Bird’s Eye View of Paul (18) Paul’s ethics

Chapter 9 of Michael Bird’s excellent book on Paul is on the apostle’s ethics.

I’m enjoying this book and there is lots in this chapter – so I’m going to do a couple of posts on it.

Some thoughts upfront before getting to what Bird says. There is a very popular saying of Philip Yancey’s that goes like this:

There is nothing I can do to make God love me more and there is nothing I can do to make God love me less

Now at a very important level this is wonderfully right. We love God because he first loved us [1 Jn 4:19]. Salvation is purely by grace. We cannot earn God’s approval.

However, Yancey’s epigram can easily give the impression that since ‘there is nothing I can do’ to make him love me more, then there is nothing I need to do full stop. This gets perilously close to Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’ – a sort of individualistic ‘easy believism’ that reduces the Christian life down to a warm sentimental feeling of being loved by God and little else.

The necessity of a transformed ethical life becomes an optional ‘add on’ to faith, not an essential part of it. There is more than enough of this sort of distorted theology around in evangelical and Protestant circles – often seen in a very loose attachment to living out faith within the accountability and demands of a church community for example.

What place to you give to ‘works’ in salvation? At the end of the chapter Bird puts it this way, “While we are not saved by works, we shall not be saved without them.” What’s your response to this?

As Bird makes clear, Paul would have been baffled by this sort of disconnect between faith and ethics. He is not abstract theologian (and there are plenty around!) but a pastor-apostle deeply concerned that the behaviour, attitudes, actions and lifestyles of Christians in his care show that they are living lives worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, both individually and corporately.

The framework for his ethics is eschatological. The future age has arrived with the resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit. Christians are to live life in ‘this present evil age’ [Gal 1:4] empowered by the Spirit. Christians are new creations [Gal 6:5; 1 Cor. 7:19; Col 3:11]; they are now ‘in Christ’, they are continually to ‘put on’ the ‘new man’ [Col. 3:9-10; Eph 4:22-24].

He doesn’t say so, but Bird sides here with Gordon Fee that, although hugely popular in Christian piety, it is a mistake to think of Christians as having two internal natures, ‘spiritual and carnal’ which ‘fight like dogs’. This sort of pessimistic thinking also tends to treat the ‘two natures’ as nearly equal and therefore has a pretty limited expectation of spiritual progress – but that’s a post for another day. Bird rightly says that Christians have one nature – the new creation. The process of spiritual transformation is more about ‘be what we are, be what we are becoming and be what we will be on the final day of Christ Jesus’.

This ‘be what you are’ theology makes sense of the many Pauline imperatives. Paul is no legalist. He exhorts his listeners to changed behaviour, not to earn merit, but because of their identity in Christ. Imperatives follow indicatives. There are tons of examples. One is 1 Cor. 6:19-20,

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.”

Ethics flow from identity as God’s people. As Bird puts it

‘The charge to produce good works and seeds of righteousness cannot be separated from the continuing and sustained relationship the Christian has with God.”

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