Is There a Moral Law?
Ted Turner, founder of CNN, famously suggested that the Ten Commandments be renamed the Ten Suggestions. Our society today is taking him up on the “suggestion.” The trend today is for each person to define his/her own “truth” and formulate his/her own “rules for living.” And of course those “rules” are subject to change according to changing circumstances in one’s life or in the culture. Those who previously opposed same-sex marriage but now support it say they have “evolved” on the issue. They have changed their moral code in response to personal circumstances (often, a loved one who is same-sex attracted) or because of the shifting opinions of people around them.
But what if there really is a moral law? What if the moral law is not just an arbitrary set of rules and expectations formulated by religious leaders or ancient gurus, but is an unchanging guide to human flourishing? What if the moral law is “written” into reality, such that living by that law leads to fulfillment, while breaking that law leads to pain and frustration?
That was the view of E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), renowned Methodist missionary and evangelist.
We choose, but the moral universe decides the results of our choosing, and those results are inexorable. We must come to terms with the moral universe or get hurt. We do not break the laws of God written into the nature of things. We break ourselves on them. Those laws are color-blind, class-blind, and religion-blind. Break them, and you’ll get broken. If you leap from a tenth-story window, you will not break the law of gravitation, you will only illustrate it.
These laws are God’s preventive grace. They are barriers put up at the edge of precipices to keep us from going over. They are not put there to bind our freedom; they are put there to save us from using our freedom to destroy ourselves.
Humanity is finding out how to live by the hard way. God offers us the Way in Christ. We think we know better, take other ways of our own choosing, and are constantly getting shocks.*
Many people have begun jettisoning the moral code that is taught in Scripture and embodied in church tradition. They substitute instead their own personal judgment about what is “right” and “wrong.” But choices that go contrary to God’s moral law end up bringing pain—pain to the person and pain to the society in which he/she lives.
When some Wall Street financiers dream up fancy get-rich-quick schemes that make them boatloads of money, but jeopardize the financial system that sustains the whole country, they run afoul of God’s moral law. They may not feel the pain personally (other than in a troubled conscience), but they have caused pain in the form of lost jobs, lost homes, people impoverished by the recession, and a loss of trust in the free-market “system” to bring about economic flourishing.
When some people decide that divorce is an easy answer to marital conflict, with some going through the revolving door of marriage three or four or more times, they bump into the reality that God’s moral code was meant to protect us from. They go through immense pain themselves and cause their spouse and children to experience the devastating fallout.
When some people decide that “monogamy isn’t working anymore,” as one man was quoted in a recent news story on polyamory, the idea that we can invent new forms of family and find fulfillment in multiple relationships carried on at the same time hits the wall of what God created love, sex, and marriage for in the first place. The resulting confusion of boundaries and impermanence of relationships will not only lead to personal emptiness, but will affect generations to come in the family systems involved. Even the most dedicated believers in God in the Bible learned the hard way about the problems caused by polygamous relationships.
When we decide to lie or shade the truth instead of being honest with ourselves and others, we violate the moral law that emanates from the God who is truth. We end up destroying relationships, forfeiting trust, and losing harmony with ourselves.
God’s “judgment” is often just the natural consequences of our violating the moral code that he baked into the reality of the world in which we live. That is what I believe Paul means when he says that “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (Romans 1:24, repeated in vs. 26 and 28). God surrenders us to the consequences of our own sinful choices (at times), so that we experience the natural consequences of our actions. God’s purpose is redemptive, however, in that he wants the negative consequences we experience to turn us back to him. Just as the lost son “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17) when he had lost it all, we too can learn from the consequences and tragedies that befall us and others when we violate God’s will.
Rather than formulating our own broken moral codes and taking upon ourselves the role of god, by surrendering ourselves to the one true God, we can discover “God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2) that is designed to lead to our well-being. To do otherwise only leads to heartache and misery, whether for ourselves or for others.
*The Way: 364 Adventures in Daily Living by E. Stanley Jones; Abingdon Press, 2015; page 10.
2 thoughts on “Is There a Moral Law?”
The moral law centers around what Jesus said the two greatest commandments were. Following that law is more important than following any earthly law (like our Book of Discipline). This led me to officiate at two weddings of people who are dear to me. I was simply following the moral law of Jesus to love my neighbor as myself.
The “moral law” is whatever someone wants their morality to be, it seems. Wesley understood the moral law to be all that was contained in the Mosaic Law that has historically been understood to be the moral code, as opposed to the parts known as the ceremonial and civil. He was quite clear that this moral code had existed long before Mount Sinai, and was what God promised to write upon hearts in Jeremiah 31. (Sermon 34, The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law) That is, it is the truth that the Holy Spirit is trying to guide us into each and every day. (John 16:13) Why do we not hear that? Because we are self-deluded into thinking He couldn’t possibly be saying that. (37, The Nature of Enthusiasm)
One of the reasons I became such an avid reader of Wesley is because I’m a dirty, rotten son of that dog, Satan. I don’t read Wesley because it makes me feel morally superior. Rather, I read Wesley in spite of how it makes me feel. But I’m a United Methodist preacher, and I vowed to preach according to Methodist doctrine. And in order to preach it authentically, I have to live it. God help me, I am so far away from that.