A Notable Book on Christian Conduct

Principles of Conduct

John Murray

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids 3, Michigan, 272 pages. $3.50.

The substance of this book is a series of lectures delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, in 1955. However, the author tolls us in the preface that he has expanded the original lectures considerably in the present study, which “seeks to show the basic unity and continuity of the biblical ethic” (p. 7).

While following the biblico-theological method, Professor Murray has dealt with only certain aspects of biblical ethics. To his mind the Ten Commandments furnish the core of ethics and “were but the concrete and practical form of enunciating principles which did not then for the first time come to have relevance but were relevant from the beginning” (p. 7). What is more, by the biblico-theological method they are relevant today, since these principles “belong to the organism of divine revelation respecting God’s will for man” (p. 8).

In biblical ethics, says the author, “we are concerned with the norms, canons, or standards of behavior which are enunciated in the Bible for the creation, direction, and regulation of thought, life, and behavior, consonant with the will of God” (p. 14). This is ·a heart problem primarily, since out of it are the issues of life. Furthermore, the fact of sin, the corruption of man’s heart, is a primary consideration. Therefore, a study of Christian ethics is not a survey of the sum total of the behavior attitudes and actions of those who profess to be believers or such as the Bible presents to us as believers. The norm is divinely revealed and objectively given in the Word.

But does the Word speak without equivocation? Is there a unified presentation of the claims of God upon his creature? This is one of the introductory questions discussed by Professor Murray. What about polygamy and divorce? These, says the author, were permitted ill the Old Testament but not legitimized. It was a sufferance of forbearance but not of approval.

The second preliminary question deals with the relationship of love and law. Does not love in the renewed consciousness displace the law, since its dictates are the crystallization of the believer’s love to God and his fellow-man?

To this Professor Murray replies that it certainly is love that constrains or impels to the action prescribed, but it is the law which prescribes the action. There is no antithesis between love and law, for the law commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. Although it is true that the commandment cannot generate love, yet love is exercised in response to the commandment. This fact, says the author, “should serve to expose at the outset the fallacy and perversity of that pattern of thought which is intolerant of the notion of keeping or observing commandments. If this notion is not biblical then we shall have to eliminate the commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets” (pages 23, 24).

When Paul admonishes us that love is the fulfillment of the law he does not say that “love is the law”; “law” and “love” do not have the same connotation. There must be a content to law which is not defined by love itself. Neither do the Scriptures allow that love dictates its own standard or patterns of conduct, that love is autonomous; but, “from the beginning there are objectively revealed precepts, institutions, commandments which are the norms and channels of human behavior” (p. 24).

Furthermore, the law written upon the heart is as to contents nothing else but the revelation deposited in Scripture. This law was no doubt also inscribed upon the heart of Adam, but this did not obviate the necessity of specific commandment concerning that which was to engage his powers in this world. The Original mandates given to Adam are unmistakable evidence that native instinct was insufficient to monitor man in the state of rectitude.

The conclusion to which the author is driven at the end of the first chapter is that “the notion…that love is its own law and the renewed consciousness is its own monitor is a phantasy which has no warrant from Scripture and runs counter to the witness of the biblical teaching” (p. 26).

Although, no doubt, this is tho truth of the matter, yet it would seem in our day to be little understood. All around us, not merely in the ethics of modernism, but also in evangelical and Reformed circles the Christian consciousness is made normative as if it were an autonomous power giving content to the law of love. And furthermore, men are forever putting up an antithesis between law and love, between pleasure and precept. When are we going to learn that just as faith without works is dead, so love without law is sterile and empty?

In chapter two the author sets forth the creation ordinances; namely, procreation of offspring, replenishing the earth, subduing the same, dominion over creatures, labor, weekly Sabbath, and marriage. He further indicates the complementation and interpenetration that exists between them. This becomes evident when we consider marriage as the “institution established by God for the fulfillment of the procreative mandate” and the sex instinct. Monogamy is shown to have been intended from the beginning by God with no allowance for the dissolution of the marital bond.

