Grace as the Basis of Christian Ethics – Dr Alan Gijsbers

Understanding not just the behaviours, but their context


From Luke’s Journal 2022 | Rest | Vol.27 No.1

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What would it be to start an essay on ethics with grace? Think of Dr Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, the short rich chief tax-collector, who famously climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of the Carpenter of Nazareth, the radical rabbi who had captured the imagination of outcasts.

What was it like to be frustrated from seeing in the crowd, because you were short? What was it like to run on ahead, to climb the tree, and watch the crowd go past underneath, thronging the Master? What was it like to see the Master stop under the tree and invite himself as your guest to your home? What cleanliness rules did the Master break with this behaviour? Thus a cheat and a traitor was confronted by sheer unadulterated goodness. The narrative is stark, but as a result of that transforming encounter, Zacchaeus offers half his possessions to the poor, and promises to repay fourfold anyone whom he had cheated. In the face of criticism for being a guest of a sinner, the Master proclaims that Zacchaeus has been saved and that he is included with the sons of Abraham. The Lord concludes with his famous aphorism, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10).

Transformative encounters

Every Christian has had a transformative encounter like Zacchaeus’. As a young lad I learnt of the overwhelming love of God in Christ that accepted me just as I was, and that inspired me to live out that love. There have been many embarrassing occasions where I have failed to live up to those ideals, but the Divine Grace is constant and inspires me to continue to walk in the footsteps of the Master healer. 

Charles Taylor somewhere in his massive tome, A Secular Age, describes the challenge of getting people to conform to the Modern Moral Order. There are two big questions. Why should I conform? – this is a question of motivation – why must I do the right thing? Secondly, how can I conform? – a question of ability, of power, of moral strength, to do the right thing. Many moral theories struggle with both of those questions, but for followers of the Master, St Paul’s comment drives both questions, “The love of Christ constrains, or urges us” (2 Cor 4:14). Therefore we live, not to ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us. Why should I? Because Christ loves us. How can I? Because the love of Christ inspires us, and the Spirit of God empowers us. This is quite a different set of ethics from rules-based, or virtue-based, or consequentialist-based ethics. It is relational and self-aware: I have been touched by grace, I will live by grace, and I will live graciously. 

“…the love of Christ inspires us, and the Spirit of God empowers us. This is quite a different set of ethics from rules-based, or virtue-based, or consequentialist-based ethics.”

Grace reminds us that we are broken. Grace stops us judging.

George Berkeley summarises it well: 

“Nothing softens the arrogance of man’s nature like a mixture of some frailties; it is by them we are told, we must not strike too hard upon others, because we ourselves do so often deserve blows. They pull our rage by the sleeve, and whisper gentleness to us in our censures, even when they are rightly apply’d.” 

The story of Jesus is told in a particular context, namely the context of the disapproval and judgmentalism of the scribes and Pharisees whose rules-based self-righteousness blinded them to the goodness of Christ. They had condemned Zacchaeus as a man not fit enough to be associated with. 

The contest between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees is not trivial; it cost Jesus his life. For Jesus, there is something very evil about the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. It was judgmental and grace-less. It was hypocritical and could not empower change. Mostly however, it is malignant. It is prepared to kill in the name of God to stifle dissent.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons directly against the gracelessness of the scribes and Pharisees. Further, Jesus in his story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector contrasts self-righteousness and shame (Luke 18:9-14).

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels

Dr Luke introduces the story saying that the story was told against those who trusted in themselves that they are righteous and regarded others with contempt. The tax-collector who confessed his sin and pleaded for mercy from God went home from the temple justified, whereas the self-righteous Pharisee was left within his own sense of importance before God, blind to his parlous plight. It is interesting that only our colleague Dr Luke tells these stories. Does the medical profession have special insight here? Or did these stories arise because Luke was a close companion of Paul? 

“It is interesting that only our colleague Dr Luke tells these stories. Does the medical profession have special insight here? Or did these stories arise because Luke was a close companion of Paul?”

The apostle Paul was very conscious of where he had come from. He was a strict Pharisee and a former persecutor of the church, driven by the same murderous self-righteousness that killed Jesus before he saw the light. He declares very clearly that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom he is the foremost (1 Timothy 1:12-15). 

Is there then no righteousness with Christ? On the contrary, Matthew makes it clear that the righteousness of Christ is far superior and qualitatively different from that of the Pharisees (Matt 5:17-20). It has integrity, is not hypocritical, it is inward as well as behavioural, and it cares for the broken and the rejected. It empowers the dispirited. It seeks out the lost and brings them home. 

St Paul contrasts the flawed legalism of the Pharisees (and of his former life) with life in the Spirit. That life cannot be legislated, but its fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are the true markers of an ethical Christian life. FF Bruce remarked on this passage, “You cannot grow apples by act of parliament”. Attempts to impose a Christian ethic from the outside will come to nothing. It has to arise from within. 

The implications for Christian doctors and dentists

What are the implications for us a Christian doctors and dentists? For me as an addiction physician, such a gracious ethic motivates me to accept my patients where they are, and inspires me to provide care to those who are on the edge of society. It teaches me to be careful not to judge and condemn, but to seek to come alongside, to listen, to try to understand – not just the behaviours, but the context within which those behaviours occur. To do so is costly. It lays us open to criticism. In doing so we follow the footsteps of the Master who sat with people conventional society would despise. 

As we in the CMDFA and the ICMDA seek to explore a Christian ethic, may we be very conscious that we are walking in Christ’s footsteps, guided by His Spirit, and live out His ethic.

Dr Alan Gijsbers
Associate Professor Alan Gijsbers MBBS, FRACP, FAChAM, DTM&H, PGDip Epi, is a specialist physician in Addiction Medicine. He previously worked as a general physician at the Christian Medical College and Hospital Vellore, South India, with Interserve Australia. He is a past National Chairman of the CMDFA, and a current board member of the ICMDA. He is married to Lois, has three children and seven grandchildren.

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