In articles about ethics, I will sometimes discuss what makes actions right or wrong. There is something deceptive about the word “wrong” because of our everyday usage of the word. Hearts stop beating regularly (in hospitals, for instance) without any moral wrong having been committed. Yet when a heart stops beating we might say that things are “wrong” in the sense that, if things were going rightly, or as they should under typical circumstances, the heart would have continued right on beating. (Or, we might say that it is “bad” that a heart stopped beating, whereas it would have been “good” for the heart to have continued beating.)1
Now suppose that a young man is murdered. We can say that it is “bad” that the young man is dead, that his heart stopped beating. But we would also go a step further in this case and say that a real moral wrong has occurred. That is, there has been a wrong action to which we would attach blame. The reason the murder is morally wrong is not specifically that a heart stopped beating. The moral wrong is located in the heart of the murderer, who chose to do wrong and intended to violate God’s law (1 John 3:15). Similarly, immorality is not inherently involved in the changes in the configurations of microbites that are involved in the hacking of a computer. Microbites are shuffled around every time we click on an icon, I suppose. The moral problem lies elsewhere—in the heart of the person doing the hacking. God evaluates thoughts and intentions. “[M]an looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7; cf. Hebrews 4:12). Morally wrong actions always proceed from wrong intentions.
Consider yet a third usage of “wrong.” A person may intend to do the wrong thing due to ignorance, and yet we do not blame him. Wrongness and blameworthiness are not the same. Most of us can remember doing something innocently which we later regretted. A parent may punish a child and then learn further facts showing that the child should not have been punished. The parent did the wrong thing, but we would not blame him unless he were not trying to learn the relevant facts before meting out punishment. Some wrong actions do not reflect moral blameworthiness, because they do not proceed from wrong intentions. Yet we cannot choose to be ignorant of God’s will and continue to stay right with Him. Peter wrote of those who excused their sinful living because they thought that the Lord would not return, and Peter condemned them for being “willingly … ignorant” (2 Peter 3:5, KJV). On the day of judgment, the Lord will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).
The issue of how intentions play out in action can be complicated in some of the illustrations philosophers develop, and this can make praise andblame tricky. We are not suggesting that it is always easy to know what to do. From a biblical viewpoint, however, we can simply say that a person must always intend to know and follow the will of God (Colossians 3:17; Romans 14:23; cf. Romans 10:17). And we are thankful that He is a Father Who wants His children to be saved.
Such evaluations may need adjustment in light of further considerations of God’s broader will. I am not discussing such considerations here. I am only using an example of everyday evaluative language. ↩