Sunday, February 26, 2017

Principles of Conduct - Introductory Questions: All We Need is Love?

The Beatles said "all you need is love." Could they be right?

I mean, given the high praise assigned to love in the Scriptures, such a suggestion isn't so far fetched. Before we get ourselves all concerned about various ethical issues, rules of conduct, principles, laws and behavior, maybe we could save ourselves a lot of time by just saying what Paul says in Colossians, "Most of all, let love guide your life [Col. 3:14]."

Could Murray's whole 265 page book be tossed aside and substituted with 5 little words: Love is all you need?

John Murray was a good teacher.  And the greatest teachers, in my opinion, have always been the ones who anticipate the objections raised in the minds of their students, and address them. Jesus often did this.  The apostle Paul did this. Great preaching, I believe, will always do this to some extent. Politicians, on the other hand, almost never do this. One of the most disappointing experiences I have had as a reader is when I read a book and the author seems unwilling to address the most obvious objections to his/her position.  Sorry.  I'm on a soap box.  Returning to earth now.

So, as I said, Murray deals with the idea that a renewed heart is really all we need. It is as if he imagines a student raising his hand and saying that a true believer has "an intuitive sense of what is right and good [p. 19]." Case closed.  Class dismissed. Everyone gets an "A" just by writing "LOVE" across the pages of every ethical exam planned for the semester. 

Now, that  might sound a little silly.  But, he argues that we may not easily dismiss this suggestion, for it has, as he puts it, "an important stratum of truth [p. 20]." And he then goes on to show the force and strength of this line of thinking, quoting from various Scriptures about how the law is "written on the heart" and how "love is the fulfilling of the law." He approaches this subject as one who has thought it through deeply, and suggests that we are here approaching the very "cardinal issues of the biblical ethic [p. 22]"

In other words - Murray begins by taking time to put an opposing perspective in the best possible light, giving it the strongest possible arguments, and making it appear very plausible and logical.

Then he begins to gently, carefully and thoughtfully dismantle it.

At this point he demands his readers put on their thinking caps. He seems to almost apologize for what he calls a "rather extended discussion [p. 22]." He is going to take us through 6 steps and each one follows necessarily and logically on the other. The following is my abbreviated version of each step.

1. First, he affirms that love is, in fact, the fulfilling of the law. He shows that this means that apart from love, no fulfilling of the law is of any value. There must be love in the heart that drives the obedience. Without it, law-keeping is hypocrisy at best. He affirms that "from start to finish it is love that fulfills the law [p. 23]."  Love, he says, is both "feeling" and "action." It constrains and compels. A "love" that does not find its fulfillment in law-keeping is not the sort of love spoken of in Scripture.

2. Love, he point out however, is itself a command. "We are commanded to love God and our neighbor [p.23]." Murray points out that we must beware the view of love that sees it as automatic or merely emotional. He says "We must resist the perverse conception of the nature of love that we cannot be commanded to love, that love must be spontaneous and cannot be evoked by demand [p. 23]." Here Murray argues that if we suggest Christianity now has "no commandments" and only "love" that we miss the very fact that love, itself, is a command.  

3. Next, Murray shows that a careful look at Scripture teaches us that "law" and "love" are not interchangeable words. The Bible doesn't say that "love" IS the law. Love, rather, fulfills the law. Love moves the person to keep the law. He says "we may not speak of the law of love if we mean that love is itself the law." Love is not the law.  Love keeps the law, fulfills the law, embraces the law. 

4. Then, Murray looks at Scripture and shows that love has never been a sort of "autonomous" principle that worked apart from any law or commandments. He makes a strong point when he says "Even man in his innocence was not permitted to carve for himself the path of life; it was charted for him from the outset [p. 24]." If ever there was a time in human history where we could imagine that the only law was "love" it would have been in Eden.  But we actually see that God gave Adam and Eve precepts and commands in Eden.

5. In fact, Murray shows, the idea of love working in an autonomous fashion would create all sorts of problems. What actions would this love take? What would love do? Would everyone's concept of love be considered equally valid? Throughout the history of God's dealing with His people, love was never expected to be a law to itself. Rather, Murray says that this love "has always existed and been operative in the context of revelation from God respecting His will [p.25]."

6. Finally, Murray argues that the meaning of the "law written upon the heart" is that a principle of love for God's law, and a desire to keep it from the heart, occurs within the redeemed. It is not that the demands of the law are suddenly inscribed on the heart, but the heart is changed to want to do the will of God. 

Thus Murray brings this part of his introduction to a close. He suggests it is inconceivable that mankind in his original sinless state would need specific commands for behavior (which we know Adam and Eve were given), but that now we only need a general inclination to "love." 

