Since my recent debate with an atheist was to cover social ethics and morality, for part of my preparation I reviewed Cornelius Van Til’s great Christian Theistic Ethics. Every Reformed student, pastor, and theologian needs to read and understand this book! It illustrates the vital link between Reformed doctrine and presuppositional apologetics, and more.
Particularly, it will lead you to a deeper understanding of a Reformed view of ethics—i.e., the law of God and its application. I have in mind especially its third use, but the overall generality of standards for goodness, right, and justice are important as well. You should walk away understanding why the presuppositional outlook is distinctly Reformed, and why Reformed doctrine drives us to a presuppositional model as the biblical outlook.
More than that, however, Van Til arrives at the realization that biblical ethics and Reformed doctrine must 1) provide a universal standard for human behavior, and 2) must apply to every area of life.
For those who cannot get to the whole read immediately, the following excerpts will put a little core strength in your biblical ethics.
Sovereign Grace and Ethics
Van Til makes clear that the same sovereign grace that accomplishes salvation is also a grace that produces gratitude and good works.
For a long time the Pauline ethical ideal was obscured in the history of the Church. With the Reformation, when the Pauline theology was really discovered, Pauline ethics was also discovered. As the chief point in the soteriology of the Reformers was that man is saved by grace and not by the works of the law, so the ethics of the Reformation pointed out that man’s good works are in no sense to be accomplished in order to attain salvation. The believer must perform good works in order to express his gratitude to God for salvation received in Christ (p. 115).
Wherever the doctrines of free grace and God’s sovereignty are preached, then, we should also expect to see the development and application of biblical law and ethics. Where has this been true the most? Van Til answers:
And since it is in the Reformed churches that the doctrine of the free grace of God has been most faithfully preached, it has naturally also been in the Reformed churches that the ethical life has flourished most. There has been a far more faithful preaching of the law of God first of all as the source of our knowledge of sin and then as a norm for our gratitude to God in the Reformed churches than in any other churches (p. 115).
Further, in order to be the kind of God who is sovereign in salvation, in giving the gift of free grace, not to mention in creation and revelation, etc., God must be sovereign over everything. His sovereignty must be absolute and universal. This, however, means that his law must have the same reach: to everything, every area of life.
This outlook, too, Van Til adds, is a Reformed distinctive:
Then, too, it should not be overlooked that it has been only in the Reformed churches that the motto of “Pro Rege,” that is, of the kingship of Christ in every sphere of life, has been carried out to any extent at all.
The alternative to this outlook has been a kind of individualistic pietism at best, or really a Christianity narrowed to salvation only: “Other churches which have seen something of the idea of free grace have engaged almost exclusively in individual soul saving. Unfortunately, practically all the churches that are evangelical at all at the present time have fallen into this anti-biblical individualism” (p. 115).
The process does truly enough begin in the individual, but if it truly does, it must continue on to a more comprehensive outlook. That is, if the process is truly the work of the sovereign God, and if it truly takes root in the heart of the sovereignly-saved individual, then it can only develop in the direction of a truly Reformed view of biblical and social ethics.
Biblical law a universal ethic
Why is this the case? Because God’s standard is absolute, and that standard applies wherever he is sovereign—i.e., everywhere. The regenerated heart is made to acknowledge its sovereign Creator. If we are to inquire of the standard of righteousness of this Sovereign Creator, the only available answer is in his revealed law. Thus the process of salvation simultaneously initiates the process of acknowledging God’s law for all of life.
Van Til summarizes the aspects of this process:
But wherever and whenever the gospel of the free grace of God has free sway, it will be seen that the absoluteness of the ethical ideal is to some extent approached.
In other words, there is only one absolute standard. Then,
Wherever the gospel of the free grace of God is preached, men will have the true internalism we have spoken of. Only those who have seen the deep internal wickedness of their hearts accept the grace of God, and the grace of God begins by cleansing the heart, and afterward, the hands.
In other words, the process begins internally by God’s grace and power in regeneration in the heart of the individual, but moves to works. Then,
Wherever the grace of God is preached, man will show the true universalism spoken of. Those who hold to the grace of God see that there is no respect of persons with God.
This means the same true Gospel preaching will apply the absolute standard of God to all men and women everywhere, at all times and in all places, and, we may say, to every aspect of life. Then,
Wherever the grace of God is preached, men will show the true spontaneity of seeking the kingdom of God. True spontaneity can come only where there is true joy (p. 115–116).
This means that the truly regenerated heart will begin to make that which is internal external, moving from inward joy to outward kingdom-seeking, or outward reformation and good works.
Autonomy or Theonomy?
After further developing several of these ideas, Van Til comes back to finish the work he began regarding this view of outward good works. How does the Bible, particularly Reformed doctrine, excel regarding goodness in human behavior?
We have purposely brought up the question of the externality of the revelation of God to man at this stage rather than at the stage where it seems to come most in the foreground, namely, in the discussion of the Old Testament legal code, because we wish to bring out that the real difference between Christian and non-Christian ethics goes much deeper than is often supposed. For the same reason, we wish now to say a word about the authority of the revealed standard of ethics. It will be considered extravagant to say that men will not regard anything as authoritative that has not emanated from themselves. It is important to note, though, that it has been Kant who has given the idea of autonomy its modern form, and who has most effectively spread this idea that it was after all involved in the very bedrock of all non-theistic ethics. The ethics of Plato and Aristotle are autonomous, as well as the ethics of Kant. There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy. It was vain to attempt to flee from God and flee to a universe in order to seek eternal law there (p. 134).