Furthermore, the observance of the Sabbath and the performance of our daily task complement each other. God’s rest, after which that of man is patterned (not a rest of inactivity) was after six days of work; so God also requires man to work six days before his sabbath rest is earned. The day of rest has no meaning apart from labor, which was incumbent upon Adam as a specific duty to dress the garden. Hence work is not a curse but a blessing. The author is of the opinion that economics, culture, morality, and piety have suffered grave havoc because men have failed to appreciate the true nobility of manual labor.

Furthermore, replenishing the earth and subduing it and having dominion over it are all intimately bound up with labor. There is no possible way of fulfilling these mandates without expenditure of thought and energy. “If sin had not entered, the chief incentive to fulfill the will of God would have been the discovery and exhibition of the manifold wisdom and power of God” (p. 38). This, says Murray—and we agree—would have been “a culture untiringly inspired by the apprehension of the Creator’s glory and by the passion to apprehend and exalt that glory more. That our culture is so little inspired by that ideal is but proof that man has fallen. That any of this culture is found in the earth is proof of redemptive grace” (p. 38).

The author further indicates that in the unfallen state of man there was “no conflict between the gratification of desire and the enhancement of pleasure, on the one hand, and the fulfillment of God’s command on the other” (p. 38). To this harmony the renewed man is restored when he is able to say with David, “O how love I thy law,” and with Paul, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.”

There is, then, no antithesis between duty and desire; between law and love; between precept and pleasure. However, biblical ethics cannot be understood without the fact of sin. Everything that was proper in the state of innocence is not so in the state of sin; for example, nakedness. By clothing the sinner God established an institution that has the validity of a commandment. So many of the norms of Scripture are predicated on the fact of sin. If we do not recognize this we may be inclined to reject many features of the biblical ethic.

On the other hand, the creation ordinances have not been abrogated, but their sanctity is preserved. Even in the curse upon sin, procreation, labor, replenishing the earth and subduing it, and the Sabbath are implied.

In the third chapter, which deals with marriage in the Lord, the learned author discusses chastity and procreation, as a mandate subject to restrictions. This is the best down to earth, biblically oriented, discussion which this reviewer has seen on the subject. It is thorough, sensitive, realistic, and always eminently biblical!

In his discussion of the ordinance of labor Professor Murray stresses the fact that the cycle of labor is as irreversible as the cycle of rest, consisting of six days. Many of our economic ills have their root in the failure to recognize this God-ordained fact. Labor is not only a duty, but it is a privilege; idleness is impiety while sloth and laziness are forms of godlessness. Furthermore, each person’s labor is a divine vocation. Our labor should be unto the Lord. One of the cardinal vices in this field is that we do it unto men and as men-pleasers. But this turns labor into drudgery and we get an ethic of expediency which breaks down the moral fiber of our culture. If we deny the relevance of Scripture in providing us with principles both for the theory and practice of labor, we thereby deny the sufficiency of Scripture as a rule for faith and practice.

The problem of the rewards of labor are also discussed. The author does not hesitate to say that the Bible does not condemn capitalism—which needs saying rather plainly these days—but at the same time he warns against the vices which have ever been the snares of the rich. The heart of the biblical ethic at this point is that lust for riches is covetousness, which is idolatry. But the abuse of riches and the abuses of the rich do not make wealth evil. It is a benefaction of God, for which men are held accountable.

Not equality but justice and equity are the Scriptural principles in the distribution of wealth. A contract can he the instrument of grievous oppression; hence a contract must rest upon justice, which is the royal law of liberty.

As to slavery, it does not suspend the Scriptural principle that “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” The conclusion of the matter is that “Though the Scripture exercises an eloquent reserve in refraining from the proscription of the institution, and though it does not lay down principles which evince its intrinsic wrong, nevertheless the Scripture does encourage and require the promotion of those conditions which make slavery unnecessary.” (p. 100).

