Better wages, better housing, more education, more baths and cleanliness; less need, less squalor – would not these produce better men and women? Progress in science, advance in knowledge and control of man’s environment, more systemized knowledge of himself – would not these lead on to a saner world? More communication, more interchange and understanding between peoples – would not these lead to peace and the ‘brotherhood of nations’?

So it seemed to nineteenth century liberal optimism. And now in the twentieth century we have had them all, and two world wars and the overhanging fear of a third into the bargain, and the old optimism has worn thin even where it has not been shattered. What has gone wrong?

The failure is not due merely to some fell cir­cumstances of our time; not even to the rising up of a handful of perverted dictators, who made evil their good. It is a failure in the basic assumptions of the liberal philosophy: the belief that man is essentially good and only needs to be relieved of certain pressures of circumstance for his goodness to shine through; it is the belief that man can be radically changed by changes in his environment. The theory is mocked by the breakdown of stand­ards precisely where life is easiest, the open violation of all restraints, the multiplying of drug addiction, alcoholism, vice, the cultivation of violence and the outbreak of ruthlessness. It is mocked by the fact that the higher the standard of living the higher also is the disillusion with living reflected in the suicide rate, and the worse the lives.

Two comments might fairly be made on what has been said. The first is that every such case is a personal problem and that much might be done if the right help and love could be brought to bear at the right time. There may be much truth in this, but it does not alter the fact that these social and moral problems are on the increase, and the fact that they are so is a direct criticism of easy theories about man’s nature or society. The second comment is that what has been said applies only to a section of the population and that a great number continue to lead decent, useful and not unhappy lives. This also is true, but even among this majority it has to be recognized that in a time of prosperity standards of personal integrity are falling. More than that, the best and most thoughtful are groping for some basis for living. Old standards have been thrown out and with them the old measure of stability. A ‘new morality’ is advocated, ostensibly based on love alone and without a “Thou shalt not”, and it proves intangible and unsatisfying to the ordinary man.

The fact is that it is a morality based on man – man’s supposed needs, man’s experience, man’s ideals. The name of God may be invoked, but not (we are told) as a Being ‘out there’, not as something external and claiming men’s obedience. From these premises it is sought to evolve a morality without fixed standards, and motivated only by love. It would claim as its principle words which come indeed with the highest authority: “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Yet this elastic morality fails to establish a basis for living which can be generally accepted. It fails to give a coherent guide to life even to those of good will. More than this, it fails to provide a compelling force which will bring men to yield to it. The ‘new morality’ leaves too many loopholes for human nature to justify follow­ing its own desires, and it lacks compelling power. It rests on a liberal humanist view of human nature which has already failed. It does not recognize the fact of a fall of man.

Let us look again at the words of the Lord Jesus, taking them this time not from Luke’s record but from Matt 7:12:

“Therefore 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.”

Notice that the verse begins with a “therefore”: it is following as a conclusion from a previous proposition. What is it?

“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Therefore all things what­soever …” (v11).

We are not offered an abstract principle of hu­man conduct, or an isolated maxim. Our eyes are turned to the heavenly Father as the example and true source of morality in life. But if its source is in God, its basis is in law: “For this is the law and the prophets.” There was a law given from Sinai to govern the personal and national conduct of the people of Israel; there were prophets who witnessed to the law and called the people back to its princi­ples. And Jesus is saying that all this was summed up – “briefly comprehended”, as the Apostle Paul put it – in the application in life of the principle of the law, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. The law and the prophets revealed the form of the morality of which the ‘Golden Rule’ is the essence. The ‘Golden Rule’ is to be found in many philoso­phies and many moralities: what is distinctive in the teaching of Christ is that it derives its motive force from the Father in heaven, and its working out has been formulated in revelation.

The principle is truly “Thou shalt love”, but Jesus said:

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

“And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

A stronger love than love of man will empower love of one’s neighbour. Where God is truly loved first, then love of the neighbour will follow. Man’s relation to God is the only source of the true moral­ity which can control and exalt man’s own nature; and for that we must turn to discover God’s rela­tion to man.

The revelation which alone can tell us genuinely of God shows Him as creator, as revealer making Himself known, as redeemer delivering men from the bondage of sin into which they have fallen, and as man’s end, the object for which he exists; for the purpose of God is to bring “many sons unto glory” in His Kingdom which will fill the earth with the knowledge of Him as completely as the waters cover the sea. Granting this, then God must be the stand­ard of right for men. The standard cannot be evolved from man himself, it must be given; man must be the recipient, not the source. As the prophet said:

“O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).

Men must depend for their guidance in life on the word of authority which is the word of God: and if that proposition cuts across all modern views of man – social, scientific, philosophical, religious – then so it must do; anything else is sophistry and delusion. If God made man for His own ends and is leading to those ends, then God only can be the source of conduct which will accord with His ends, and His Kingdom will be the embodiment of His righteousness. The Lord’s Prayer,

“Our Father, which art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy name,

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

As in heaven, so on earth”,

provides not only the foundation of hope but of morality. Only the course of life which is true to it can be truly right conduct.

Once we acknowledge the reality of God, it must follow that the only right conduct – and the only ultimately fruitful conduct – must be that which follows God’s design and purpose for man, and only God can give it. And He has given it – in the law and the prophets, and in the fullness of revelation in Christ. The revealed word of God in the Bible is therefore the only source of moral authority for men.

If it be said that such a basis of morality as this is only for the few who believe, this does not change the facts. This is God’s way, and the way of life. Yet the conduct of the convinced believers is not with­out its effect on the world, and a morality for the many may filter down from it, and do something at least to alleviate the grosser evils and raise the standards of human life.

The real morality, however, must be the morality of the Kingdom of God in which the world will at last be made one as the dominion of Christ. Then will be fulfilled the word of the Prophet.

“Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever” (Isa 32:16-17).

That is the end to be attained by God’s power: “The mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.” The men who are seeking that Kingdom now live in an alien world. They live by principles based on that Kingdom but applied to their condition as pilgrims and sojourners, a condition in which they are subjected to worldly men and human govern­ments. They live in the hope of the prayer: “Thy Kingdom come…”

Reprinted from (2001) The Christadelphian, 103 (electronic ed), Pg 72-74. Birmingham: Christadelphian Magazine & Publishing Association