In other words, in order for there to be any authoritative good in society, it must come from outside of man and from outside of creation. But this is the very thing the fallen human nature denies. It demands our standard come from self. Thus, Van Til notes, we are forced ultimately to the true dichotomy: either autonomy or theonomy. Either man’s law or God’s law.
Uses of the Law
Van Til teaches that God’s law is a comprehensive whole, and that we must move from its roles in convicting of sin and leading us to Christ to its role in providing a standard of behavior for all of life.
In the process of making the first point, he relates a solid unity of the law between the Old and New Testaments.
Accordingly, when we come to the law itself as given on Sinai, we must still remember that it was not the comprehensive expression of the will of God. The ten commandments are only a principle summary of the expressed will of God to man. It must always serve a twofold use. In the first place it must lead men to Christ. It must be a taskmaster to Christ by showing us the impossibility of living up to its absolute demands. We are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and with all our minds, while by nature we are prone to hate God and our neighbor. Now, since this is the substance of the whole law, since the whole law can be summed up in the commandment of perfect love and obedience to God, it can and must be preached through all ages as the source of the knowledge of sin. Again it must be preached as such, not in the sense as though our knowledge of sin cannot be brought about otherwise than by the detailed preaching of the ten commandments. The law must always be regarded as the summary of the expressed will of God. Hence, this summary must always be interpreted in the light of the fullest revelation of the will of God that we have in the New Testament. In other words, we are still preaching the law of God if we hold up to men the demands of Jesus in the sermon on the mount. Jesus has never asked anything higher than that men should love God with all their hearts, and their fellow man as themselves. He could ask nothing higher than the law asked. When we speak of the necessity of preaching the law in our day so that men may acquire a knowledge of sin, we mean that we should hold before men the whole will of God as expressed summarily in the ten commandments and as illustrated and explained in many ways by the deeds and words of Christ, as well as the prophets and apostles (p. 146).
This is obviously a necessary use of the law. But it is not sufficient. The Reformed doctrine also demands the law as a rule for all of life:
In the second place, as the whole expressed will of God must be preached in order to bring men to a consciousness of sin, so also this same whole will of God, of which the decalogue is only a summary, must be preached as a rule of life by which men may regulate their life of gratitude. And since the decalogue is a convenient summary of the whole expressed will of God, it can most profitably be used as a basis of preaching on the ethical standard of the Christian life.
Despite its solid pedigree in Reformed doctrine and history, many Reformed churches and preachers neglect this use of the law. Van Till calls us to it:
Particular mention should be made of this fact since many orthodox ministers seem to think that when they go back to the law, they go back to something with which the Christian has nothing to do. Christ said that he came to establish the law. He himself said what had been said before, that if a man should really live up to its demands, he should certainly inherit eternal life. Hence, he himself came to bring nothing higher, and could bring no higher standard (p. 146).
“Pro Rege” as a New Testament Reality
After reviewing the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), Van Til has an even higher view of God’s law:
Our conclusion, then, with respect to this whole section can be no other than that it corroborates what we have said above, that is, that the New Testament only brings out more fully than the Old the absoluteness of the standard of ethics (p. 149).
He then rounds out the chapter by bringing several of these ideas together:
We may say that just as Jesus brought the vision of the absolute summum bonum [“highest good”] more intensively and more extensively before man’s eyes again, so he also interpreted the law in all its intensity and in all its extensity as the means by which men are to reach the summum bonum. If we preach the law as Christ preached it, there is no territory of life that does not fall under it (p. 150).
He returns to the reality of the unity of God’s revelation, and sees the same doctrine throughout:
And what applies to Christ applies equally to Paul. All that Paul has said can be subsumed under what Jesus said: “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” And what Jesus said here is nothing more than what Moses said in Deuteronomy: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.” It is utterly false and unbiblical to contrast the New Testament with the Old as far as the standard of life is concerned. Both seek to bring to man the expressed will of God. The expressed will of God for man is simply that man shall reflect the moral glory of God on a finite scale. This is what God asked of man in paradise. This is what God asked of man in the Old Testament. This is what God asks of man in the New Testament (p. 150).
This “third use of the law,” then, and its application to all of life, such that the Christian should be moved to say “Pro Rege”—For King Jesus!—in every area of life, is the doctrine of the whole Bible.
Reformed doctrine teaches the sovereignty of God, and the absolute standard of his law over every area of life. Moreover, Reformed doctrine teaches that the free gift of grace is accompanied by an internal change in man’s heart. Joy and gratitude follow, and along with these, good works. Good works circle right back to the absolute standard of that sovereign God—that is, his law. For each of these works in every area of life, the Reformed—i.e., biblical—believer should find himself or herself asking, “Autonomy or Theonomy?”, and then proceeding according to the absolute standard of the sovereign God.
Far from seeing the Old Testament law as out of place today, or even as related only to the conviction of sin, Reformed theology must drive us to see its unity with Christ’s rule as well. Reformed Christians should be foremost in this effort: we should be eager to proclaim “Pro Rege” in every venue of our lives, and we should be quick to run to the law of God in applying the rule of our King every time we do.