However, obedience to masters as divine ordinance is not dependent on slavery. Murray contends that the apostolic admonition, “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men” (Colossians 3:23) is relevant today for the working man. Such an attitude would be a revolutionizing force in our economic situation, and the absence of this religious attitude toward work may be considered to lie at the foundation of our economic ills. Professor Murray sounds a warning at this point that we are fast approaching the tyranny of labor, which is a complete reversal of the divine order. “The tyrannies of communism are not far removed, and who with his eyes open can fail to dread the tyranny to which the laboring man no less than others will be subjected in the slavery of a communistic regime. Our complacency, our lack of vigilance, our failure to prize the simple yet exacting principles of Scripture regarding the relation of master and servant, of employer and employee, our readiness to dismiss these guiding principles as obsolete, have put us on the way to this other kind of slavery. And if we get to the terminus of the road, the slavery of the first century will be tame in comparison” (p. 105).

Under the title “The Sanctity of Life,” the author discusses the law of God concerning murder, namely, that “whosoever sheds man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.” It is exactly “the sanctity of life that validates the death penalty for the crime of murder” (p. 122).

The next chapter deals with the sanctity of truth, which also is ground. ed in the being of God so that untruth becomes the hallmark of impiety. An truth is derived from God and “only in relation to him is anything untrue” ( p. 132). The fact that God blessed Jacob, the deceiver, is no ground for the conclusion ·that God connived at his falsehood. Neither does Scripture “provide us with any warrant for the vindication of Rahab’s untruth; consequently this instance does not support the position that under certain circumstances we may justifiably utter an untruth” (p. 139).

Here John Murray agrees with John Calvin who held that though we may wish to assist our brethren “It never can be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth” (Quoted by Murray, p. 139).

This is of the greatest significance, since we are hearing more and more voices also in Reformed circles advocating a relativistic ethic, so that lying to save a life becomes permissible. This, of course, is the way to moral chaos.

In all fairness it ought to be added that the author does not believe that concealment is lying, i.e., one is not always under obligation to speak the whole truth, witness Samuel when he goes to anoint David. However, one may not resort to untruth in an attempt at concealment. Some may want to call this a fine distinction; to which Professor Murray replies, “At the point of divergence the difference between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is not a chasm but a razor’s edge. And if we do not appreciate this fact then certainly we are insensitive to the biblical ethic” (p. 141).

Due to space limitations it becomes impossible to follow the author as he sets forth the teachings of our Lord on the relation of law and grace and other subjects.

In our resume we have tried to indicate something of the flavor of this ethical treatise and its profound biblical insights. It constitutes a rich mine of exegetical material for the minister in preaching on the law of God. We have never read anything on the duty of labor or the sanctity of life and of truth which reached down so deep in bringing up the treasures of the Word and which was so profoundly uplifting for the soul. Professor Murray’s treatment is at all times exegetical and positive but the implications against modernistic relativism in ethics and socialism in economics are devastating. Yet there is no legalism or traditionalism. The central theme is “O, how love I thy law!” and, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.”




The Great Physician: by James M. Ghysels, 1957

Bake. Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich. 48 pp. 60c:

This little booklet of “messages of courage for the sick and shut-in” is written by a familiar figure among the writers for “The Banner,” denominational weekly of the Christian Reformed Church. This is a collection of ten of the writer’s justly famous “meditations,” called for their peculiar message to the suffering Christian. As may be expected, they are practical, dealing with such subjects as answered prayer, facing death, and seeking patience. They are Scriptural, each one being based on a Bible text. Since the author is a Calvinist, he points his readers ever upward to find their abiding comfort in sheer submissive faith in the sovereign God. Those who visit the sick might well purchase several of these beautiful little booklets to leave at the sick-bed. They will give much more lasting help than whole banks of flowers.


Christian Marriage: Ralph L. Veenstra, 1957

Guardian Publishing Co., Ltd., Hamilton, Ont., Canada. 180 pages. $2.90.

The author of this book is well known among those who read The Banner, for his pithy Word-a-Week column. Going to the heart of a matter and stating his thinking in simple, startling prose is Rolph Veenstra’s strength.

