/ moral right and wrong / James Faris

How do I know what is morally wrong?

In two different Bible studies in different settings that I have led in the last month, the question has been asked, “How do I know what is wrong?” – as in morally wrong. In one case, the inquirer was an atheist, and in the other case, the question came from a life-long church attendee of various churches that never encouraged substantial study of the Bible. It is a wonderful question – especially since it flowed from genuine, personal interest as we studied God’s word.

The succinct answer of Westminster Shorter Catechism question and answer 14 helps greatly in such discussions. It asks and answers, “What is sin?” “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”  The context of our Bible study called for the language to be modernized, and it was – sin is not doing what God commands or doing what he forbids (James 4:17 & Leviticus 5:17).

“But how would I know what those things are?” came one reply. Where in the Bible do we find guidance so that we will know what we ought to do – or when we need to ask forgiveness? Sin is of course more than simply doing the wrong things. At its core, it is rebellion against the living God. But it is expressed in thought and action. These friends wanted to know what the Bible says is wrong.

The Ten Commandments provides God’s own summary of his moral law. But inquiring minds want more than a summary and the questions kept coming in our Bible studies. We talked about how the Ten Commandments can be considered about in a negative and positive sense – for instance, where we are commanded to not steal, we are also implicitly required to be generous and to give.

“How do I study the Bible to help me understand what God says is right and wrong?” asked one person. Our time was limited, but we had time to describe the topical Bible study that is the Westminster Larger Catechism which delineates the Ten Commandments and details what each command requires and forbids in painstaking detail. A person might not agree with every sin identified there, but he will at least be forced to reckon with what the Bible says as each point is linked to the word of God. I showed that it is an example of how to study the Bible topically – and it is a good model. I read the questions and answers related to the eighth commandment with Scripture references footnoted (not quote here):

Q140. Which is the eighth commandment? A. The eighth commandment is, Thou shalt not steal.

Q141. What are the duties required in the eighth commandment? A. The duties required in the eighth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

Q142. What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, manstealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust, oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depredation; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.
Admittedly, I wondered what the response would be to such a detailed explanation of four words that prohibit stealing. “This is exactly what I was looking for! Where do I get this for the other nine commandments?” one said with gratitude.

Well, electronically, you can find the study of the Ten Commandments beginning at question 91 here. The Scripture proofs are hyperlinked as footnotes. Or, you can find sheets with printed for bulletin inserts here with Scripture references footnoted for you to look up in context yourself.

In a day when truth is seen by so many to be relative, the Westminster Larger Catechism is a useful delineation of our sins according to the Bible. It is helpful for those who are just learning to identify sin according to God’s terms. Mature Christians and Christians who think they are mature will also benefit. Too often we give lip service to God’s revelation all the while defining moral goodness in ways shaded to our own advantage.

Anyone who digs deeply into the Holy Scriptures will find that we are deep in sin. There, we see the depth of our guilt and the breadth of our offense against God. The Ten Commandments do teach us how to live. But first, they drive us to see that our only hope is that Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us on the cross so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  Without seeing our sin compared to God’s perfection, we will never see our need to be saved by one who kept the law, took the punishment due for sin, and rose victoriously to give life to all who would trust in him.

God has not left us to wonder what is wrong. His word tells us in many different ways. Like an artist painting with a full palette of colors, the Westminster Larger Catechism draws varied hues from the word of God to paint a vivid picture of God's moral standard and of us in our sin. It's a picture we need to see, however uncomfortable it may be.

James Faris

James Faris

Child of God. Husband to Elizabeth. Father of six. Pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Ordained as a pastor in 2003.

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