In typical John Murray fashion he makes his view of the matter crystal clear.  He says that the "notion...that love is its own a fantasy which has no warrant from Scripture and runs counter to the witness of the biblical teaching [p. 26]."

With all due respect to John Lennon, I guess it isn't quite true that all we need is love.  


What Murray is arguing for in this part of the book is something I believe we all recognize, but don't equally apply in the spiritual realm as we do in the natural realm. 

For example, if a husband says he "loves" his wife, but never tells her so, never does the things that please her, in fact is most often mean, selfish and cruel, then we all recognize there is something defective with his love.  If an employee says that they "love" their job, but actually are very careless in how they work, sloppy, moody, show up late, and are rude to customers...we again perceive a somewhat inadequate type of love going on. A physician may say she loves her patients, but if she does nothing to study medicine and stay current on treating disease, her love is at best a lazy shortcut for the type of love that could heal the sick.

Do I love God?  Then I'll do what He wants, as expressed by Him in His Word. I'll seek to understand the Bible and the patterns of behavior He approves of. We will, as Paul said to the Corinthians, "...make it our aim to please Him (2 Cor. 5:9)." 

What type of behavior pleases God? That is the subject of Christian ethics.  That is the content of this book, Principles of Conduct. Murray is going to begin to unpack this in the chapters ahead. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Principles of Conduct - Introductory Questions: What about Polygamy and Divorce?

I am still working through the first chapter of Murray's work entitled Principles of Conduct. The first chapter is entitled "Introductory Questions" and he appears to be managing some potential objections or problems prior to diving into his main subject.

On pages 14-19 he tackles a tough question. 

Here is the issue: Does the Bible really have ONE ethical standard for mankind from beginning to end? Is there not, possibly, one ethic that was expected for Old Testament believers and a different ethic for New Testament believers?

In answering this question he addresses the apparent inconsistency between the Testaments on the subjects of polygamy and divorce

I appreciate Murray's willingness to not step around a hard issue.  He goes right at it.  

Polygamy and Divorce

He says "Monogamy is surely a principle of the Christian ethic.  Old Testament saints practiced polygamy." [p. 14]

He says even more bluntly "polygamy and divorce were practiced without overt the Old Testament period." [p. 14]

He says "The polygamy and divorce with which we are now concerned would meet with the severest reproof and condemnation in the New Testament; but in the Old Testament there appears to be no overt pronouncement of condemnation and no infliction of disciplinary judgment." [p. 15]

In answering this problem, Murray turns to the New Testament text in which Jesus, when speaking on the subject of divorce, tells the Pharisees that "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so [Matt 19:8]."

Murray extracts from this text a principle, which he also applies to polygamy, that God may "permit" or "tolerate" certain behaviors which He does not necessarily "legitimate." 

To put it in Murray's own words "Men were permitted to take more wives than one, but from the beginning it was not so. Sufferance there indeed was, but no legitimation or sanction of the practice [p. 17]."

Murray admits this is not a comfortable or easy conclusion. It is hard to wrap our minds around the fact that God deals very severely in both Testaments with many sins, many which we might view as "small" matters, but when it comes to this big issue of polygamy and divorce, there appears to be a strange permissiveness.

Again, Murray addresses this and says simply "It is not ours to resolve all difficulties in our understanding of God's ways with men. It is not ours to understand some of the patent facts of God's providence."

Murray also reminds his readers that believers under the Old Testament did not have all the privileges which we enjoy in the New Testament era, particularly the fuller and complete revelation of the Bible and the extent of the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit. 

Murray concludes this section of this chapter by pointing out that the issues of polygamy and divorce do not, therefore, suggest a fundamental difference in ethics between the two testaments. Rather, "the underlying premiss is that there is a basic agreement between the Old Testament and the New on the norms or standards of behavior..." [p. 19].


This section made me wonder about what sorts of cultural sins might be going on among the people of God today which the Lord is "tolerating" but not "legitimizing." While we do have the privilege of a completed Bible, we are nevertheless still suffering from various degrees of "hardness" of heart. We are not fully sanctified. And we live in a culture that must make many practices appear "normal" which God Himself would not approve of. 

Our study of Biblical ethics may actually discover some of these areas, and suggest that our lives need to change. Will we be prepared to do so? Will we change the way we live to match the standards set in Scripture, or will we argue that "everyone else" (including most Christians) are doing it must be okay? 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Principles of Conduct by John Murray - Introductory Questions: What is Ethics?

Chapter 1 of Murray's book Principles of Conduct is entitled "Introductory Questions."

There is always a temptation in reading books like this to jump ahead to the "issues" he will tackle in later chapters. But in a book like this one, if we miss the introduction, we may miss some important pieces of the foundation of biblical ethics. 

