Does preaching on ethical issues have a place in the pulpit? We know the dangers involved. Discourses on morality can displace the word of the cross. Preachers can address topics of ethics in such a way that fuels the self-righteousness of some in the pews but fails to connect with those who need to hear the convicting word of God’s Law but are not present where it is preached. Preaching then serves to confirm the divide between “them” and “us.” Preachers may see the pulpit as the battlefield to prove they are loyal troopers in the culture wars. Preachers in the tradition of Protestant liberalism urge their flocks to embrace issues of global peace, ecology, and social justice while conservative preachers take up the cause of the sanctity of marriage, the distinctiveness of gender, and the protection of the life of the unborn. Whether liberal or conservative, the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ takes a back seat to other issues one considers more pressing and more relevant.
We know the risks. Preachers also know they are under orders to preach the whole counsel of God, rightly distinguishing God’s Law from His promises. The question, then, is not whether or not we will preach on ethics but how we will do so. Oswald Bayer is imminently helpful in this regard. In an article entitled “The Ethics of Gift,” Bayer takes as his point of departure 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What have you that you did not receive?” (Revised Standard Version, RSV). Instead of Kant’s “categorical imperative,” we have ethics as “categorical gift.” The first question in preaching ethics is not, “What must I do?” but, “What have I been given?”
The Catechism narrates the giving of God. In the First Commandment God gives us Himself. He is the Lord to be feared, loved, and trusted above all things. The remaining commandments demonstrate the given nature of human life lived out before God and the neighbor. Even as they accuse of sin, they demonstrate the boundaries the Creator has put in place to guard and protect the bonds of our humanity: Life, marriage, family, possessions, and speech. The First Article of the Creed confesses the Father’s gifts in body and soul, establishing our duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. The Second Article takes us to the heart of God’s giving, the gift of Him who is both His Son and the child of Mary who has given His life to make us His own. In the Third Article, we extol the gift of forgiveness bestowed daily and richly through the Gospel and not by our own reason or strength.
The certainty of the truth confessed in each of the articles of the Creed enable us to call upon the Father through the Son and in the power of the Spirit with all boldness and confidence as dear children address their dear father. Each of the petitions reflects our beggarly neediness and the generosity of the Father in the good gifts He gives for life in this present world and that of the world to come.
Each of the petitions reflects our beggarly neediness and the generosity of the Father in the good gifts He gives for life in this present world and that of the world to come.
Baptism makes us sons of God through the Spirit’s washing of the water and Word. Absolution takes us back to Baptism declaring ever anew the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ. The Lord’s Supper will not let us forget Christ who was put to death for our sins and raised again for our justification as He comes to us with His body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. The gift of Christ’s body and blood given into our bodies is the pledge and token of the resurrection of our mortal bodies to live with Christ forever.
Appended to the Catechism are the daily prayers and the table of duties. It is in morning and evening and mealtime prayers that we thank and praise God. The table of duties are the places where God is served and obeyed. These appendixes to the six chief parts demonstrate what Bayer called: “The asymmetry of giving and receiving, accepting and passing along” (Bayer, 451).
Ethics begins not with our doing, but with the Triune God’s giving. Bayer asserts:
“God’s acting takes place absolutely unconditionally, apart from merit in this sense, ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo), prior to every created thing. It takes place as a giving which is grounded in itself alone, an absolute categorical giving, which finds nothing in the recipients, but establishes them in the first place. God’s categorical giving, therefore, takes the threefold, radical form of the iustificatio impii, the resurrection mooruorum, and the creatio ex nihilo.”
Strange though it may seem to us at first glance, preaching ethics as gift might best begin with the words from the committal service: “May God the Father, who created this body; may God the Son (+), who by His blood redeemed this body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh.” The words of the liturgy confess how the body is the gift of the Triune God. The life lived in the body is a life of receiving and giving. Ethics is not disembodied but has to do with bodily life in the world. Ethics are not abstracted from the body and its place in nature and history.
The life lived in the body is a life of receiving and giving. Ethics is not disembodied but has to do with bodily life in the world.
So, what have we received? Luther answers this question near the end of his exposition of the Creed in the Large Catechism:
“For in all three articles God Himself has revealed and opened up to us the most profound depths of His fatherly heart and His pure, unutterable love. For this very purpose He created us that He might redeem us and make us holy. And, moreover, having granted and bestowed upon us everything in Heaven and on Earth, He has also given us His Son and His Holy Spirit, through whom He brings us to Himself.” (LC 1:65, K-W, 439).
Having received all of His gifts in creation, redemption, and sanctification, we now view ethics not merely as a question of what should I do but rather, in view of what the Triune God has given, how should I answer Him in faith and love? The threefold giving of God takes us back to the Ten Commandments:
“[The] Ten Commandments do not succeed in making us Christians, for God’s wrath and displeasure still remain upon us because we cannot fulfil what God demands of us. But the Creed brings pure grace and makes us righteous and acceptable to God. Through this knowledge we come to love and delight in all the commandments of God because here we see how God gives Himself completely to us, with all His gifts and power, to help us keep the Ten Commandments. The Father gives us all creation, Christ all His works, the Holy Spirit all His gifts” (LC I:68-69, K-W, 440).
In this way, as Bayer notes, “The passivity of receiving the gift does not exclude a certain form of activity, but instead empowers and liberates us to that activity.”
The ethics of gift guards us against the fanaticism of self-chosen works which can take shape in ether legalism or libertarianism. We neither look to our ethics as a means of our justification, nor as something that is of no concern because the Christian is living by grace and not works. Instead, the ethics of gift will provide a framework for the preacher as he manages the full range of moral issues from the beginning of life to the end of life, and everything in between. The starting point is not, “What must I do?” but, “What has God given me and how do His gifts shape the answer of those who have received His sacrificial mercy” (Romans 12:1-2)?