Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Are there morally neutral areas of life? That’s the first question on the table as we begin this new week together. Welcome back to the podcast, and thank you for making us a part of your weekly routine.

The question is from Mary Beth, who lives in Arkansas. She writes, “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast. A question has been troubling me for a while. It’s this one. I’m wondering if everything in life is either a good thing or a sin. Or are there some ‘okay’ things that aren’t sin, but aren’t exactly good? Sometimes I do things that don’t seem beneficial. I can’t tell if I need forgiveness for them. I usually ask for forgiveness anyways. I guess basically my question boils down to that. Pastor John, yes or no, are there morally neutral areas of life?”

I can’t give a yes or a no answer until I clarify some terms. So what is sin? What is the moral good? What does morally neutral mean? This is one of those great illustrations of how simply defining our terms virtually answers the question. It’s a great lesson to learn. I recommend it to everybody. I find that most arguments people are having go round and round because the terms are not defined with any biblical precision. And the reason I say biblical precision is because if you don’t have an authority that you can both agree on, then you probably won’t even be able to define your terms in a way that you both can agree on, and you’ll just be stuck.

Our culture right now is stuck because we don’t share much common ground under our disputes. And a stuck culture is a dangerous thing, because if there’s no agreed-upon arbiter of truth claims, then what comes in to fill that void is usually raw power. If some common ground doesn’t decide what’s right, then might makes right. Or more to the point here, if a shared authority, like the Bible, does not decide the definition of our terms, then the one with the most power will decide how words are going to be used. And that’s how the Holocaust happened. That’s how race-based slavery happened. That’s how abortion happens. The powerful decide how the word person is going to be used and who fits with it and who doesn’t. And without an agreed-upon authority to arbitrate, the powerful define the terms to suit their preference.

Well, that’s way more than Mary Beth asked for. In fact, she didn’t ask for that at all, but now and then I like to explain on this podcast why I make such a big deal out of defining our terms.

What Is Sin?

So here’s my effort to clarify the terms of Mary Beth’s question. “Is everything in life,” she says, “a good thing or a sin? Are there morally neutral areas?” That’s her question.

So what is sin? There are at least two passages in Paul that I think get at the heart of what sin is. One is Romans 1–3. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of [or literally, lack] the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And I connect that statement with Romans 1:23, where humans exchange the glory of God for the glory of created things, including the human self, my glory (Romans 1:23). That’s my favorite idol, right? So I think what Romans 3:23 means is that all human beings sin in that we prefer created glory over God’s glory. We exchange God’s glory for something we prefer. We lack or fall short of the glory of God.

So sin is first — this is my definition drawn from Romans — the disposition of the human heart to prefer human glory, especially self-glory, over God’s glory. And then secondarily, sins (plural) would be the attitudes and words and actions that stem from that disposition. That’s my definition of sin from Romans 1–3.

The other passage that defines the heart of sin is Romans 14:21–23, where Paul is talking about eating meat and drinking wine. And he says, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Wow. That’s pretty sweeping. Paul is willing to define sin as whatever is not from faith, which I think — when you analyze it carefully, down to the bottom — is really the same as the definition in Romans 1–3.

“If the disposition of our heart is not to receive Christ, then what comes from that heart is sin.”

If the disposition of our heart is not to receive Christ — I’m thinking of what faith is right now, namely, to own Christ as our supreme Savior and guide and treasure — then what comes from that heart is sin. That heart is the same as the heart that prefers created glory over God’s glory.

Acting from Faith

Now, with that definition of sin, the definition of what is morally good follows as the flip side of sin or evil. Moral good is the disposition of the heart to prefer God over all, or to treasure God in Christ over all, so that the attitudes and words and actions that stem from that heart are good, morally good.

Now, there are two other ways to describe this moral good, because they result from acting in faith or a preference for the superior worth of God in Christ. One is to say that the moral good is those attitudes and words and actions that God has commanded (1 John 5:2). The other is to say that the moral good is attitudes and words and actions that aim to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). So we’re actually on safest ground, I think, to say that what is morally good has all three of these traits:

  1. It comes from faith.
  2. It accords with God’s commands.
  3. It aims to glorify God.

That’s the moral good.

For His Glory

So here’s the implication about whether there are neutral areas of life, because that’s what she’s asking about. If we mean, “Are there actions considered without any reference to humans doing those actions, just actions in the abstract?” the answer is yes. There are thousands of such morally neutral (in that sense) actions, like walking down the street, drinking a glass of water, or putting on your shoes.

“If you do something from faith that’s not forbidden in the Scriptures, it has moral goodness, no matter what it is.”

It’s not so much that they are morally neutral, though — I’m a little skittish about that phrase — but that they have no moral standing at all until a human being is doing them. As soon as someone does them, no matter how simple, no matter how supposedly neutral, they cease to be neutral. They become moral because, Paul said, “Whatever you do, do all” — put on your shoes, walk down the street — “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And either we do that or we don’t. And that criterion makes them either sin or not sin. And in the same way, we could ask, “Did we do them from faith?” Whatever is not from faith is sin. Did I put on my shoes from a disposition of faith? If not, Paul says, it is a sin. You can put on your shoes rebelliously. You really can.

I think what this means for Mary Beth’s concern is this: if an action or attitude is not forbidden or commanded in the Bible, then the question for her (and for all of us) is, Am I moved to do this action by faith and by a desire to glorify God? If so, then she invests that seemingly neutral act with moral goodness. If you do something from faith that’s not forbidden in the Scriptures, it has moral goodness, no matter what it is. And if not, then no matter how neutral the act may seem, she makes it a sin because it’s not done in reliance upon Christ or for his glory.