This chapter requires the reader to pay attention. It could probably be improved with some formatting so as to break it up into several organized chunks. The actual "introductory questions" flow with only the smallest break in the text to show he is moving on to a new question. For the sake of this blog, I'm going to tackle each of the questions as an individual post.


The first question he deals with is "What is ethics?" Alongside this question is a second one: What is biblical ethics? Or, to put it another way, "What is the study of biblical ethics?"

Murray examines the Greek words used in the New Testament for "ethics" or words similar to that. He shows that, at the root, ethics is concerned with a "way of life" or "manner of life" or "conduct" or "behavior." 

That said, he makes several qualifying statements to be sure we are clear about what is meant by ethics and the study of biblical ethics. For example, he says that:

1) Biblical ethics is about more than outward behavior. Rather, "biblical ethics has paramount concern with the heart out of which are the issues of life [p.13]." In other words, ethical behavior, according to the standard of God's Word, is not only a matter of what we DO, but WHY we do it. 

2) Biblical ethics is not simply concerned with isolated actions of individuals, but the relationship of all those actions together. I guess I would compare this to keys on a piano. Each key may be in tune. But ethics is concerned about how all those keys work together to play a song.

3) Biblical ethics also looks at the relationship of individuals to society itself. Murray calls it "individuals in their corporate relationships." Again, I would now compare this to a piano playing as part of an orchestra.

4) Finally, he reminds us that biblical ethics cannot simply be about the sum total of behaviors in society, because individuals are imperfect.  He says "we find inconsistency and contradiction in the holiest of men in the most sanctified society."

Having gone through these qualifications, an examination of the words themselves, and several references to Scriptures in which the relevant words are used, Murray concludes with this definition:

"The biblical ethic is that manner of life which is consonant with, and demanded by, the biblical revelation."

Here, then, is his starting point for this book. The "ethics" he has in mind is not what people actually DO per se, but what we OUGHT to do. He is looking not at behavior (which is faulty) but "standards of behavior which are enunciated in the Bible for the creation, direction, and regulation of thought, life, and behavior consonant with the will of God [p. 14]."

Personal Application: We live in a society that places much value on the concept of a "role model." We talk about public figures as being good or bad role models. We talk about parents as role models. We talk about being a good role model for others. But if people are faulty (and we know that we are) then the practice of continually comparing ourselves to others, over generations, will likely take us further and further from the real pattern we should be following, which is the Word of God. 

I suggest that one of the greatest dangers among Christians is that we look merely to the patterns of behavior established by our most popular public figures (pastors, authors, conference speakers). They may be good men and women. They may have much knowledge, many degrees, significant accomplishments and a seemingly spotless public record. But they (like us) are flawed. And we don't necessarily know in what areas of life they are most unlike the original pattern found in God's Word. 

Murray's definition of ethics reminds me that I'm not to draw my sense of "ethics" by comparing myself to others, but by comparing myself to Scripture. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Principles of Conduct by John Murray - The Preface

Does the Bible have a different ethic for humanity in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament? Was there a different ethic at work in the Garden of Eden before sin entered our world? Has the Lord modified and adjusted His ethical demands over the years so that what was good and proper in one era might no longer be good now?

The question we are asking is fundamentally this:  Have the rules changed over time? And, if so, might we rightly conclude that the rules are continuing to change.  Maybe the ethic with which we were brought up isn't in operation now. Could it be maintained that something was evil for one generation, but could be good for another generation? 

Though the specific questions above are not asked in Murray's preface, it is clear that this is what he is trying to address. He puts his cards on the table in his opening words:  "One of the main purposes of the lectures and of this volume is to seek to show the basic unity and continuity of the biblical ethic [p. 7]."  Unity and continuity. In other words, fundamentally the same throughout history.

He explains that, while the Bible unfolds God's revelation in an historical, linear fashion; that does not mean that the underlying ethic is changing or developing. He argues for, what he calls, "the organic unity and continuity of divine revelation [p. 7]."

A case in point are the 10 commandments. He calls them the "core of the biblical ethic." But he points out that these commandments did not pop into existence at Sinai with Moses.  Rather, they were "relevant from the beginning." And as such, "do not cease to have relevance" today. 

For some this may be considered a radical thought. The concept that the 10 commandments have any relevance today is not frequently taught in our churches. Murray will deal with this throughout the volume, but especially later in the book in a chapter about The Law and the Gospel.

Murray also points out the fact that in studying the ethics of the Bible, we are not talking about studying how people lived in response to God's declared ethic.  The Bible does expose us to much history and biography. But we are not specifically concerned with the individual responses to God's revelation, but rather with the revelation itself. He says "we must not gauge the content or intent of revelation by the measure of the response given by men [p. 8]."

