|Taking Every Thought Captive|
Knowing Right from Wrong
A Christian Response to Postmodern “Tolerance”
By Jay Wegter & Massimo Lorenzini
With Some Concepts and Examples From Josh McDowell’s Tape Series, Right from Wrong
The Futile Search for Ethics in a Landscape without Truth.
The public schools are desperately trying to teach moral character to their students. Their purpose is education, but they are realizing that without sufficient character qualities in their students they are not able to educate them. Educators are now promoting character education and encouraging student-led character clubs.
One student who is president of her high school character club was asked recently in a television interview about one thing she can take away from her experience with the character club as she looks to college. She said that the most important thing she learned was tolerance and understanding. Does she mean that before her involvement with the club she was a bully who went around punching everyone she didn’t like or agree with? No, she meant something very different. We will look at the new understanding of tolerance in a moment. But first, a brief introduction to our subject is in order.
Ethics are ultimately from God.
When we talk about discerning right from wrong, we are dealing with the subject of ethics. Ethics is the study of the good; the study of right and wrong actions and attitudes. In simple terms, ethics is the study of how to relate to God, others, and ourselves. Ethics govern the creature’s relationship toward God, they govern the creature’s relationship to fellow creatures, and they govern the creature’s relationship to the creation itself.
The foundational ethic to all others is the command to glorify God. Vine’s Expository Dictionary describes the command to glorify God in the following manner: In the New Testament “to glorify” is to extol, praise, and honor God by acknowledging Him as to His being, attributes and acts. God’s glory is the revelation and self-manifestation of all that is His. Believers glorify God by bearing much fruit (Jn 15:8). To live for God’s glory is only possible when we seek to imitate Him in holiness, honor and righteousness (Eph 5:1).
“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31, NKJV).
How can we glorify God?
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6, NIV).
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you@ (Matt 6:33, NKJV).
So the Christian ethic, the only real ethic, is to glorify God by having faith in Him and giving His kingdom priority in our lives.
God has given us His revelation, His Word, to guide us in ethics, in knowing what we should and shouldn’t do.
The book of Proverbs was given to us to teach us right conduct.
“To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, equity [or, doing what is right, just, and fair, NIV]; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion—a wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel . . . . The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:2-5, 7, NKJV).
Because our Creator is Holy, we live in a Moral Universe.
The path of life and the path of destruction are set before us.
Because God is Creator and sovereign Ruler of all creation, moral law is built into the very fabric of the universe. As the only creature made in the image of God, every action man takes is either an affirmation or denial of God’s moral government. These two moral directions are described in Scripture as two paths—one of life, and the other of destruction (Jer 6:16-19; Matt 7:13).
The book of Proverbs, as the rest of the Bible, teaches us to think in terms of antithesis—that there are two opposing ways of looking at life, a right way and a wrong way. In the book of Proverbs we find right and wrong contrasted, and often these occur even in a single verse. Here is one for example:
“In all labor there is profit, but idle chatter leads only to poverty” (Prov 14:23, NKJV).
We see thesis and anti-thesis; this way or that way. We need discernment to be able to distinguish between right and wrong, between truth and error, and then we need to conform ourselves to the truth or the right way. In fact, we are commanded in Scripture to do exactly that:
“Test [or, examine, NASB] all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22, NKJV).
Jay Adams has this to say about the principle of antithesis.
In the Bible, where antithesis is so important, discernment—the ability to distinguish God’s thoughts and God’s ways from all others—is essential. Indeed, God says that “the wise in heart will be called discerning” (Proverbs 16:21).
From the Garden of Eden with its two trees (one allowed, one forbidden) to the eternal destiny of the human being in heaven or in hell, the Bible sets forth two, and only two, ways: God’s way, and all others. Accordingly, people are said to be saved or lost. They belong to God’s people or the world. There was Gerizim, the mount of blessing, and Ebal, the mount of cursing. There is the narrow way and the wide way, leading either to eternal life or to destruction. There are those who are against us and those who are with us, those within and those without. There is life and death, truth and falsehood, good and bad, light and darkness, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, love and hatred, spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of the world. Christ is said to be the way, the truth, and the life, and no one may come to the Father but by Him. His is the only name under the sky by which one may be saved.
