What is ethics?

Ethics is the study of human action and what constitutes a given action as right or wrong.


What is Christian ethics?

This is the same as above but with the assumption that the Bible is divine revelation and therefore our infallible source for making moral judgments.


Why is ethics limited to the study of human action?

Because only human action involves a choice freely made and only such actions can be moral (or immoral). The action of animals also involves a choice but not a choice freely made since animals are driven by instinct.


What is a choice freely made?

This means that the person who made the choice was free in his choosing and not coerced or compelled in any way. Locke writes: “so far as a man has power to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind, so far is a man free.”


How might the freedom of a given choice be compromised?

The freedom of an act is compromised when the person is ignorant or under the influence of some passion, pain, or force.

Ignorance: A person chooses to drive his car in a construction zone but does not know that it is a construction zone. His choice to drive in this restricted area is less free because he did not make the choice with all the information necessary to make this choice.

Passion: Schaff tells the story of Luther who on his return from a visit to his parents was overtaken by a thunderstorm and was nearly struck with lightning. In his terror, he promised to become a monk.  Clearly, Luther’s choice was less free as a result of his close brush with death.

Pain: We do not take a person seriously who begs us to end his life when we understand that he was just in a car accident and is suffering intense pain.

Force: The choice to hand someone else your cash is not freely made when the same person has a gun to your head.


What is the difference between saying humans have a free will and saying that humans are free agents?

This is a rather speculative question involving the different functions of the human soul. Nearly all Christians recognize that a person needs to be free in order to be moral. The question is whether a person’s will is free or whether the person or agent as a whole is free.

  • Some argue that the intellect is the faculty by which we consider and weigh different choices. Once this process of assessing the different options is complete, then the intellect or reason presents to the will the choice it finds most acceptable. Then, we make the choice. In this understanding, our will is not free because it is determined by the intellect. The person or the agent is free because they chose what they wanted. The will is not free because its choice was in accordance with the judgment of the intellect. That is to say, the will was determined or moved to act by motives given to it by the intellect.
  • Others have said that the will has the power of contrary choice; i.e. it can choose contrary to the highest motive presented to it by the intellect. Some called this the liberty of indifference. Today, people who defend this are called libertarian (not to be confused with libertarianism as a political philosophy).

Edwards argues exhaustively against the power of contrary choice in his book on the will; see here. Before him, Locke too thought it absurd to say that a person’s will was free (§14):

If this be so (as I imagine it is), I leave it to be considered, whether it may not help to put an end to that long agitated, and, I think, unreasonable, because unintelligible question, viz. whether man’s will be free or no? For if I mistake not, it follows from what I have said, that the question itself is altogether improper; and it is as insignificant to ask whether man’s will be free, as to ask whether his sleep be swift, or his virtue square: liberty being as little applicable to the will, as swiftness of motion is to sleep, or squareness to virtue. Every one would laugh at the absurdity of such a question as either of these; because it is obvious that the modifications of motion belong not to sleep, nor the difference of figure to virtue; and when any one well considers it, I think he will as plainly perceive that liberty, which is but a power, belongs only to agents, and cannot be an attribute or modification of the will, which is also but a power.


Did others defend the idea of the power of contrary choice?

Arminians, open theists, and others object to this and argue that no person is free unless his will can choose contrary to the highest motive presented to it. The Arminian Confession of 1621 reads:

Concerning disobedience or sin, in the first place, although He has greatest hatred for it yet He knowingly and willingly permits it, but not with such permission, that being granted, disobedience cannot but follow. For thus disobedience would as necessarily follow from God’s permission as an effect from its cause and God would be altogether the author of sin. Indeed sin would no longer be considered sin, much less worthy of eternal punishment. But being granted, man may become actually disobedient (yet not unpunished) if He indeed so wills. For true permission requires not just that the power of the will be free in itself, but also that the use of the power be free with the power of contrary choice, or that it remain immune to all necessity, internal as well as external.

Note the last sentence insists that a person’s will be unconstrained both internally as well as externally, or God is the author of sin. Edwards argued that a person was still free even when his will was determined by the intellect.


Why do Calvinists object to this idea of free will?

First, because it makes a person’s choice to do this or that completely causeless. The motives and forces which drive human behavior are dismissed as a violation of freedom. Why did a person choose A instead of B? How does a person answer this question if the will can choose contrary to all the motives presented to it? Indeed, this idea seems to strike at the very principle of cause and effect.

Second, because Scripture clearly teaches that the a person’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; He guides it wherever He pleases. (Proverbs 21:1) Yet, God still holds persons responsible for their actions. Whether we can see it or not, these two realities must be compatible. God sovereignly determines all things and humans are responsible for the choices they make.

Third, what is moral responsibility? We say that if a person’s choice was motivated by pain or terror or compulsion, his guilt is correspondingly reduced. If his motive was his own desire for revenge or for gain, then his guilt is all the greater. But what could we say about someone’s guilt if his choice had no motive whatsoever? How could a judge even discern this? and what would it mean to say that a person made a choice that was determined by nothing?


What are the factors which make a given choice moral or immoral?

There are three:

  1. what is chosen;
  2. why it was chosen or the motive behind the choice; and
  3. the circumstances surrounding the choice.


Explain the first.

This is the most obvious mark of a moral action. It must be an action which is in accord with the law of God. For example, to


Explain the second.

This is the motive which moved the person to make this choice. The motive pertains to the human heart.



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