What does it mean to be ethical? Answers vary, based on those who respond, where they are from, and who or what determines their morality. Ethics, after all, are based on one’s morality.
Culture strongly influences what is considered ethical within a given society. One successful consulting firm offers this definition: “Ethical behavior means acting in ways that are consistent with what society, individuals, and businesses generally accept as good values.¹
In this and many secular models, “society, individuals, and businesses” determine what is ethical behavior. Therefore, depending on cultural norms, what is determined as ethical in one society may or may not be considered ethical in another. These ethics can change based on culture.
While some cultures and secular entities give a nod to biblical principles, such as the Golden Rule of treating others as we wish to be treated, most do not acknowledge the authority of a higher, God-given, unchangeable moral law in determining universal ethical behavior.
Seventh-day Adventists, however, acknowledge God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments, as timeless and superseding all cultures. This divinely given code of conduct determines our ethics. In more than 200 countries and multiple cultures, God’s last-day remnant movement seeks to operate based upon His moral law, which outlines ethical behavior toward God and our fellow humans.
This timeless, authoritative moral code of ethical conduct is summarized in such biblical texts as, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) and “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Rather than replacing the Ten Commandments, these summaries provide a way of expressing the main purpose of God’s moral law, upon which we base our ethics and behavior, regardless of time or culture.
Jesus Christ is the perfect example of ethical behavior. In the well-known Sermon on the Mount, Christ outlines heavenly morals and behavior.
Starting with the Beatitudes, He identifies these heavenly moral values—meekness; a strong desire for righteousness; mercy; purity of heart; peacemaking—and offers comfort and hope to those who are “poor in spirit” and those who are persecuted.
Christ continues with specific examples of Christian moral behavior and ethical expectations—being a light; keeping the commandments; having pure motives; being faithful to one’s spouse; going the second mile; and loving one’s enemies. Tucked in is a model prayer; encouragement to place one’s treasures in heaven rather than on earth; an assurance about not worrying; and an admonition not to judge others. Jesus ends with the parable of the wise man who built his house upon solid rock, rather than shifting sand.
This sermon, given on a grassy hillside 2,000 years ago, has been acknowledged for centuries as the most powerful discourse on ethical behavior ever given. Yet some assert that its precepts are impossible to fulfill, particularly Christ’s command: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Is Jesus setting us up for automatic failure with an impossible request? Ellen White wrote: “Before the world, God is developing us as living witnesses to what men and women may become through the grace of Christ. We are enjoined to strive for perfection of character. . . . Would Christ tantalize us by requiring of us an impossibility? Never, never! What an honor He confers upon us in urging us to be holy in our sphere, as the Father is holy in His sphere! He can enable us to do this, for He declares, ‘All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.’ This unlimited power it is our privilege to claim.”²
Explaining how this takes place, she wrote: “Those who desire to be transformed in mind and character are not to look to men, but to the divine Example. God gives the invitation, ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ By conversion and transformation, men are to receive the mind of Christ.”³
We are to submit daily to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the power of Christ in our lives. Only by Christ’s grace are we saved and grow in submission to Him, thus becoming more like Him all through His power. As Paul wrote: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13). Abide in Christ and grow in Christ. He wants us to become like Him through His power.
These ethics transcend time and culture because they are God-given and universal in application. They are inextricably tied to the gospel.
Ellen White observed: “Through sin the whole human organism is deranged, the mind is perverted, the imagination corrupted. Sin has degraded the faculties of the soul. Temptations from without find an answer chord within the heart, and the feet turn imperceptibly toward evil.”⁴
ETHICS OF THE GOSPEL
But praise God, we are not left in this wretched condition! “As the sacrifice in our behalf was complete, so our restoration from the defilement of sin is to be complete,” wrote Ellen White. “No act of wickedness will the law of God excuse; no unrighteousness can escape its condemnation. The ethics of the gospel acknowledge no standard but the perfection of the divine character. . . . [Christ’s] life is our example of obedience and service. God alone can renew the heart.”⁵
And He has promised to do so. When we are converted and submit our will to His, Christ performs this amazing transformation within us: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Eze. 36:26, 27).
This is the key to receiving the mind of Christ, to becoming the ethical, moral people He calls us to be as individuals, and as His church.
“The glory of God is His character. . . . This character was revealed in the life of Christ. . . . Christ desires His followers to reveal in their lives this same character. . . . Today it is still His purpose to sanctify and cleanse His church ‘with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.’ No greater gift than the character that He revealed, can Christ ask His Father to bestow upon those who believe on Him.”⁶
¹ Nick Price, “Ethical Behavior for Board Members Is Culturally Driven,” BoardEffect.com, August 9, 2017, www.boardeffect.com/blog/ethical-behavior-board-members-culturally-driven/
² Ellen G. White, “Let This Mind Be in You,” Signs of the Times, Sept. 3, 1902.
⁴ Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,1905), p. 451.
⁵ Ibid., pp. 451, 452. (Italics supplied.)
⁶ White, “Let This Mind Be in You.”