Adams suggests that “people who study the Bible in depth develop antithetical mindsets: they think in terms of contrasts or opposites.” We often refer to this as thinking in terms of black and white, truth and error. How different this antithetical thinking is from the thinking of our culture which claims truth is a fuzzy gray with no center. Also, how different it is from the attitude of many Evangelical Christians who want to only present biblical truth in positive terms but never point out error and especially never point out proponents of error.
This idea of antithesis is as old as human history as Jay Adams has indicated. It is also the subject of a fascinating early church document from around the end of the first century A.D. called The Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles. The word didache comes from the Greek word for teaching. The Didache is the first manual on church order that we know of. It was written to teach “the doctrine of the two ways.” The opening sentence begins, “There are two ways, one of life and of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.” It then proceeds to expound on those two ways.
Jesus clearly taught this idea of two ways in His famous Sermon on the Mount:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult [or, confined, constraining] is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt 7:13-14, NKJV).
All of us are either on the narrow way that leads to life, or we are on the broad way that leads to death. There is no other alternative. There is no gray area. There is no neutral ground to stand upon.
We cannot know right from wrong without understanding God’s truth.
When ethics are divorced from the character of God, they can become vices.
In our present godless and humanistic culture, there is a new “virtue” which undermines and opposes everything Christians believe. The new “virtue” is tolerance. (The highest virtue was justice, now it is tolerance. More on justice in a moment.) Consider the following characteristics of this “new morality.”
Christians are considered the most intolerant people on the face of the earth. Consider the following changes that have taken place in our culture in less than fifty years.
The tolerance intended by our forefathers was based upon God’s absolute truth.
When considering the dual definition of tolerance, there is no intelligent way to discern between them without appealing to absolute truth. By “absolute” is meant that the truth of God’s infallible Word is universal and unchanging. It applies to all men everywhere and it always will do so. No man has ever taken a “moral holiday” from God. God’s moral government will be in force in both heaven and hell. The righteous man utters, “Oh, how I love Thy law!” God’s moral law is revealed in His Word, and it is also an unchanging standard that is written on the conscience of man (Rom 2:15). Due to the fact that sinners suppress the truth of God and sear their consciences by presumptuous acts of sin, there is a constant need to sensitize and educate the conscience of man by means of the Word of God.
There is a hideous and rapacious beast on the loose called “lawless love.”
Scripture demands that human dignity, life’s sanctity, and love’s boundaries are founded upon God’s laws. Lawless love is the patent denial that justice is inseparable from Christian love (Micah 6:8). Consider the following contrast between biblical love and the lawless “love” espoused by positive tolerance.
Love that is not established upon the foundation of truth is incapable of
coming up with its own ethics.
When all values, truth claims, and beliefs are equal, you lose the ability to choose right from wrong. This is because if all views are equal, then it doesn’t matter which one you choose. They have no substance and they are inconsequential. One’s beliefs have nothing to do with the real world of cause and effect. We see this clearly in our Christian youth.
1. Today there is no connection between belief and behavior. There is a gaping chasm between theology (Christian beliefs) and behavior.
a. EXAMPLE: Josh McDowell brought the sharpest young people to the front of a church he was visiting. He asked, “Would you lie to get out from under a situation? 204 of the 209 said that they would lie.
b. But here is the shocking part, 99% of the kids said lying was wrong, but said, “I’d do it anyway.”
2. It is devastating to have young people say that something is wrong because mom says it is wrong. It is inadequate moral preparation for adult life. (Among those who give young people moral instruction, the common approach is to cite the precept, “The Christian religion requires that you do not lie, after all, the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not lie.’” As McDowell cautions, “[At best,] we are [preparing] a whole generation to live by legalism.” We say “at best” because most likely most of these youth will not be in church once out of the home.
Without God’s truth, there is a radical loss in moral discernment.
When young people only discern right from wrong by precept or commandment, they are inadequately grounded. Without a foundation in God’s truth, pragmatism and sentimentality can easily cloud the discernment needed to make right ethical choices. Moral relativism has so fully permeated our culture, we can no longer successfully train our youth in ethics by using dated and unscriptural methods.
In order to teach right from wrong, one must teach the truth.
Culture has changed; relativism has ushered in a deadly perspective that believes we no longer have morality, only differing opinions.
When we teach morality, we tend to start with a precept. But, if you stop with a precept, you are left with moralism (which can easily become legalism). We must communicate the fact that behind every precept is a moral principle (a broad standard or norm).
God’s moral principles are grounded upon His absolute truth.
Right from wrong is nothing less than the revelation of God’s righteous character.
Something is right or wrong because it is true in God.