I would point out that this fact is one that skeptics of the Bible often miss. They allude to various behaviors of the characters of the Bible and thus argue that God is not good. But they are missing the point. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for the inspiration of Scripture is that the Bible does not seek to cover up the unethical behavior of its heroes. Rather, their failings prove the pronouncements of God's Word that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

Finally, in his preface, Murray addressed what some have called the "mythological character" of the opening chapters of Genesis (the creation story). Liberal scholars have asserted that Genesis 2-3 do not tell us true history. They say it is allegory, or myth, or just illustration - but not to be believed as a true historical account. Murray makes it clear that this perspective "the present writer does not believe." 

In fact, Murray states boldly that "it is the conviction of the present writer that a mythological interpretation is not compatible with the total perspective which the biblical witness furnishes. To state the case positively, the concreteness of Genesis 2 and 3, as historically interpreted, is thoroughly consonant with the concreteness which characterizes the subsequent history of Old Testament revelation." 

In other words, Murray believes in a literal "Garden of Eden."  He believes in a historical man and woman named "Adam" and "Eve." He believes the information they were given in the garden to be true. If we throw out Genesis 2 and 3 as historical, then we may equally dismiss the rest of Bible history as allegory, story or fiction as well. 

This conviction is one upon which Murray will build in the following chapter.  He believes, and I think he is right, that within the Creation account we can discover certain "Creation Ordinances" which God revealed right at the beginning about how man is to live in this world. The whole question of how we ought to live can be traced back to the Creation account. 

Thus Murray lays the groundwork for his study. Those who wish to argue with some of his positions on ethics in subsequent chapters will need to start here. He is following a logical line of thought. He tells us where he is starting. 

This is a refreshing change from the "meme" argument culture we live in.  By that I mean that we think by posting a random quote, opinion or idea...that we are arguing for our cause.  I would suggest this is a mistake. This is nothing but short-cut philosophy, an easy escape from real thinking and merely a way to avoid the hard work of intelligent discussion.  

Henry Ford once said that "thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it."

Ethics requires thinking. And Murray seems prepared at the outset to help us do this work. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Principles of Conduct - by John Murray: A Study

You've heard it.  You've probably said it.

"That's SO wrong!"

"What is the matter with people these days?"

"My life is so messed up!"

"Our world has gone crazy."

Sometimes the world we live in feels like a broken machine.

But what if the problem ISN'T SIMPLY the world we live in.  What if...just maybe...we are doing this thing called "life" wrong. What if the very things we are doing, the choices we are making, the priorities we have embraced and the values we accept are, in fact, the main problem with our lives? What if we are living wrong?

That is a question worth asking, and it is a question that Professor John Murray is essentially asking in his classic treatment of the subject of ethics in Principles of Conduct.

I have decided to take up this book again and work through it.  I say "work" through it because it is not an easy read.  I agree with the assessment of one of the reviewers of this book who called it "Not a light book, not an easy book, it is an important book."

That being said, the Southern Presbyterian Journal called it " of the most outstanding contributions in the field of Christian ethics that we have come across in a long time."

Professor John Murray (1898 - 1975) was a native of Scotland, studied theology under men such as J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos at Princeton, and taught at Westminster Theological Seminary for over 30 years.

Principles of Conduct began as a series of 5 lectures given at Fuller Theological Seminary in California in 1955.  It was first published in 1957.  I believe it is still in print and can be bought on Amazon.

What I appreciate most about Murray's style in this book is that he is not afraid to tackle the tough questions about the ethics of the Bible. He does not gloss over textual difficulties. He is rigorous in his commitment to a consistent Biblical Ethic.

He goes where many modern preachers are not willing to go because such a deliberate statement of Biblical truth would step on the toes of too many churchgoers today.

Topics he addresses include:

  • Marriage
  • Labor
  • The Sanctity of Life
  • Truth
  • And several more

My plan is to take each section and chapter and think through them again. As Murray brings us back to a Biblical ethic, it will demand that I look at my life afresh. Rather than blaming others or circumstances for my problems, maybe (just maybe) it is the way I have been living. These thoughts, therefore, are mostly for the good of my own soul. I'm happy, however, for others to come along for the ride.

The book is 265 pages long and divided into a preface, 10 chapters and 5 appendices. Some chapters are longer, and will probably require multiple blog posts to cover them.

When I look at what is going on around us in our culture. When I hear what people are saying about their lives and about "life" in general. When I observe the methods being used to communicate political and moral ideas. All these things tell me we NEED to hear what this book has to say.

Christians need to hear what this book says. I'm convinced that churches, in general, are not teaching the fundamentals of living found in this work.  Or if they are teaching them...they are not being heeded. If nothing else, I believe I need to hear them again myself.