybody!” (As if that is the minimum standard!)

Jesus radically reorients our thinking on this. Thou shalt not murder? That means you shall not be angry with your brother, call your brother Raca (“You good-for-nothing”) or “Fool!” These seem to be slight offenses to our ears, but Jesus says they put men in danger of the fires of hell. When it comes to ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ I doubt there is one among us who isn’t aware of the implications Jesus draws out in the next verse: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

What Jesus is teaching us to do (and authorizing us to do) is to think about the implications of God’s Holy Will as revealed in the Scriptures. When he prohibits a thing, he doesn’t mean for us to think, “Well, everything leading up to that thing but not actually that thing is OK, because God didn’t say anything about that.”

We see this clearly, I think, in the teaching on adultery. No Christian would argue that a married man could date another woman, put himself into quasi-romantic situations with her, as long as he didn’t actually commit adultery. It’s a “no-brainer” as they say. And we are right to conclude with Job, “I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” So we, in keeping with the spirit of “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” rightly stand in opposition to pornography of all kinds, including the light pornography regularly broadcast on almost all television channels. Are we legalists for taking these kinds of stands? Hardly. We are biblical, and we stand on the authority of Jesus Christ himself for thinking this way.

The concept is this: God’s will as expressed in Scripture has a wider and deeper application/implication than mere surface understanding suggests. We are called to think and live the spirit and intent of Scripture, even if God doesn’t specifically name a particular modern expression of that sin.

Next time, we will consider some applications and implications that Christians today often fail to make.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.