1. Why does the Bible say, “You shall not murder?” The reason is because God is life. He is the source and giver of life. The command flows from and is the expression of God’s very Person and nature! It is the life of God that gives sanctity to life. We are to pursue sexual purity because God is pure and holy.
2. Because our culture has adopted the twisted values of relativism and postmodernism, we must now teach biblical morality the Scriptural way; by connecting the command or precept to the Person of God.
3. When it comes to teaching right from wrong, the Scriptures never disassociate the precept from the divine Person. Josh McDowell offers the following paradigm for understanding how we should present moral truth:
a. Level One – is PRECEPT (a specific moral command)
b. Level Two – is PRINCIPLE (or broad moral principle)
c. Level Three – is PERSON (behind every principle is the Person and character and nature of God Himself.)
4. Without level three, you are left with moralism (or legalism).
The character of God is the basis for discerning right from wrong.
Right and wrong do not change, because God’s character does not change.
Because we live in a moral universe, love is impossible apart from delayed gratification.
Instant gratification by indulgence of our lusts destroys love of God and neighbor. Selfishness is the enemy of love. When the lower nature is allowed to set the standard of our moral conduct and behavior, sin and bondage are the result. Love is guarded by the ethical boundaries God has established in His moral law. Part of the deceptiveness of positive tolerance is found in its attempt to define freedom in terms of throwing off God’s moral standard. Jesus reserves some of His sternest warnings for this kind of error (see John 8:34-44, also see 2 Pet 2:18-22).
Young people tend to make choices that are based upon immediate return.
Youth can’t see the result of choices long term.
Connecting belief and behavior.
We must know how to teach the truth to our youth.
The Holy Scriptures provide the content, method, and example for teaching truth to our youth.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord [is] our God, the Lord [alone] [Truth]! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength [Example]. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart [Example]. You shall teach them diligently to your children [Truth], and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up [Relationship]. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” [Truth] (Deut 6:4-9, NKJV).
· When was the last time you laughed together?
· When was the last time you cried together?
· Do you know what his/her current favorite song is?
· Do you know who he/she sits with in the school cafeteria?
· When did he/she last seek your advice?
· When did you last forget or cancel a commitment to him/her?
· Do you more often ask questions of or make statements to him/her?
· Have you recently admitted a mistake or fault to him/her?
· What do you know—really know—about his/her spiritual life?
An Addendum on Postmodern Tolerance
Understanding postmodernism is essential if we are to make an accurate assessment of our times.
Postmodern (PM) tolerance is having a disastrous effect on moral virtue in our society. Its corrupt fruits are seen in divorce, recreational fornication, homosexuality, abortion, profanity, and perversion. These sins are defended in the name of tolerance and freedom.
On the worldwide web there are numerous sites filled with bitter anti-Christian material. These are often the same sites that are promoting tolerance. Why is there such ferocious opposition from the “paragons” of tolerance? The reason is because the truth claims of Christianity (which are absolute and exclusive) are the death-blow to postmodernism which is simply a cloak for intellectual and moral self-government (i.e., self-centeredness, self-worship, idolatry).
This casting-off of the Christian worldview for the purpose of moral "liberation" is explicitly admitted by one of the "fathers" of postmodern thought, Aldous Huxley:
“I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. . . . For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”
A theory we have as to the motivation behind the postmodern tolerance view is that when people think of positive tolerance they primarily have in mind sexual freedom. Firstly, homosexual rights and acceptance in Western culture and, secondarily, other deviant lifestyles surrounding sexual immorality like pornography, abortion, fornication, adultery, transsexual/transgender lifestyles seem to be the driving motivation. We believe in the near future that we are going to see this emphasis on tolerance of sex sins spread into even more vile sins such as pedophilia, incest, bestiality, orgies, and public sex acts. It is quite plausible to believe that positive tolerance is really an irrational and demonic defense for an exploding sexual revolution in our culture.
Positive tolerance has become our culture’s highest virtue and coming alongside that is a heightened value placed on sexiness. Being sexy has become most fashionable. Case in point, at a recent awards ceremony Madonna and Brittany Spears kissed on stage (this was planned in advance). We must be reminded that sexiness is not a virtue, it is a vice. It doesn’t have God’s approval but His condemnation. (Flaunting one’s sexual parts in public certainly could be considered a form of sexual harassment!)
