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Resurrection and Moral Order: The End of the Moral Life

October 27th, 2007 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

***Note: I am precising Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics this week here at Mere-O. I hope you will work through the challenging and provocative theological ethic that O’Donovan articulates.***

Chapter Twelve: The End of the Moral Life

Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. While the gifts of prophesy, tongues, and or knowledge are intelligible on their own, faith, hope and love depend upon the return of Jesus Christ at the end of time. If the Son of Man were not to return, faith and hope would describe a pointless expectancy.

Yet it is faith and hope that love is grouped with, not with the more immediately intelligible “spiritual gifts.” As O’Donovan writes, “If we have understood why love, the form of the moral life, is grouped…with faith and hope…, then we have grasped how morality is related to salvation, how it is that Christian ethics is evangelical…The true moral life of the Christian community is its love, and its love is unintelligible except as a participation in the life of the one who reveals himself to us as Love, except, that is, as the entry of mankind and of the restored creation upon its supernatural end.”

In other words, properly considered, love puts us “under the shadow of the last things.” We cannot understand love if we do not understand its eschatological dimensions. Hence, the goal of this chapter is to highlight the eschatological aspect of love and the moral life.

Yet, O’Donovan points out, faith and hope qualify life in different ways. His route into the eschatological nature of the moral life is through these respective qualifications.

We begin with “what it means for love to be hopeful.” O’Donovan contends that we must consider love’s reward, answering both those who object that there is a higher good (the reward) that is added on to the love that we experience, and with those who object that the higher reward could be a motive for action.

When the first objection, that there is no higher good than the love which we currently have, is framed badly, it results in pantheism. This is the danger of speaking of the “participation in the divine life”—it suggests that “divinity were no more than a transferable quality of existence to which mankind too can aspire.” However, when pantheism is avoided, the objection contains a clear warning: what good could be higher than the love of God (Augustine’s “he himself is the reward!”)?

With the warning noted, however, it is still permissible and necessary to distinguish between love now and love hereafter. “The articulation of love into labour and reward in Jesus’ teaching corresponds to the apostolic teaching that we must die with Christ so that at the last we may rise with him.” What’s more, we must speak in this way because “the present hiddenness of God’s new creation demands its fulfillment in public manifestation.”

But what of the second objection? What of the temptation to introduce self-interest into ethical deliberation, which “compromises the true loss-of-self-in-other which is the true essence of love?” As the objection goes, “In desiring, the subject loves himself.”

While love must not degenerate into self-love, the loving of an object as ‘good’ suggests that it is a good also for me, “by virtue of the fact that I am a part of the world in which and for which it exists as a good.” But I do not have to be anxious about the fact that it is a good for me if I properly understand “the objectivity of my good, given to me in the order of the universe as a reality which I can only acknowledge and welcome.” At the heart of the anxiety is the “voluntarist presupposition that my good is something which I create or evoke for myself.”

God Himself, then, is the reward for us—but we need not worry about our own interest because of the object of our love. In giving Himself to us as the object of our love, God has “given us also the love with which it is appropriate to love him.”

What, though, of faith? How does it qualify the love that we have for Jesus?

For one, it qualifies love in a different way than hope. In hope, we move from the ambiguity and imperfections of the present toward the eventual completion of the future. In faith, we move from the final judgment “with its affirmation of man’s created life and love” back to the present, where we “claim and enjoy that affirmation.”

Scripturally, it is the concept of “righteousness” that “binds ethics and eschatology together.” It is righteousness, according to Paul, that we “wait in hope for.” As O’Donovan writes, “To conceive God’s final judgment of grace upon man’s life as the hope of righteousness is to insist that any rightness which may belong to human act or character derives from this final judgment.” The final affirmation, the “Yes” of God, determines both the “possibility and the conditions of human morality.”

This doctrine of divine justification, however, errs when it speaks “in general terms of a dependence of human achievement upon divine favour.” Such a position locates the justification in a believer’s experience of conversion, or in his subsequent works, rather than in this final judgment, thus replacing God’s final judgment “with a judgment based on the strange warmings of their hearts and the success of their most passionate and sustained endeavours.”

To avoid this error, however, we must look to where God has revealed this final judgment: “to Jesus and to the justification of mankind which God has effected by raising him from the dead.” Only here does talk about the “final judgment” have any meaningful content, and only in Christ does the doctrine of justification have grounding.

Faith, then, returns from the Divine “Yes” in the future to our own life in the present. Our pasts may fall under the “No” of those who reject God, but “in so far as we, the agents, stand under the ‘Yes’ which God has spoken to Christ, then our pasts, too, are brought within the favourable meaning which that ‘Yes’ confers upon our lives as a whole.