Christian Marriage is a frank and searching discussion of God’s creation ordinance for man and woman. The divine institution and organization of marriage is treated thoroughly. In a thought-provoking second chapter the author makes a good case for celibacy, not as a forced option or a high-road to heaven, but for the sake of the kingdom. Sex is discussed in chapter four as something pure and holy but desecrated and exploited by sinful men.

With respect to the purpose of marriage the author quotes the form for the solemnization of marriage found in the Supplement of the Psalter Hymnal, official praise-book of the Christian Reformed Church. Veenstra not only believes that the order: propagation of the race, furtherance of the kingdom of God, and the enrichment of those entering this state, is correct; but he makes a strong plea for Christians “to have as many children as they conscientiously can.” This is not only living according to the law of God but also the best way “to build Christ’s church, to spread the kingdom, to outnumber the forces of unrighteousness” (p. 103). One of the reasons it is hard to fulfill the missionary mandate to preach the Gospel to every creature is that the saints are practicing birth-control and the unbelievers are increasing at a greater ratio than the believers.

The last four chapters of the book deal with the choice of a marriage· partner, courtship, marriage and divorce, and success in marriage. Each one of them is down-to-earth, practical but at the same time hews to the line of the divine standard. The great evil of divorce in our society is signalized as the number one sin of our nation.

This is one of the books we have been waiting for in Reformed circles. The author and the publishers as well are to be congratulated on its production. Every church library ought to acquire this book and it will make an ideal gift to the newly married.


I–II Timothy and Titus, in New Testament Commentary, by William Hendriksen

Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1957. 404 pages. $6.00.

This is the fourth volume of Hendriksen’s contemplated New Testament Commentary. Actually this review ought to be written by an expert in New Testament; however, we would like to look at this book from the paint of view of the young minister in the preparation of sermons and of the average, intelligent layman who loves the ·Word. It has been our experience that most commentaries do not give the much needed help, since they are either concerned with abstract and technical matters or exude the commonplace and obvious.

First of all, we welcome this commentary because of the reasons given by the author for the study of the Pastorals. This study is advocated on the ground that “they shed much light on the important problem of church administration,” “they stress sound doctrine;’” “they demand consecrated living,” they emphasize the value of the creeds, are a valuable source both for an understanding of the closing activities of Paul’s life and the third quarter of the first century of the early church.

Second, the Introduction, although dealing with technical problems, may be read by a layman as well as those trained in theology. And, as a matter of fact, this is one of the best features of this commentary: it is written in understandable language without becoming superficial and commonplace.

Third, we like the excellent outlines provided for each book together with a one-sentence theme. The first epistle to Timothy, e.g., is said to give directions to Timothy for the administration of the church, while in the second epistle “Paul tells Timothy what to do in the interest of sound doctrine.”

Fourth, we are enthusiastic about the translation of the author, which is made on the basis of orthodox presuppositions and, as far as we can judge, true to the original, but which at the same time is given in readable English. For example, II Timothy 2:4ff is rendered as follows: “No soldier on active duty gets himself entangled in the business-pursuits of civilian life, since his aim is to please the officer who enlisted him. Again, if anyone is competing in an athletic event, he does not receive the victor’s wreath unless he competes in compliance with the rules. The hard-working farmer should be the first one to take his share of the crops” (p. 245).

Fifth, this commentary, while thoroughly orthodox, is up to date and abreast of the times with respect to archaeological discoveries and critical theories. However, the critical data, although made available for the scholar, do not obtrude and hinder the ordinary layman from making this an efficient tool in his sermon approach to the Scripture.

Finally, we like the verse by verse comments of the author. This volume differs from the one-volume popular commentaries, in which a whole pericope may be dismissed with a few banal remarks. At the same time, there is a thorough synthesis at the end in which the author summarizes the central ideas and brings them into proper focus. This is valuable for the minister as well as the layman.

We recommend this volume to all our office -hearers, Sunday -School teachers, and day-school teachers—in fact to all our Christian people. Here is a scholarly work which can serve as a reliable guide in the study of the Pastoral Epistles.