I recently read a book on the subject of Christian ethics. The contention of the author was that conduct in accordance with the ethical prescriptions of Jesus are the result of a true salvation experience and the receiving of the Holy Spirit to empower the believer to actually embrace the exalted ethical standards taught by Christ. This is apparently a common position in Christendom. The ethical standards are given to define the actions of people who have been saved and delivered from sin. The behavior consistent with what Jesus taught and exemplified is the measure of whether a personal salvation experience is valid. Thus, to find one's self lacking in proper behavior after supposedly having been saved is proof positive that salvation has not been achieved. This, of course, is a devastating pronouncement to many in the church, who struggle continuously with the ethics of Jesus.
The real problem with the above concept of how salvation works is the fact that one can become saved without even knowing about the ethics of Jesus. In fact, the typical sermon, designed to convert the non-believer, never deals with the ethics of Christ. No need to muddy the waters of instruction with the ethical behavior when what is needed to achieve salvation involves no prior allegiance to any ethical standards. Salvation supposedly is all about our relationship with God, which must be set right, while the ethics of Jesus deal very much with our relationship with one another. Initiating salvation is said to be independent of our interpersonal behaviors and the associated standards.
As I see it, there is a very basic problem with the above concept of salvation. Since few, if any, who claim to be saved actually appear to embrace the counterintuitive ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount, one would be forced to conclude that most who call themselves Christians are mistaken, not demonstrating the proper evidence that their conversion was real. Given the very demanding nature of what Jesus taught in that discourse, it seems unlikely that this situation will change, leaving the vast majority of the church in a position of profound insecurity.
If divine approval is truly to be measured and demonstrated by adherence to the profound ethics of Jesus, we are all in serious trouble. Whenever a preacher dares to teach that salvation is proved by how we act in accordance with the commandments of Jesus, you can bet that many church member in the audience are troubled for their spiritual well being. How could it be otherwise?
Of course, the ethical instructions of Jesus are an inescapable part of his message. What do we make of them, if their challenging nature foil any attempt to embrace them in our lives? First of all, I'd suggest that our acceptance by God (our salvation if you like) is not dependent on our actions or beliefs, whatsoever. As children of God, we have never been rejected by the Father. Our heavenly Father, like so many earthly fathers, does not reject his children for misbehavior. Love prevents that.
So what does that suggest about the ethics of Jesus? That they are neither the prerequisites for nor the results of being returned to God's favor, as typically taught. Instead those standards define the opportunity to live life to the fullest, in peace, joy, and freedom. Such life is experienced after being resurrected from a dead state of misconception, guilt, and self indulgence. Thus, the ethics of Jesus are, in fact, divorced from salvation, in the sense of achieving God's acceptance. They are, however, an integral part of what Jesus was all about, raising mankind's awareness of what it means to be fully alive (enjoying abundant life).
Regardless of our individual views of the Bible and salvation, the ethical standards taught by Jesus remain a monumental test to us all. To the extent that we dismiss them we are each left to ask ourselves why. I suspect that the true consequences of that dismissal is a lesson we have yet to fully appreciate.