The Christian Ethic

Jonathan Edwards:

Let us, to this end [that is, of love], be willing to do, or give, or suffer, that we may do good alike to friends and enemies, to the evil and the good, to the thankful and the unthankful.

Let our benevolence and beneficence be universal, constant, free, habitual, and according to our opportunities and ability, for this is essential to true piety, and required by the commands of God.

This is an incredible statement. Note a few things.

First, we are to do good universally. That is, we are not to show partiality, but are to do good for those who have something to offer us and those that don’t, the “great” and the “small,” in biblical terms.

Second, this includes our enemies as well as our friends, those who appreciate what we do and those who don’t, those who are out to wreck the world as well as those who are out to change it.

Third, we are to do good constantly. Doing good is not to be a rare thing we do every few months. It is to be the steady employment of the Christian.

Fourth, we are to do good freely. That is, without thought of return, and from delight and a spirit of joy. We are not to act under constraint, but because we want to.

Fifth, we are to do good according to our opportunities and ability. Which means we are to maximize our opportunities and talents and resources for the good of others. We aren’t called to serve people with what we don’t have, but very often we can do far more than we think. Further, we are to even suffer in the way of doing good for others. In other words, if we construe the need to stay within our abilities and opportunities to mean “don’t sacrifice,” we’ve misunderstood.

Seventh, this is not optional. It is “essential to true piety.” We cannot say that we love God if we are not diligently and proactively and freely and habitually seeking to serve and do good for others. This is the mark of a Christian.

This is worth emphasizing, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply praying for others when we see them in need. When you have the ability to help, simply saying that you will pray but not actually helping is akin to saying “be warm and be filled” and then moving on (James 2:14-17). Further, prayer is not by itself a mark of a true relationship with God (Matthew 6:5-8). It is possible to be a person who prays all the time and yet doesn’t lift a finger to concretely, practically help others (Matthew 23:4-7). God is not impressed with such people. Prayer is essential and critical (Matthew 6:9-15), but without an active disposition to do good for others, it is not a mark of a true and living relationship with God.

So, in conclusion: this is not optional! Let us be universal, constant, free, joyful, habitual, proactive, and energetic in doing good for others, without restraint or discrimination, for the glory of God.

  • Gordon Cheng

    *simply saying that you will pray but not actually helping*

    Praying *is* actually helping! It’s the highest expression of faith in the Lord Jesus, and it is frequently the only thing we are able to do to help in a practical way.

  • Matt

    Prayer is definitely helping. But if you have the opportunity to help in a concrete way, yet don’t, the fact that you are praying for the person does not cut it. And, it’s not biblical. I’ve seen that happen quite a bit, and that’s what I’m talking about here.

    We really have to reject the notion that praying for someone, when you are in a position to help them practically, is sufficient. If someone is lacking food, and you have some with you, you don’t say “I’ll pray for you.” You give them some food.

  • Michael Snow

    Yes, a beautiful, incredible statement, would that we Christians would live it. A major stumbling block for us is the ever-present fog of the zeitgeist. Some over come, others do not. In Edwards’ (the slave owners’) time, contemporaries like John Wesley and John Woolman broke the zeitgeist’s cords on this.
    In our own time, I see some wonderful Christians in Romania who see Roma (gypsies) as ‘born to steal’ as indeed we all are. It is hard for orphanages to get Christians to adopt Roma.
    In our own country there is lingering racism but far stronger are other cords revealed when Christian leaders beat the war drums with the world.

  • Michael Snow

    Re: Matt’s response to Gordon.
    I, like Matt, have seen this happen–I could give you specific names and churches where a Christian is almost homeless, barely surviving.
    Examples like this are too frequent. It is why I wrote Love, Prayer, and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies.