What Does it Mean to be Human?

Paul Coulter considers the consequences of his study of what it means to be human for Christian ethics.

Having considered the Christian story, we can now say something briefly about Christian ethics. So far we have mentioned the standard of Christian ethics, which is based on the fact that all human beings are created in God’s image. Our problem, however, has never simply been about finding a standard for ethics, but our lack of power to do those things we believe we should do. Christian ethics is more than simply a standard for us to aspire to. This sets it apart from other ethical systems, and in fact sets Christianity apart from other religious systems. Christian ethics includes three dimensions:

A Standard

The starting point (or bedrock) of Christian ethics is the fact of creation in God’s image. This tells us that God has a purpose for all of mankind and that every human individual has a part to play within that overall purpose. Therefore all human beings have the same significance and importance in God’s eyes, however limited in their capabilities. Every individual is capable of life in three dimensions, at least as the recipient of love from God and others and a beneficiary of the goodness in the created world, even if they lack the mental capacity to appreciate it fully or to respond in love for God and others or by caring for the created world. All human beings are in need of transformation. We are all profoundly 'disabled', most especially in terms of our inability to earn acceptance with God or to achieve His perfect standard. God, however, is capable of restoring every individual to what they would have been without the effects of sin. For those who are capable of making a decision their inclusion in God’s restoration will depend upon their response to His revelation, but for those who are incapable of making a decision (and who but God can decide exactly who that is?) we can trust God to act justly and believe that He can restore them.

The “image of God” is the bedrock of Christian ethics, but God’s revelation in the Bible has given us a much more complete picture of His intention for us. The Old Testament Law given to Israel to regulate their national life can teach us a great deal about sin and relationship with God, and the New Testament contains many exhortations to behaviour that is pleasing to God and warnings about behaviour that is displeasing to Him. The teaching of Jesus contains an ethical standard that is far higher than any of the other major philosophical or religious systems of ethics in the world. When Jesus presented His version of the 'Golden Rule' (Matthew 7:12) He made a vital distinction. Whereas others said that we should not do to others what we do not want them to do to us (a negative statement aimed at limiting harmful actions), Jesus said that we must do to others what we would want them to do to us (a positive statement aimed at promoting helpful actions). Jesus spoke of love for our enemies and forgiveness for those who wrong us – He called us to mirror the perfect standard of God’s goodness (Matthew 5:43-48). Christ’s own life and behaviour is the ultimate standard of Christian ethics. He lived out exactly what He taught.


Christian ethics presents a high standard for human behaviour. In fact it is so high that some writers have mocked it as impossible. Certainly it flies in the face of many of our 'natural' instincts when we are asked to forgive or to help people who hurt us. Christian ethics, however, also contains a motivating factor that can spur us on towards this kind of behaviour – a personal discovery of God’s grace. Grace, in Christian terms, means God’s undeserved favour to us – His desire to do good for us and to give good things to us that is not earned by us but arises simply from His love for us. God’s grace is the basis of His forgiveness of us. His grace becomes effective in our lives when we surrender to Him and trust Him to rescue us (Ephesians 2:8-9). As recipients of God’s grace we are motivated to extend grace to others. Grace transforms us and teaches us how to live in a way that pleases God (Titus 2:11-12). Jesus told a parable (a story) to illustrate how a true appreciation of grace must motivate us to extend grace (Matthew 17:21-35). It is about a man who has a huge debt cancelled but then refuses to cancel a comparatively tiny debt owed to him. This man has not embraced grace, and he ends up having the penalty for his debt re-imposed upon him. When we are constantly reminded of how much God has forgiven us, when we realise how weak and sinful we were, we start to see other people in a different way. We realise that God loves them and that they too are in need of His forgiveness and restoration. We start to desire to be a means through which God can bring His love into their lives.


Christians have a standard of ethics and a strong motivation towards that standard, but we also need a third element. The Bible describes sin as a powerful force that can enslave and trap people. We can conceive of this in terms of addictions to substances, whether tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs. What starts out as a choice eventually leads to a situation where the person has no choice, they are controlled by the substance. They are 'dehumanized'. The effects of addiction are evident and highly destructive. At another level, however, we are all addicts and slaves to sin. Jesus taught that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). We start out making a choice to act in a certain way, but as we repeatedly make that choice it becomes a habit and sin gains further control over us. It is too simple to speak of 'free will' since our choices are never free from influence and sin has a kind of power over us. We need to be set free from sin and we need a new power to be able to do what God requires. Christian ethics includes the idea that Christ can set us free from sin. When a person trusts in Christ He liberates them to be able to serve God and do what is right. Shortly after his statement about sin’s ability to enslave us, Jesus said “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). He understood His mission as one of liberation for people trapped by sin, and He saw His death as a ransom price paid to set people free (Mark 10:45).

Christians continue to have a choice, and they can continue to commit sin, but this is similar to a slave who has been bought from a cruel master by a generous and kind master returning to work for the cruel man. It makes no sense at all. Paul writes about this dynamic in Romans chapter 6. Not only has Christ set us free to be able to serve God, but He has given us the power to do so. This power is made available to us through the Holy Spirit of God who makes His home in the life of the Christian. He is the constant presence of God with us and He gives the power to do what we know God wants us to do as we follow Him (see Romans 8 and Galatians 5 for descriptions of this dynamic). His ultimate goal is to transform us so that we become increasingly like Christ – being transformed in our character into people who are like Him in His perfect humanity (2 Corinthians 3:18). This work will be completed when Christ returns – we will see Him in His perfection and we will be like Him, and this hope should spur us on to make choices that work towards this goal in our present lives (1 John 3:2-3). The future hope includes the redemption of our bodies as we will receive new resurrection bodies that are unaffected by sin and capable of life in God’s New Creation (Romans 8:23-25; 1 Corinthians 15). Christians are in the process of becoming what God intended us to be. We might say that Christians are 'human becomings' rather than 'human beings'. We realise that we are not fully human but that God can make us fully human. We make choices to obey God or to ignore Him and follow our own desires, and we experience the results of these choices in our lives.

Christian ethics, then, has a standard to aspire to, a motivation to inspire us and a power to enable us. When a person becomes a Christian they begin to follow God’s leading. Their desires, which (as we have considered earlier) left unchecked lead to sin and destruction, are offered to Him for His purpose. They discover how to say no to their own desires at the point where they would lead them into sin and to follow the leading of the Spirit of God. Within the Christian there is often a tension between the desires of the 'flesh' and the desires of God’s 'Spirit'. We learn to listen to His voice and so to develop the quality of self-control that means our desires can be trained to His purposes. Desire can be domesticated and restored to its original dignity. Christian ethics is all about relationship with God. It is not about attempting in our own effort, motivated by guilt and shame, to live up to an external standard. It is about knowing God, listening to Him and allowing Him to change our hearts so that His standard is increasingly and ever more accurately written there. All the time we are motivated by gratitude and a constant rediscovery of His grace to us, and all along He empowers us to do what He asks of us. It is a dynamic loving relationship.

Go to 10. A choice to make

© 2010 Paul B Coulter
This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.