Knowing What Is Best

The fact that there is an ethical dimension to Christianity is undisputed. The dispute regarding ethics lies in how that dimension relates to salvation. In one simplified version we could ask, “What is the relationship between works and grace?” Unfortunately, polemics drive people to poles where a more cooperative discussion would lead to nuance. A question like, “Which comes first?” assumes there is a standard chronology. Are we holy because we are saved? Or are we saved because we are holy? Although one position may be closer to biblical truth, the problem is that they are set up as binary choices, implying that a preference for one option means a declination of the other. For one, to see any part for human choice is to deny the very sovereignty of God. The other would argue with Luke when he says that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart. A more nuanced view would admit that there is always a dance between divine initiative and human response.

I hope that paragraph is not too misleading, although it is almost intentionally a little misleading. I wanted us to realize that the centuries-old disputes regarding faith and works, however they are settled, show that everyone believes there is an ethical dimension to Christianity. Wherever one puts it on the “salvation continuum,” no one disputes that Jesus calls us to kingdom living, and that our conduct should be righteous or just. Furthermore, I wanted to at least hint that the idea of “Option A” or “Option B” oftentimes clouds our eyes to the fact that aspects of both are true.

When I ask, “How do I know what is good?” I once again hear polarized responses. [1] On the one hand I have friends who insist that knowledge is required to know the good. They espouse the need for Bible study, lexical work, consideration of ancient backgrounds, etc. On the other hand I have friends who insist that love is the basis of knowing the good. I simply ask what love of God and love of neighbor would have me do. The good thing is “the loving thing.” The study and exegesis required by the former group is also done by the latter, but with a different emphasis.

As you might imagine, I agree with my friends. I wish they would all get together and learn from each other. My exegetical friends need to remember that the whole law really is summed up in love for God and love for others. My other friends need to remember that we actually have a text that informs how our love should develop. Most importantly, we all need to remember that above the polarities God’s Spirit guides Christ’s people.

Paul prayed “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:9-11).

Knowing what is “best” is to know what is ethically required. This knowledge of the “best” comes from a context of a life flooded with love. Yet this is not an uncontrolled deluge leaving destruction in its well-intentioned path. This torrent of love has been controlled by a series of levees, locks and dams, which channel this love in a productive way. Knowledge and depth of insight serve to direct love to the best ethical result. This divine ethical response is once again initiated by God, as the very fact that Paul prays for this good result prior to teaching the Philippians how they should relate to one another.

So my prayer for all of us is that we would be overflowing with love that is directed and guided by knowledge and discretion. We are neither uncaring about the impact of our ethical views on others, nor are we unconcerned about the guidelines of Scripture or the prodding of the Spirit. May God make it so.

[1] I am simplifying at this point for purposes of argument. There are more than two responses! Still, I think the poles I will paint fairly summarize the various positions people take in Christian circles on the subject of knowing the good.


Steve Kenney has been married to Leslie his whole adult life, and they have three wonderful children, JaneAnn, Erin, and Scott, and one grandchild, Caroline. They have four cats and pleasant memories of many more. Steve earned an undergraduate degree in missions from Abilene Christian, and his graduate degrees from Pitt (J.D.) and Lipscomb (M.Div.). He and his family have rooted for the Reds, Bengals, and Buckeyes, but always root for the home team wherever they live. That means Steve has cheered the team from Dallas that shall no longer be named by him and the team from DC that shall no longer be named by anyone. He’s also cheered the Steelers despite his Bengal roots. So yes, he’s also a miracle-worker.

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Author:  Publish Date: August 10, 2016

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @

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