We just finished our exposition of 1 Cor. 13 this last Wednesday night. What a convicting chapter. What a mirror to the heart. Lord, help us to see our true state clearly! Help us to grow in our love for you and for others.
What 1 Cor. 13 does for us is it reminds us that the Christian’s ethic is love. When we say “ethic” what do we mean? The word “ethic” indicates for us principles of conduct (yes, that is John Murray’s title for his book on ethics). The word “ethic” indicates the moral code by which we live our lives. Our “ethic” is the guiding system by which we make moral choices and conduct ourselves. The Christian has an ethic, that is a moral code of conduct. But too often, in our circles especially, our ethic is a fundamentalist ethic. We have a taboo list, often comprised of things the Bible never explicitly or implicitly addresses. A “fundamentalist ethic” looks at ethics in black and white, root and branch. “This is evil because it has this source, this origin; this is wicked because it is worldly, and worldly is what I define it to be.” This kind of ethic is external. Worldliness, for instance, is primarily, if not exclusively, tied to places, things, activities, and not the heart. A fundamentalist ethic is easy, it is based on rules, plain and simple. There is no nuance, no gray, just rules. Now I believe in rules. I believe in the Law of God. I believe in the relevance and authority of the Ten Commandments. But a fundamentalist ethic always goes beyond God’s moral law. It smells like the Pharisees’ 613 prohibitions and commands, which helped “clarify” the Law of God.
In 1 Cor. 13, along with other passages on ethics in the NT, the text draws our focus not so much to what we do and don’t do. Don’t misunderstand. There are “put off” and “put on” passages. There are vice lists which we are to avoid, and virtue lists we are to emulate. But even these passages prove the point: the primary focus of the NT ethic is how we treat each other and that we love each other. When we consider, for instance, the fruit of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-23), we see that there is an ethical focus that is horizontal, that is, many of the deeds of the flesh relate to how we treat others, as do many of the fruits of the Spirit. We cannot ignore this. The NT ethic is less concerned about whether you have a TV and is more concerned about how you treat your brother, your sister, and your neighbor. (I know, they didn’t have TVs in the NT era, but you get my point). The NT is not unconcerned with behavior and action, far from it, but it is primarily concerned about how I treat you and you treat me. My words matter. My attitude matters. Yes, my tone matters. My actions matter. Why? Because the Christian ethic is love.
So how are you doing? How am I doing? It is too easy to find examples of where we were kind and loving to someone who is kind and loving to us. Think about those relationships which are more difficult. Think about that person that you struggle with, or just don’t like. Think of that person you disagree with. Think of that person. How I treat that person is the real barometer of the work of the Spirit in my life. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32-33).
Yesterday I had a point of contention with someone. I believed they were in the wrong. They believed that I was “sinfully uncharitable” with them. What happened? Well, I love this person. He is a brother. I went to him and explained to him why I believed he was wrong about something. He listened. He then spoke. I listened. We discussed. We asked questions. We explained. We listened. I asked for forgiveness. He granted it. He discussed some things he learned from the conversation, and how he could do better. Why do I bring this up? Because it is an example of real life. Real life will not be a perfect living out of Christian love, but a Christian ethic will govern how we respond to those we love, especially when we fail.
Here some questions we can ask ourselves for examining our ethic:
1. Is there anyone in my life that I have mistreated because of pride or other sinful attitudes in my heart? If so, I have not walked in love. I need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and the person I have sinned against.
2. Is there anyone in my life that I have spoken to, even in the name of truth, in a way that was hurtful, disrespectful, and proud? Oh saint, be careful here! It is easy for us to justify our words, justify our attitudes, and our tones. Have my words, even true words, been words of death? (Prov. 18:21). This is not “truthing in love” (Eph.4:15). If we are guilty, we need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and the person I have not loved.
3. Is there anyone in my life that receives the brunt of my impatience and lack of graciousness? If so, I am not walking in love. I need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and them.
4. Is there anyone in my life that has suffered from my selfishness? If so, I am not walking in love and I need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and that person.
5. Is there anyone in my life that I have held a grudge against, been embittered against, kept a record of their wrongs? There is no way we can love when we hold a grudge and keep a record. Take those grudges, that bitterness, and the ledger straight to the Cross, and leave it there, with your sins. Go and repent and seek forgiveness.
The Christian’s ethic is love. God cares about how I treat other people. When I soak in God’s love for me, I want to love Him more and love others better. Let us clean out the leaven of unloving words, thoughts, attitudes, and actions, and make a beeline to the Cross.
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in the matchless hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded:
What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.
What a great prayer! But we could also add, “Lord, let me never, never outlive my live for my brothers, my sisters, and my neighbors.”