GOSPEL ETHICS: both COMMANDMENTS FOR US and PROMISES FROM GOD

We have already considered how the ethics of the Christian gospel embrace both rigorous moral standards and extravagant forgiveness of sin. Let us now consider another both/and of gospel ethics: its moral precepts are both commandments and promises. The precepts of the gospel, like “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28), “[Forgive] not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22), and “Love one another as I love you” (John 15:12), are both obligatory commandments that we must keep and promises of life-giving grace that God will bestow.

Let us consider the moral precept we just quoted from the Gospel of John. Jesus explicitly calls it a commandment: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). Yet Jesus gives this commandment within his discourse about the vine and the branches. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he says, “whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The commandment reveals what it means to “remain in me.” He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). He then sums up his commandments in verse 12, which we have quoted. So, how are we to understand Jesus' commandment? Is loving one another as Jesus loves us something we must do to remain in his love? Or is it something Jesus promises to enable us to do, since without him we can do nothing? It is both/and. The moral precept, “Love one another as I love you,” is both an obligatory commandment for us and a gracious promise from God.

We can recognize the same both/and gospel ethic in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus issues demanding precept after demanding precept, culminating in the seemingly impossible, “Be perfect, just as you heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). As with Jesus’ commandment in John 15, however, Jesus’ complete discourse invests his individual precepts with fuller meaning. In this case, Jesus’ precepts are part of a sermon that begins with his beatitudes and is followed, shortly thereafter, by his words about his own fulfillment of the law and the righteousness required of his disciples. “Do not think,” he says, “that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). He goes on, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Jesus says he is the one who will fulfill the law. How? Surely, by his own righteousness. How are Jesus’ disciples to be righteous? Surely, not by their unaided ability, but by relying on the gracious care of their heavenly Father (see Matt 6:25-34), whose righteousness fulfills the law in the humanity of His Son and promises to fulfill the law in his disciples also. The moral precept, “Be perfect,” is both a commandment and a promise.

The same gospel ethic is evident in the writings of Saint Paul. “Obedient as you have always been . . . work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” he tells the Philippians, “for God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (Phil 2:12-13). The Philippian disciples are to work in obedience to God’s commandments; God is at work in the disciples to fulfill His good purpose for them. The commandments are both for them to obey and for God to fulfill in them. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul assures them, “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:12). Trials will require the Corinthian disciples to be strong and endure, but their strength will not be enough. Both their endurance and God’s provident care will be necessary.

Saint Thomas Aquinas develops this both/and gospel ethic in his treatment of “The law of the gospel, called the New Law” in his Summa Theologiae. He asks, “Whether the New Law is a written law?” and answers, ”We must say that the New Law is in the first place a law that is inscribed on our hearts, but secondarily it is a written law” (ST I-II q.106 a.1). Saint Thomas says, “The New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ.” Secondarily, it is about “certain things that dispose us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, and pertain to the use of that grace.” The Law of the gospel is both about what human beings do in response to written commandments of God, which dispose them for God’s grace and help them make use of it, and – even more so – the Law of the gospel is about what God does in bestowing the grace of the Holy Spirit upon his people.

The ethical precepts of the Christian gospel are both commandments for us and promises from God. This insight not only helps us to understand God’s commandments better. It also helps us to understand God better. God does not fit Jesus’ description of the “scholars of the law [who] impose on people burdens hard to carry, but . . . do not lift on finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46). When God commands, He does not only demand something of us. He also promises to help us with His gifts of grace. So, unlike those scholars of the law, Jesus faithfully represents his Father when he says, “Come to me . . . for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30).