When we think about the lives of the wicked and the righteous, their “settled dispositions,” their virtues and vices, their objective historical records, we can still make assessments. But in terms of the final assessment, their histories are secondary. “The turn that each has taken, to or away from the law of God, has marked his life and imposed a shape upon it which is decisive for the whole…the end of a career settles the value of the whole.”

This is the moment of recognition of the thief on the cross, in which “he encountered a decisive reality which must shape his life one way or the other whenever he met it.” Any settled dispositions of character are secondary to this “formative moment, the meeting with the divine presence in Jesus which stamps the life with the mark of love.”

But this moment is “elusive of observation.” It may not “declare itself in immediately observable ways.” Hence, the admonition to “Judge not, lest you be judged.” According to O’Donovan, the words are not intended to promote moral indifferentism, to affirm a tolerance that stems from “not taking moral questions seriously, from regarding the difference between right and wrong skeptically because of the ambiguities with which human behaviour confronts us.” Their common usage for self-justification is far afield of the intended meaning.

Rather, “There is another tolerance, quite different in spirit from this, which comes from taking moral questions so seriously that we recognize the point at which they exceed our competence to resolve them.” We cannot pronounce a verdict on “a human being’s life in its totality.” In other words, all judgments are provisional in nature—we cannot pronounce final verdicts on those around us.

This tentativeness is applicable also to our own lives. While we have better knowledge of our own souls, it too is limited and sinful. Hence, any “certainty” we have in our own salvation must be grounded not on our experiences but on “faith in the objective word of God.” In introspection, we confess our own ambiguity and then turn away from the appearances of our soul to the reality of the Word of God. Conversion, in this sense, happens many times.

But we are also given a sign of this hidden transformation—baptism. Though “distinct from the reality to which it points…only the sign itself, because it is given by Christ, can give a public assurance that God’s redemptive grace is active in the world and that this person too will encounter it, so entitling us to read the indications in the candidate’s subjective and active life hopefully, as evidence of the Spirit’s activity.”

This is not to deny, points out O’Donovan, that “criminality is no different from honest citizenship or asceticism from self-indulgence.” Rather, there is a final question that must be asked of all the “varied constellations and patterns” that human lives may form: “what do they constitute for eternity?” The answer is not immanent to the created order, but comes outside of it, “from its supernatural end.”

Within the light of this question, the complex and diverse issues of morality “are reduced to a stark and awesome simplicity.” It is a choice between sin and virtue, for or against God’s new creation, the broad versus the narrow way. “Such absolute oppositions cannot be avoided in Christian thought, for without it morality loses its eschatological relation to the new creation and becomes no more than a reflection of the ambiguities and complications of the world.”

It is, of course, not only Christian moral thought that reduces the world to this simplicity. Rather, the “announcement of God’s final judgment simply told mankind what it knew implicitly: that beneath the ambiguity of concrete decisions, beneath every hesitation between alternative goods in alternative courses of action, there lay a simple and final choice between good and evil, a choice on which the fate of the soul depended.”

But when the eschatological mooring for ethics is lost, that simplicity is immanentized. Legalism attempts to clear away the ambiguities, “so that the moral agent, provided that he will take expert advice, need not be troubled by the tasks of discernment but has only to take the simple decision of will seriously.” What this means is that in every decision, the soul hangs in the balance. The decision has been reduced to his will, but rather than decreasing the anxiety, it increases it. This is the “inevitable result when man attributes to his own decisions the capacity to invoke the apocalypse of final judgment which properly belongs to God’s decision.”

At the end of all time, the book of life will be opened. There is a simple question that we all must face: is our name written there? O’Donovan concludes the chapter and the book:

“The final judgment of God is, on the one hand, a judgment rendered on human deeds; on the other, it is a creative new word rendered from a source that is independent of human deeds. These two aspects of divine judgment are complementary. Human deeds become what they are not in themselves, the story of God’s gracious purposes, when their books are interpreted out of that ‘other book’. The works that men have done become the basis of God’s favourable or unfavourable judgment when they are read in the light of God’s work of sovereign grace. The ultimate and simple decision is not found in the books of human deeds, but in the book of life, where it is a question of Yes or No: either a name is there, or it is not. But the book of life does not supplant the book of men’s deeds; rather, those books, when read in light of that book, take on the character of a correspondingly simple and final decision, a Yes or No to God’s grace. However much our moral decisions strive for clarity, they are never unambiguous or translucent, even to ourselves. But—and is this not the gospel at the heart of evangelical ethics?—it is given to them by God’s grace in Christ to add up to a final and unambiguous Yes, a work of love which will abide for eternity.”

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History
Knowledge in Christ
Freedom and Reality
The Authority of Christ
The Freedom of the Church and the Believer
The Moral Field
The Double Aspect of the Moral Life