“Reformed Ethics”

by John M. Frame


This article was originally published in Carl Henry, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics (1973), 571-72. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. Baker’s URL is http://www.bakerbooks.com, and that of Baker Publishing Group is http://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.


REFORMED ETHICS.  See also Calvin and Calvinistic Ethics; Luther and Lutheran Ethics; Reformation.  The Reformed branch of Protestantism (as contrasted with the Lutheran and Radical branches) began with the work of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Cf. Calvin and Calvinistic Ethics for the contribution of John Calvin.)

Zwingli was not an ethical theorist in the formal sense, but he was a practical man who reassured actions above talk, and whose writings display a profound ethical concern.  This practical bent, more than his “humanistic” background, led him to a greater emphasis than Luther on the positive functions of the law of God in the Christian life.  To Zwingli, the law is not only a threat, but a gift of God’s grace.  It reveals the believer’s sinfulness, not to slay him, but to kindle in him love for the gracious lawgiver and therefore true repentance.  The Ten Commandments stand as an eternally valid standard of Christian conduct, not annulled, but vindicated by the grace of God in Christ.  They represent God’s fundamental demand upon all men, a demand known “by nature” even to those men unacquainted with the written law.  Zwingli did not feel, however, that the law made life easy for the Christian.  He was deeply aware of the inner conflicts pictured in Romans 7, and of the tensions between joy and sorrow, struggle and satisfaction, conflict and peace in the Christian life.  In his catalogue of Christian virtues, he laid particular stress upon discipline, temperance, sobriety – traits which fit the believer for the fierceness of the spiritual battle.  He regarded the law, moreover, as bearing not only upon individuals, but upon society as a whole.  The civil magistrate is a minister of God who is called upon to bring both believers and unbelievers into external conformity with God’s law as much as possible, though of course true inward conformity to the law is possible only through the working of faith in the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Since Zwingli, Reformed ethics has maintained his basic emphases.  It has generally rejected his view that salvation is open to the heathen on the basis of natural law alone, and thereby has set itself off more sharply in distinction from Roman Catholic ethics wile underscoring more emphatically Zwingli’s own emphasis on the necessity of written Scripture.  Reformed ethics maintains the distinctive Reformation teaching that man is unable to please God in any way apart from the grace of God in Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.  Yet, in contrast with other forms of Protestantism (and in sharp antithesis with modern liberal thinking), Reformed ethics maintains a distinctive emphasis upon the eternal authority and relevance of God’s moral law.  Reformed thinkers are, of course, not blind to the fact that God often requires different things of different people in different situations; but they will not concede that this fact in the least diminishes our responsibility to obey these requirements.  Nor do they concede the objection that such a position is “legalistic.” Recent studies have confirmed that law is an indispensable element in the very concept of a covenant between God and man.  Obedience to divine commands is an essential requirement of both Old and New Covenants (Deut. 6:1-9; Matt. 5:17-10 (THIS IS A TYPO FROM THE ORIGINAL EVIDENTALLY)  John 13:34f.; 143:15, 21, 23; 15:10; I John 5:3; II John 6).  Keeping the law cannot save a man, but those who are saved will want to keep the commandments of the Lord who redeem them.

It is an oversimplification, however, to describe Reformed ethics as purely and simply an ethics of law.  The Reformed confessions and theologies emphasize other aspects of ethics in addition to the legal aspect:  (1) Reformed ethics is “situation” in the sense that it sees the ethical task as one of directing present circumstances toward a future goal (that of the Kingdom of God), and therefore as one which requires an analysis of the present “situation.”  It recognizes that present situation as already structured by God’s great redemptive acts in the past, and as being directed by God’s providence toward the final consummation.  The Christian life, therefore, is characterized by a tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  Unlike modern “situation-ism,” however, Reformed ethics recognizes that the most important factor in the present situation is the ever-living God who continues to speak his will to us through the Scriptures of the OT and NT.  (2) Reformed ethics is also “existential,” in that it sees faith and love as necessary and sufficient conditions for genuine good works, and therefore sees the ethical task as that of purifying the inner man that his righteousness may be more than merely external.  Unlike modern “existential” ethics, however, the Reformed position recognizes the power of God’s commands to purify the soul (Ps. 19) when addressed to a believing heart.


G.W. Bromiley, ed., Zwingli and Bullinger, Library of Christian Classics XXIV, Philadelphia, Westminster, 1953; J. Murray, Principles of Conduct, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955; C. Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, unpublished class syllabus privately reproduced, 1970.


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