A Package Deal: The Ethics and Teachings of Jesus

We must never put asunder what Scripture joins together:

The progressive Christians of today, like the theological liberals of old, seek to convince us that we can simply take the nice moral statements of Jesus (‘love one another’ and so on) and divorce them from any doctrinal or theological claims that he made. But as has so often been pointed out, this is clearly a lost cause: it simply cannot be done.

A few days ago I spoke about “the error of the older theological liberals.” I went on to say this:

These folks were quite keen on the ethics of Jesus while denying or downplaying the teachings of Jesus. But that effort was always doomed to failure. The truth is, the moral beliefs and values of Jesus are inextricably tied in with his specific teachings. Much can be said about the dangers and delusions of theological liberalism. One of the biggest tricks in their playbook is to try to separate the ethics of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus. We find this happening all the time. It is a sure sign that you are dealing with theological liberals when you come across this. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/04/02/atheism-civil-religion-and-the-fate-of-the-west/

And six years ago I said more of the same:

They are quite happy to run with the ethics of Jesus. So they readily latch on to things like “turn the other cheek” and “love one another”. These sorts of passages nicely dovetail into their political liberalism as well. Thus if they are pushing things like pacifism, they can happily claim that these texts are the essence of the message of Jesus.


But they want nothing to do with all of his hardcore teachings, since they do NOT fit into their liberal agenda. Passages like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” and “You are of your father the devil” just do not cut it for the liberals. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/13/the-oldest-liberal-theology-trick-in-the-book/

Plenty of great Christian thinkers of the past few centuries have also taken to task the bogus claims of the theological liberals. Perhaps one of the more well-known statements on this is found in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. He wrote:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Many others can also be mentioned. Consider some words from Martyn Lloyd-Jones given back in April of 1960:

Everybody today is aware of the moral problem, and they are trying to deal with it along various lines: acts of Parliament, prison reform, psychiatric treatment in the prisons, and the various other expedients which are advocated. But they do not seem to be very successful, do they? Why not? For the reason that you cannot have morality without godliness. The tragedy of the last hundred years has been due to the fallacy of imagining that you could shed Christian doctrine but hold on to Christian ethics. That has been the controlling notion. But it cannot be done. There is one verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 1, verse 18, which should have put us right on this once and for ever: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.’ You notice the order — ungodliness first, unrighteousness second. If you do not have a godly people, you will never have a righteous people. You cannot have righteousness without godliness.

More recently John Piper could put it this way:

Ethics has to flow out of a true view of God, and to reject Jesus Christ is to have an absolutely flawed view of God. Therefore the ethic that flows from it as morality is going to be flawed. Even if some of the behavior is the same, the point of ethics is not merely the kernel or the shell of the behavior, but the inner convictions of the mind, the disposition of the heart, and the goal of what we’re displaying. And if Jesus Christ is omitted from that, I don’t think we have Christian ethics or morality. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/is-it-possible-to-not-worship-jesus-and-still-be-moral

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Christianity and Liberalism by Machen, J. Gresham (Author) Amazon logo

J. Gresham Machen

But perhaps one of the best and most cogent refutations of theological liberalism in general, and their views on the ethics of Jesus in particular, comes from the classic 1923 volume Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. Those who wish to learn more about him can find it in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/28/notable-christians-j-gresham-machen/

Some quotes from his second chapter of this book, “Doctrine,” are worth presenting here:

But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine. Certainly with regard to Paul himself there should be no debate: Paul certainly was not indifferent to doctrine; on the contrary, doctrine was the very basis of his life. p. 21

He continues:

A great religion derived its power from the message of the redeeming work of Christ; without that message Jesus and His disciples would soon have been forgotten….


It is not true that in basing Christianity upon an event the disciples of Jesus were departing from the teaching of their Master. For certainly Jesus Himself did the same thing. Jesus did not content Himself with enunciating general principles of religion and ethics; the picture of Jesus as a sage similar to Confucius, uttering wise maxims about conduct, may satisfy Mr. H. G. Wells, as he trips along lightly over the problems of history, but it disappears so soon as one engages seriously in historical research. “Repent,” said Jesus, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The gospel which Jesus proclaimed in Galilee consisted in the proclamation of a coming Kingdom. . . . [N]either He nor the primitive Church enunciated merely general and permanent principles of religion; both of them, on the contrary, made the message depend upon something that happened. . . . Jesus was certainly not a mere enunciator of permanent truths, like the modern liberal preacher; on the contrary He was conscious of standing at the turning-point of the ages, when what had never been was now to come to be. pp. 30-32

And again:

What we are now concerned to observe is that Jesus certainly did not content Himself with the enunciation of permanent moral principles; He certainly did announce an approaching event; and He certainly did not announce the event without giving some account of its meaning. But when He gave an account of the meaning of the event, no matter how brief that account may have been, He was overstepping the line that separates an undogmatic religion, or even a dogmatic religion that teaches only eternal principles, from one that is rooted in the significance of definite historical facts; He was placing a great gulf between Himself and the philosophic modern liberalism which today incorrectly bears His name.


