When discussing morality and ethics, atheists are wont to say that they are actually more moral than theists because they do what is right because it is right, not out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. While I will grant that higher morality transcends personal interest, I take exception with anyone, atheist or Christian, who depicts Christian morality in terms of rules enforced through threat or bribe.
The New Testament presents but one rule to govern the lives of Christ’s constituents. The various biblical writers express it in different ways. Here is my favorite expression of the one rule:
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16 NIV)
The problem with the “right for the sake of right” ethical formula is that it requires every adherent to be “right.” Sadly, we’re not all right. Many of us are very broken. Sitting here right now I can’t think of anyone who has done wrong because it is wrong. That being the case, how on earth could we ever expect that humans would ever on a large scale do what is right because it is right?
Since we can’t count on others to do right, we’ll need to limit human behaviors through laws enforced by duly appointed officials. Which means that people will do right because they fear punishment. On an interpersonal level, we’ll need social norms and societal approval or censure to bring people into conformity. In other words, humans will do what is acceptable in order to be accepted and not rejected – in order to gain reward or avoid punishment.
Who can deny that these forces inhibit genuine individual liberty? Given this complex set of incentives, who can claim high morality? I submit that only genuine Christians are truly free and therefore truly moral. They have been remade in the image of God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ ,doing and being have become one. We have become whole. Our behavior is driven by our inner life. When human laws or expectation coincide with right we transcend those motives. When they conflict, we defy them. Followers of Christ observe the one rule, “the new creation.”