Grudem, Wayne. Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018. 1246 pp.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (Jas. 1:22, 2:26, ESV). With these words, James reminds Christians that saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not merely about knowing and mentally assenting to theological principles found in the Bible. Rather, saving faith is demonstrated through an obedient doing of the law of Christ in all the circumstances the LORD brings forth. Saving faith results in applied theology. In Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, Wayne Grudem writes to aid Christians in practically applying our lives by faith to the Bible’s ethical teaching.
Grudem defines Christian ethics as “any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us about which acts, attitudes, and personal character traits receive God’s approval, and which do not?’” (37). From this definition, Grudem turns to the Bible to lay out a Christian ethical framework. In the introductory section, Christian ethics is rooted in the moral character of God as revealed in the Word of God with the intended fruit being joyful lives of obedience pleasing to God. Having also touched on important issues such as factors in making ethical choices, the role of the Old Testament for Christian living, and apparent moral conflict in obeying God, Grudem spends the final thousand pages addressing a wide array of ethical issues pertaining to God’s honor, human authority, human life, marriage, property, and purity of heart.
Christian Ethics is unique in that the scope of the book is so broad. Not only does he address sexuality, marriage, and edge of life issues as are commonly found in evangelical ethics books, Grudem also includes lengthy discussion regarding civil government, environmental, racial, personal property/finance stewardship, and business ethical matters, to name a few. Over thirty-four topics are addressed in these pages, which makes this book substantially more comprehensive in subject matter than the handful of evangelical ethics textbooks currently sitting on my shelf.
One of the most helpful chapters of the book is chapter 8 on the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament Law when constructing a “whole-Bible” ethic (23, 37). Grudem correctly states that Christians must follow the process of “(1) recognizing that the Mosaic covenant in its entirety has been terminated; (2) recognizing the specific differences between the old and new covenants; and then, in light of those differences, (3) seeking wisdom for life from the whole of the Old Testament, including all of its laws” (251). In other words, Christians are no longer bound by the old covenant and its stipulations because it has been fulfilled and abolished in Jesus with the presence of the new covenant; yet, wisdom can be found therein (Matt. 5:17-18, Gal. 3:24-25, Eph. 2:15). With this correct understanding, Christians are freed from having to unnecessarily divide the Law into civil, ceremonial, and moral categories in order to justify what old covenant principles (not to be confused with pre-Mosaic instruction) are normative on this side of the cross.
One critique is that Grudem views ethics primarily through the lens of systematic theology to the neglect of biblical theology. For any given topic, Grudem pulls biblical texts and systematizes them to extract principles. The principles are then used to determine particular applications of character and action that are and are not in line with the moral character of God, the basis of Christian ethics. While a systematic approach is helpful, a biblical-theological approach is also necessary noting that God has chosen to reveal himself through the Bible in the form of a story, not a systematic textbook. All humans live in light of the stories we tell ourselves, some of which are true and others false. A biblical-theological section on the big picture role of Christian ethics as righteous living in the kingdom of God under the rule of Christ would help Christians better ground Christian living to the redemptive story in which we live so that we might more fully understand the role, eternal purpose, and goal of Christ-centered ethics.
In chapter 4, Grudem accurately declares that Christian ethics is concerned with Christlike character in addition to right actions. Grudem goes on to say that part of the newness of the new covenant is in the new character the Spirit produces in Christians (244-245). This book would be strengthened if these new covenant, Christlike virtues served as more of a basis for the ethical conclusions that are drawn. For example, chapter 32 on divorce could have been enhanced if the virtue of Christian forgiveness, grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, was brought into the equation as a primary lens through which Christians should approach the issue of divorce, particularly noting that Matthew 18 concludes with a long section on forgiveness before moving to divorce in Matthew 19.
Finally, more discussion on complementarianism versus egalitarianism would be beneficial. Grudem is a complementarian, and he limits complementarianism to the home and to the church. However, there are varying degrees of complementarians. Some say that complementarianism should be restricted to the home and the church while others say that complementarianism should extend more broadly into culture. An overview of some of the nuanced perspectives along the spectrum would help evangelical Christians better understand that not all complementarians are in full agreement while helping us think more carefully about how to live out God’s design for men and women in all aspects of life.
Covering so much ground in one work, Christian Ethics will likely be a widely used resource for evangelical ethics for years to come though, no doubt, there will not be unanimity with every conclusion reached by Grudem. Practical, thought-provoking, expansive, and Bible-rooted, this work will certainly challenge contemporary evangelicals to live all of life in line with gospel ethics. May this book increase our joy as we Christians live obedient lives pleasing before our God in Christ.
Note: A review copy of the book was provided to the Prince on Preaching blog in exchange for an honest review.