In my recent, and utterly long sermon I quoted from Robert Jenson about the nature of the Gospel’s morality, a quote that I find vital and illuminating in many ways:
The gospel’s specific morality is a matter of opened opportunities, of what we may reasonably do because Jesus lives, that otherwise would have been foolish. The normal morality is a matter of imposed constraints, of what we must do, that otherwise we would have liked not to. [. . .] the gospel’s specific morality is a morality of freedom. Insofar as the gospel moves us, we do what we do because we may, not because we ought. And a good act is one which finds the way to love, to the affirmation of the brother’s freedom.
We hear the from the gospel what we may do, when the gospel affirmatively interprets the hopes and fears that move our lives. The gospel makes our hopes possibilities by making them hopes for the love that is indeed coming. When the gospel is spoken to a [person] or a community, it speaks to the particular inhibitions that keep that [person] or community from [. . .] their own humanity. The gospel dismisses those inhibitions. It’s pattern is: “You may . . . because, if Jesus is risen, there is no need to fear . . .” [. . .]
Thus the specific morality of the gospel is not a mater of “laws.” The gospel’s moral discourse does not say “Do this and do that because you ought/must/would be best advised/will be rewarded.” It does not have the “if . . . then . . .” form. It imposes no conditions whatever, on anything at all. It does not say “Do . . . , because otherwise you won’t get into heaven.” It does not say—with a bit more religious sophistication: “Do . . . , because, although of course God will accept you anyway, that is what good Christians do.” It does not even say: “Do . . . , because virtue is its own reward.” The moral discourse of the gospel says only: “You may do . . . , because Jesus lives” (Robert Jenson, Story and Promise, 81, 82).
Obviously this approach to ethics is extremely liberating. The divine word does not impose constraints, make demands, and level requirements. Rather it simply frees. The Gospel forbids nothing, it merely liberates us for lives of true fullness.
Of course to many this will seem woefully inadequate. Is this not simply a cover for moral libertinism? Does not all this fanciful talk of “opened opportunities” merely mask a maneuver that seeks to use “freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence” (Gal 5:13)?
Actually, no not all. In fact this resurrection-centered understanding of the nature of the Gospel’s morality is the only way I can possibly imagine to take sin seriously. This notion insists that all sin is never a matter of some “thing” I can do that I ought not to do. Rather sin is always and everywhere a falling into slavery. The Gospel does not, therefore “forbid” us to sin — what real sense would it make to say that we are “forbidden” to enslave ourselves, mutilate ourselves, denigrate ourselves? — rather the Gospel frees us from sin.
The problem with the traditionally “serious” way of talking about sin and ethics is that it ends up simultaneously not taking sin seriously and making it far too interesting. If we view sin simply as bad, but nearly always seductive and at least fleetingly pleasurable things we ought not to do, we at once make sin interesting and rather unserious. If however we take the logic of the Gospel seriously we must understand sin always and only as slavery, as domination, denigration, and futility. We are not “forbidden” to be enslaved, we are freed from our slavery. We are not “commanded” to no longer dominate and denigrate ourselves and one another, we are freed from that infantile and dreadful compulsion.
This, it seems to me is the only way to really take sin seriously and to recognize how uninteresting it is. Sin is simply the slaveries we subject ourselves and one anther to. It is a world of striving, suffering, and death. God doesn’t come to us with commands not to do such things, God in Christ breaks the power of these forces and frees us from them. The Gospel closes down no true opportunity for anything interesting, rather it always on only opens opportunities and creates new possibilities. It is always and only a liberation. Nothing more, nothing less. Anything else simply doesn’t take sin seriously.