The Shape of the Lutheran Ethic – A Look at Life Issues Decision-Making

Rev. Wayne D. Mueller

Gone are the days when your pastor’s toughest medical counseling was talking to grandma about entering the nursing home. The advance of technology, the growth of the health care industry and the huge investment of the government and the private sector in medical care have presented some real challenges to our faith.

More likely than not your pastor has recently offered advice to his members on organ transplants, donating their bodies to science, living wills, cremation and euthanasia. A recent letter to this magazine, The Northwestern Lutheran, asks, “What about artificial insemination, In Vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, etc.?” We could add a few others such as genetic screening, sex pre-selection, genetic manipulation and artificial organs.

Your turn will come to answer some of these questions about medical ethics. How will you react? You might wonder whether anything new must somehow be opposed to God’s natural order of things. Or you might conclude that the Bible has little to say to the complicated situations, so it doesn’t make much difference what one decides. You might simply go to a counselor you trust and follow whatever advice is given. OR, if it is a family decision, you might try to come to a resolution which is least painful and most satisfying to everyone.

Inside and outside the church people have been wrestling with medicalethical dilemmas. The word “ethic” means the approach one takes to deciding what is right and wrong. A situational ethic, for example, suggests we are not bound by any set of rules or laws. Instead we should weigh all the circumstances and decide what is best in each situation. The love ethic says the only rule for decision making is love. Just do whatever you think is the most loving thing to do. Another ethic suggests that the end justifies the means. So, do whatever will produce the best results for you and the others involved.

The Lutheran Ethic

The challenges posed to our faith by medical dilemmas may sometimes seem insurmountable and the decisionmaking process horribly complicated. But once we recognize the challenging questions are really opportunities to exercise our faith, we have begun to understand our Biblebased Lutheran ethic. Like everything else we do in life (Colossians 3:17), making decisions in health care and life and death issues is an opportunity to glorify the God who redeemed us from sin and calls us His children.

Not Law-Centered

Unlike the approach to problem solving in many conservative and fundamentalist churches, our Lutheran ethic is not centered on the law. We have learned from little on that outward obedience to the Ten Commandments is not the first thing God looks for when He judges what pleases Him.

So our decision-making does not start with a search for rules and laws. After all, God does not have specific rules about all the decisions we make. Where, for instance, is the Bible passage about artificial insemination? Sometimes more than one of God’s laws applies to a situation. Then, what do we do? The Christian will be as confused as the unbeliever if he approaches medical questions first on the basis of law — even if it’s God’s law.

Faith is First

When God determines the ethics of a decision, He first looks at the heart of the one who is doing the deciding. Before God accepts what a person does, He looks to see why he is doing it. God looks for faith, not just any faith, but faith in His Son Jesus, the Savior. God is the one who puts this faith in our hearts. He wants every action, every decision we make, to come from a heart that loves Jesus.

Without such faith in the heart, no decision is ethically good in the eyes of God. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Whenever we have a tough decision to make, the first thing we want to do is take ourselves in for an examination. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Whoever approaches a tough decision without faith in Jesus Christ will produce something unethical, no matter what he does (Matthew 12:3335). For “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Faith in the heart is the beginning of God-pleasing decision-making, but it is not the only part. Faith in Jesus is trust, an attitude of dependence on God. That means that the believer comes to God and not to the world for answers to his tough questions (Romans 12:1,2). He comes on his knees with the confidence that someone is listening on the other end. Faith trusts that a loving and wise God has answers and will provide them.

Faith Looks to the Law

So Christian ethics means more than having faith. Faith never operates in a vacuum. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). Christian faith always seeks to please God in the way God wants to be pleased. Because our sinful nature exists alongside our spiritual nature, we must always ask our Lord what He wants us to do. He answers that question in His law.

The law God has written in Scripture provides many great principles and applications for the field of medical ethics. In the Bible we see God as the Author of life and death. He begins human life through conception but may end it in any number of ways. He claims our bodies as His possession from conception to the grave and has appointed us to take care of them. God has established the husband and wife as the family setting in which children are to be conceived and born.

Since our faith leads us to please God in the way He wants to be pleased, the Christian rejects all ethical systems which sidestep God’s moral commands. We don’t accept an ethic in which “love” the situation or the end is used to justify a decision. TV may portray “love” as the reason to shorten a life of suffering by euthanasia, but God’s law says, “Thou shalt not kill.” The circumstances of a busy working family may demand mother’s commitment to a home for the elderly, but will that always be what God’s law of love prescribes? The commendable goal to alleviate a rape victim’s grief does not justify the murderous means of abortion.

Faith Sets a Goal

We don’t believe that the end justifies the means, but faith does set a goal for its good works. The goal of those who believe in Jesus and follow God’s law is to give glory to God before the world and to serve our neighbor. Sometimes when God’s law doesn’t give us the specific answers we want, keeping that goal in mind will help us to an ethical decision.

The frustration of not knowing exactly what to do can be a healthy frustration. It is healthy if it drives us back to our Bibles in search of a stronger faith. It is good for us if it makes us more eager students of God’s will. It is beneficial if it brings us back to our knees to acknowledge God’s greater wisdom and our need for forgiveness.

Our Lutheran ethic reminds us that decisions that start with faith must end with faith. Tough decisions will always leave us with some human doubts. Our own sins, the sins of others against us, the limitations of our sinful human reason, our imperfect knowledge of God’s will make all our decisions less than fully satisfying. Satisfaction for the Christian comes only through faith in Christ. We can always be satisfied that His love prompted our actions, His Word guided our decisions and His perfect merit forgives our imperfect conclusions.


This is our Lutheran ethic. It begins with faith in Jesus, looks to the law for guidance in what pleases God, sets service to God and neighbor as its goal and trusts God to cleanse away what is still imperfect in our decisions. This is how we live all our life to God. We need to keep this ethic in mind as we approach the tough questions in medical care.


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