What Is the Basic Principle of Christian Morality?


The distinction between right and wrong is an important part of the Christian faith. The difference between good and bad, righteousness and wickedness, and sinfulness and holiness is rooted in the nature and character of God. Morality isn’t the product of randomness, culture, tradition, social majority, or anything else that comes from chance or people.

The basic principle of Christian morality is to love others, following the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. While loving others is the central application of Christian morality, it’s inseparable from its foundation, which is loving God in Jesus Christ.

How does Jesus state the Golden Rule, and in what way is it unique to him? Where does Christian morality originate? How does the first and second greatest commandment relate to the Golden Rule? Did Jesus invent the Golden Rule? Keep reading to learn more.

Christian morals
Where does Christian morality originate? See below

What is the Golden Rule?

Matthew records Jesus’ teaching about the so-called “Golden Rule” in the section of his Gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. Ch. 5-9). In the specific passage (Matt. 7:1-12), Jesus teaches about how believers should treat each other (v. 1-6) and how God treats people (v. 7-11). Verse 12, which records the Golden Rule, summarizes not only 7:1-12, but some commentators suggest it encapsulates the entire sermon.

TranslationMatthew 7:12
ESVSo whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
KJVTherefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
NASBIn everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
NIVSo in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
NLTDo to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.

The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is synonymous with the entire Old Testament. So not only does the Golden Rule encapsulate Matthew 7:1-12 and the whole Sermon on the Mount, but Jesus teaches that it summarizes the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi, which amounts to two-thirds of the Bible. Furthermore, he teaches the importance of the Golden Rule to his disciples, suggesting that it’s also for the New Testament era.

Where does Christian morality originate?

The biblical categories of right and wrong come from the nature and character of God. Christian philosopher James Sire writes, “God is the source of the moral world and the physical world. God is good and expresses this in the laws and moral principles he has revealed in Scripture.” [1]

God isn’t required to meet another standard of morality outside himself, whatever the source. He alone defines right and wrong.

Sire continues, “Made in God’s image, we are essentially moral beings, and thus we cannot refuse to bring moral categories to bear on our actions. Of course, our sense of morality has been flawed by the Fall, and now we only brokenly reflect true good. Yet even in our moral relativity, we cannot get rid of the sense that some things are ‘right’ or ‘natural’ and other things are not.” [2]

Francis Schaeffer adds, “The moral absolutes rest upon God’s character. The moral commands He has given to men are an expression of His character. Men as created in His image are to live by choice on the basis of what God is. The standards of morality are determined by what conforms to His character, while those things which do not conform are immoral.”

What is the second greatest commandment?

One time a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). In response, Jesus articulated the first and second greatest commandments.

“[Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets'” (Matt. 22:37-40).

Matthew scholar Craig Blomberg writes, “The proper motivation for correct interpersonal relationships always remains a profound sense of gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ. Jesus’ twofold answer should warn Christians against emphasizing either piety for God or social concern at the expense of the other.” [3]

Christian church
Did Jesus invent the Golden Rule? See below

What does the basic principle of Christian morality imply?

Bible scholars believe that Jesus is drawing from Leviticus 19:18, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (ESV). Some refer to instructions like this as a law of retribution.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “retribution” as “the dispensing or receiving of reward or punishment especially in the hereafter.” The biblical principle is that a person should treat others in the way they want to be treated. For example, if a person wants others to speak kindly to them, they should speak kindly to others. If a person wants forgiveness, they should forgive others.

Matthew scholar Grant Osborne writes, “This simple principle would by itself revitalize human relationships if people everywhere were to begin to live by it. It not only summarizes the OT law but also provides a capstone for Jesus’ new covenant principles… note that the whole emphasis is on what we do for others; there is no expectation of getting something back in return.” [4]

Christian morality
What twist did Jesus put on the Golden Rule? See below

Did Jesus invent the Golden Rule?

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson writes, “The Golden Rule was not invented by Jesus; it is found in many forms in highly diverse settings… Apparently only Jesus phrased the rule positively. Thus stated it is certainly more telling than its negative counterpart, for it speaks against sins of omission as well as sins of commission. The goats in [Matt.] 25:31-46 would be acquitted under the negative form of the rule, but not under the positive form attributed to Jesus.” [4]

Variations of the Golden Rule were common in the ancient world. Rather than thinking that Jesus is coining a phrase, Bible readers should understand that is using some conventional wisdom of his day, yet twisting it to fit his teachings about morality. Jesus doesn’t affirm the wisdom of the world but customizes it to suit his purposes and standards for how his followers should live.

References:
[1] The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire. p. 42.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Matthew by Craig Blomberg. NAC. p. 336.
[4] Matthew by Grant Osborne. ZECNT. p. 265.
[5] Matthew by D.A. Carson. REBC. p. 187.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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