In another way also the teaching of Jesus was rooted in doctrine. It was rooted in doctrine because it depended upon a stupendous presentation of Jesus’ own Person. The assertion is often made, indeed, that Jesus kept His own Person out of His gospel, and came forward merely as the supreme prophet of God. That assertion lies at the very root of the modern liberal conception of the life of Christ. But common as it is, it is radically false. pp. 32-33

Finally, consider the Sermon on the Mount. Many would take it to be the summum bonum of the moral teachings of Jesus. But as Machen points out, his teachings there are also fully suffused with his theological claims:

And when the gospel account of Jesus is considered closely, it is found to involve the Messianic consciousness throughout. Even those parts of the Gospels which have been regarded as most purely ethical are found to be based altogether upon Jesus’ lofty claims. The Sermon on the Mount is a striking example. It is the fashion now to place the Sermon on the Mount in contrast with the rest of the New Testament. ‘We will have nothing to do with theology,’ men say in effect, ‘we will have nothing to do with miracles, with atonement, or with heaven or with hell. For us the Golden Rule is a sufficient guide of life; in the simple principles of the Sermon on the Mount we discover a solution of all the problems of society.’ It is indeed rather strange that men can speak in this way. Certainly it is rather derogatory to Jesus to assert that never except in one brief part of His recorded words did He say anything that is worth while. But even in the Sermon on the Mount there is far more than some men suppose. Men say that it contains no theology; in reality it contains theology of the most stupendous kind. In particular, it contains the loftiest possible presentation of Jesus’ own Person. pp. 35-36

And as I said in my piece from the other day: “We certainly are unable to come even close to the demanding moral imperatives of something like the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). Only the person who has gained new life in Christ and received the indwelling Holy Spirit can begin to start living out what is found on those lofty moral mountain peaks.”

Machen says the same:

So it is with the whole of the discourse. The new law of the Sermon on the Mount, in itself, can only produce despair.


Strange indeed is the complacency with which modern men can say that the Golden Rule and the high ethical principles of Jesus are all that they need. In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be, we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and how shall we attain to that righteousness of the heart which Jesus demands? The Sermon on the Mount, rightly interpreted, then, makes man a seeker after some divine means of salvation by which entrance into the Kingdom can be obtained. Even Moses was too high for us; but before this higher law of Jesus who shall stand without being condemned? The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the Cross. p. 38

More can be gleaned from this important volume, but hopefully by now you get the point. The ethics of Jesus make no sense apart from the rest of his teachings. Indeed, we cannot even hope to live up to his moral injunctions without first believing and receiving what he said about himself and why he came to planet earth.

[2003 words]

One Reply to “A Package Deal: The Ethics and Teachings of Jesus”

  1. Yes Jesus was absolutely clear at the end of John 5 that the Pharisees failed because they did not believe Moses’ teaching and He also made it clear that to believe Him, Jesus, they needed to believe Moses. Not that Gentiles were ever under Mosaic law but the law does explain God’s morality, such as why He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah hundreds of years prior to the law being given plus Moses was just one of the prophets we are meant to learn from. As Paul said, the (Mosaic) law was a teacher.

    It is absurd to suggest that the OT prophecies about the end times were not meant to be used in the end times. For example, being overcome by spiritual Babylon in the end times means we should understand Israel’s defeat by the original Babylon; which was a multi-god worshipping, syncretist, worldly, corrupt and decadent society set to fail and be overthrown. Very much like what we now see.

    Jesus’ teaching clarified OT teaching but was never meant to replace anything. God’s teaching is a foundation and Jesus’ work was to return the lost sheep to that foundation, not to create a replacement foundation. There can only ever be one foundation.

    One of the big tricks these days is to “explain” how the Bible, including the Apostle Paul’s writing, were supposedly influenced by the culture at the time, completely ignoring, of course, that God never changes and that Christian teaching is described as a rock on which you build your life and that God is immoveable plus that God’s teaching had already influenced the Jewish culture anyway etc., etc., and then they use this to explain why it us supposedly right to now be influenced by modern culture, in complete contravention of what scripture says.

    So, for example, if the NT teaches that the husband should be the head of the household or the leader in the church, that was just the culture at the time. Talk about missing the point and basing your thinking on absurdities. God may as well have not bothered trying to teach. In fact, understanding authority is shown to be fundamental to faith.

    The way of the world was never God’s way. To think like that shows a complete lack of understanding of the spiritual battle we are in. You would have to wonder how people have been tricked into thinking like this but I guess, in some ways, the answer to that is clear.

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