"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « Images of the Savior (45 – His High-Priestly Prayer) | Main | If the Gospel wasn't clear and we couldn't actually know what it was... »

    Grace Fuels Ethics

    Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” [Exodus 1:15-22]

    Probably one of the first things you think when reading this text is: "Wait a second… the midwives told a lie. That's bad, right? But it helped them out, so does that mean it's okay to lie to accomplish good?" This is a confusing ethical dilemma, and the essence of it is familiar to many of us. Is it okay to break the law of God in order to bring about "the greater good?" Does the end justify the means, when the means are obviously sin in themselves? If my boss wants me to conduct business dishonestly, and threatens my job security if I don't comply, should I do it? What if my marriage or the lives of my children depend on it? Do I lie to get ahead in life, or preserve my life, or even to preserve the lives of others? Do I cheat, steal, or otherwise go against God's character and expressed will, because the outcome will be better than if I don't?

    These are hard questions, but there are answers. The temptation common to these questions is this: if I would just break God's commandment, I can get the life for myself that I think is best. The temptation is to manage our own destinies. The Hebrew midwives feared God and didn't kill the male children—hooray! But when their lives were in jeopardy for having disobeyed Pharaoh, they figured the best way out of this fix was to lie, which is disobedience to God. True, God had not previously commanded them not to lie, but neither had he previously commanded them to preserve life. They knew enough about the character of God—as do we all—that they knew his will for their lives. They feared God and disobeyed Pharaoh… then when under pressure they feared Pharaoh and disobeyed God.

    But good came about from it, right? So everything's okay in the end, right? Wrong. The problem is this: the midwives gave in to the temptation to take care of things for themselves, because their instinct was, "If I obey God and tell the truth, I'm dead… I don't want to die, so I'll lie." They didn't trust in God's supreme and good providence. They could have said, "If I tell the truth, God can preserve me from Pharaoh's wrath." Or they could have said, "If I tell the truth, and Pharaoh kills me, it's God's good plan for my life—NOT proof that he has abandoned me." But they gave in to the lie, "If I obey God, things will go badly for me, because God doesn't care for me like I can care for myself." The temptation is to disbelieve his favorable providence in your life, because it really doesn't appear that things are going your way.

    The way to hold up under such temptation is this: believe! Persecution and temptation are aimed at one thing only, and that is the eradication of your faith in God. So we must believe that God has good in mind for us, even if it looks like our suffering and death. We can be assured of this good intention toward us as we see his love demonstrated toward us in Christ. Because Christ died for sinners, we know that God will never strip away our good eternal destiny. Because of Christ, we know that all things work together for good for his people—even if being his people means we lose our families or jobs or lives.

    And this good news is even better when you realize that you don't have to be perfect to deserve this kind treatment from God. Jesus came to save sinners, not "righteous people" (as if there really were such a thing). Sinners are the only kind of people God saves and blesses. The Hebrew midwives sinned, and God blessed them anyway, not because they had been really clever to lie to Pharaoh, but because he is a gracious and powerful God with a good destiny in mind for them. God truly has wonderful providence in store for people just like you and me, if our faith is in him through Jesus Christ.

    So you can stand firm in your faith in the face of temptation and persecution, and say, "I don't know how God's going to work this out, because things look pretty bad right now, but whatever it is must be good, and so I will trust him with my life and do what he has called and commanded me to do." Looking to Jesus, you can resist sin, even to the point of shedding blood.

    "When Germanicus, a young man and true Christian, was delivered to the wild lions on account of his faith, he behaved with such astonishing courage that several pagans were converted to the faith that inspired such bravery…." [John Foxe's Book of Martyrs]

    When God's grace fuels your ethics, you can live the beautiful and faithful kind of life that will either make people want to kill you, or make them fall in love with your Savior, to the glory of God.

    Posted by Eric Costa on November 11, 2007 05:47 PM


    This is, indeed, a difficult passage, but I'm not sure I agree with your analysis. Why do we always assume that the midwives lied to Pharaoh? The text does not say that they lied, only gave an excuse for not being able to comply with Pharaoh's unrighteous command. Is it possible that physically fit from hard labor on Egyptian projects and basic survival in an agrarian culture Hebrew women did, in fact, deliver faster than other women? Could the midwives have simply delayed their arrival until after the births, having previous coached the family on how to deliver babies without a midwife, so that their statement was not really a lie? The text doesn't say, but neither does it say that they lied.

    "The midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them." They had the opportunity to obey Pharaoh and instead disobeyed. Every commentator I've read acknowledges the clear implication that they lied to Pharaoh when pressed. It should seem obvious to every reader that this is the case, since the story they give is not in any way corroborated by Moses in the narrative.

    I am not sure I think the pasage would become "difficult" if the midwives lied. The Scripture is about how God works to redeem humankind, not a chronology of heros and godly people through history.

    Is it wrong to lie to a murderer if the lie preserves life? Perhaps if a lie would preserve my own life, I would tell the truth. But if other lives are involved, shouldn't we lie? I'm thinking of the Holocaust. Hiding Jews and lying to the Nazis seems better than the alternative.

    The problem is still the same. You are deciding whether you should obey God's [good] commandment in order to bring about the "providence" you think best. Do you trust God's providence to do what he will with the world, even if your friends die? It is not your place to determine their destiny… you are to obey what God has told you clearly to do.

    You are weighing God's immediate demand on your behavior with the perceived outcome of the command, which is not in your hands.

    The sure hope we have is this: God's gracious providence toward us is such that if we obey his commands and people suffer, this is still the best of all possible worlds, even if it doesn't seem like it to us (we live by faith, not by sight).

    Lying certainly is a sin.

    And yet, the midwives immediately lied as soon as they didn't carry out Pharaoh's command since their disobedience included deception prior to being asked by Pharaoh about it. They could have said from the start that they would not carry out Pharaoh's command, but they didn't. They essentially and immediately lied from the beginning.

    I guess my struggle is this: We are told by God to obey our rulers and not to lie. Yet, circumstances sometimes warrant disobedience on our part. If we are allowed to disobey evil rulers, then what is the difference in lying to them too? The hearts and actions of the midwives were both disobedient and deceptive from the beginning.

    Disobedience may bring punishment from earthly rulers, and I will suffer the consequences as expected. I'm not sure why lying isn't treated the same way. Whether I disobey or I lie, I expect to suffer the consequences.

    Thanks for your patience. I'm just trying to work my way through this one.

    Disobeying earthly rulers and lying to them are different things. God wants us to disobey evil commands from those in authority over us. Disobeying this authority is not disobeying God, it is obeying God.

    But lying to this authority is not only disobedience to the authority, it is disobedience to the God of truth.

    When Peter and the apostles were before the Jewish leaders, being commanded not to preach the Gospel, they disobeyed, saying, "We must obey God rather than men." It would cost each one his life in the end, and it was in express disobedience to the authority, but no deceit was involved. This is the way to go.

    Lying is a sin, however if we are being ordered by a reprobate ruler to carry out an unjust, sinful order I believe that we should and can disobey that order in the spirit of resistance to a worldly government.

    Is not deception in some cases acceptable? If a band of drug-crazed crazed hoodlums breaks into your house and asks you if anyone else is home do you tell them your wife and children are hiding in an upstairs closet? I would tend to say no. Prior to the fall of Jericho the spies surely used deception when they infiltrated Jericho. Was Joshua exhibiting godly prudence in sending spies or showing lack of faith in God's ability to accomplish the overthrow?

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