Are There Absolutes? Yes, One!
by Pastor George Van Alstine
In last week’s Messenger article, I thrashed about in some ethical deep water, trying to decide whether issues of right and wrong are absolute or relative. I ended with this quote from Jesus:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law . . . I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. . . Not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
The key to understanding what Jesus was saying is found in the word “fulfill.” Jesus was not just committing himself to keeping the law’s requirements; he was promising that his teachings and example would express the heart of the law, the purpose behind all the law’s technical do’s and don’ts. A person who follows him will fulfill the law in a more profound sense than could be attained by the rigorous, 100% obedience to all the most detailed instructions God gave to the Israelites. In a dramatic simplification of this principle, Jesus said that someone who loves God and loves others will fulfill all the laws God requires (Matthew 22:37-39). Paul expanded on this in his teaching that the spirit of the law is more important to God than the letter of the law (Romans 2:29, 2 Corinthians 3:6).
We might look at it this way: God is the only Absolute. Anything that pleases him is good; anything that displeases him is bad. In the Old Testament era, God gave his law to the Israelites as a framework to help them understand what pleases him and what doesn’t. But the individual laws all referred back to him as the one absolute reality. The introduction to the Ten Commandments is simply this: “I am the Lord, Your God” (Exodus 20:2). Then, as the lesser laws are enumerated in the Book of Leviticus, the narrative is punctuated twenty-one times with the same phrase, “For I am the Lord, Your God.” God is the only Absolute a person has to deal with; the various laws and regulations are emanations of his will at a specific time and for a particular people.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). For us, he interprets and applies the will of the Absolute in our day and in our individual life journeys. What is right and what is wrong will be determined, for us, by his clear guidance. One of the ways He gives this guidance to us is through the teachings of the Bible, the Book that we believe God has given to us to shine light on our path. It’s not to be used as a handbook of rules and regulations; Jesus came to deliver us from such slavish obedience. Rather, it’s an inspired account of other lost and struggling humans, in different times and places, and the ways the absolute God revealed himself to them and showed them how to please him. The climax of the Bible focuses on Jesus Christ, who through his brief, dynamic life, his explosive teachings, and his surprising and dramatic exit from this world, showed us what pleases the Absolute God. Jesus’ moral teaching may best be summarized in the words of his prayer the night before he died: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
As we face moral decisions in our complex modern lives, it’s helpful to ask, “What would Jesus do?” However, many times that’s not enough, because many issues are thrown at us that we can’t picture Jesus facing. As we sincerely wrestle with hard decisions, it’s very reassuring to know that Jesus promised that God’s Holy Spirit actually lives in his followers and helps them make choices that please the Absolute.
However, the truth is we often aren’t sure what’s right and what’s wrong. In situations like this, we should seek the guidance of the Bible, discuss our struggle with believing friends, trust that God’s Spirit will lead us, and step out on faith.
I’m helped by the Apostle Paul’s personal testimony:
“I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.” (1Corinthians 4:4-5)
I like the fact that Paul anticipates “commendation,” not “condemnation.” It implies that he believes the Absolute will judge by the spirit, not the letter of the law.