Romans 1:18-32 demonstrates that the progression (or, more accurately, regression) into sin is marked by sex sins. We can parallel the steps into moral degradation in Romans 1 with what we witness in our own society in the last 100 years. In verse 18 we recognize that we have entered upon the wrath of God, being given up to our sins, as a society by the following:
· Step 1 – v.18b, Suppression of the truth. We removed the Bible and God from public thought (beginning with higher criticism then on down to the public schools—early 20th century and up to the fifties and sixties).
· Step 2 – v. 21-22, Futile thinking—nihilistic worldview, existentialism, postmodernism, relativism, etc. filled the void left by the removal of a Christian theistic worldview (early 20th century up to the present).
· Step 3 – v. 23, Change of focus from God to the creaturely world—materialism, consumerism (beginning in the fifties and on up to the present).
· Step 4 – vv. 24-25, Sex sins increase along with an increase in materialism (the sixties, the sexual revolution and up to the present).
· Step 5 – vv. 28-ff., The rise of sins of every kind; moral anarchy.
In the midst of such moral chaos, Christians must not be duped or intimidated. We must retain confidence in the power of God who stands behind His unbreakable Word. We must remain bold in proclaiming Christ as the only hope for people in the world. It’s vitally important that we rise above the confusion—there is a source of absolute truth; it is outside of us, it is true no matter how you feel (Ps 119:151; John 17:17).
Postmodernism says there is no such thing as knowable absolute truth. Truth is only the creation or construct of the human mind. Therefore, there is no religion superior to anyone else’s. Right and wrong cannot be based on theology, but “what I believe is right for me.” In other words, truth has now become preference, and these preferences are determined by a perverse and wicked human nature.
In postmodern thinking, confident faith is demonized while skepticism is enthroned. Strong convictions are equated with intolerance. If a person has strong convictions he may even be compared to terrorists because he wants to persuade people to adopt his own convictions.
Postmodernism leads its proponents into extreme irrationalism. To know absolute truth is considered arrogant. Dogmatism about the truth is regarded as bigotry and pride. PM tolerance is highly irrational. PM views two contradictory propositions as simultaneously true! By contrast, the Word of God indicates that whatever contradicts truth is error (1 Tim 6:3, 4). This is the law of non-contradiction (A cannot be non-A in the same way and at the same time.). Human history has unequivocally held to it and still does in all realms with the exception of the current moral and ideological anarchy. In other words, in all areas of human endeavor like science, medicine, engineering, driving, sports, etc., we use the law of non-contradiction. Only in the moral and ideological realm (namely the metaphysical) do we seem to allow the law of non-contradiction (and other laws of logic) to be violated.
Scripture truth is unchanging because God is unchanging (1 Pet 1:25). Repentance is the only proper and rational response to postmodern thought. Our thoughts and affections must be adjusted to God’s invariable truth.
Postmodernism attacks the clear meaning of Scripture, suggesting that God’s Word to humanity has countless meanings for countless people. The Word says the opposite. Scripture has one meaning. That meaning is perspicuous (having clarity). It is not “whatever it means to me” (2 Pet 3:16).
The Word of God is the starting point and final test of truth. The Scriptures, being the infallible Word of God, are totally rational because God is the only source of rationality. Without God one cannot explain the origin of rationality.
The natural man (a person not born again) is at war with the truthfulness of God (Rom 1:18). He or she does not receive God’s truth. It is regarded as foolishness (1 Cor 2:14) because the natural man is darkened in his thoughts and driven by a relentless lust for autonomy.
We must recover our love of biblical truth and the conviction that it is unassailable truth (2 Thess 2:13-17). We must proclaim it, for it is a sin to keep it to ourselves (2 Cor 5:11-21).
God is Building a Kingdom of People whom He has enabled to Choose Right from Wrong (Titus 2:11-14).
God’s plan for the recovery of fallen mankind involves the writing of His laws on the hearts of those saved by Christ. This not only means that the conscience is tuned to God’s moral will, it also means that the desire to obey God’s law is stamped upon the hearts of the redeemed. Right moral choices become a function of having been set apart by and in Christ. God-glorifying ethical living is the expression of a new nature that is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Christians are not establishing their identities by right moral choices, instead their ethical conduct is the manifestation of who they really are. Thus their transformation by God’s truth and daily righteous living is a function of them becoming what they really are in Christ, sanctified by truth.
The following words from the Lord Jesus interceding for His elect are a most fitting benediction to end with:
“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As you have sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (John 17:14-19, NKJV).