Would you agree to the murder of one person if it meant saving a nation? This is the ethical dilemma often defended by the well-known statement, “the end justifies the means.”
Attributed to the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Sergey Nechayev, the saying basically means that evil is permissible if it produces the outcome you want.
Would you continue to throw Jacobs’ sons into a pit if it meant feeding the world? If killing the unborn meant life-saving treatment for others, would you participate, would you go along with it?
Murder is immoral. Then again, saving a whole country seems like an excellent outcome. But is it? What kind of world is being saved when murderers can murder and then go free?
Caiaphas, the chief priest in Jesus’ final hours, had said that,
… it would be better if one man died for the people than for the nation to perish. (John 11:50)
…and more than a few Christians throughout history have gotten on board with this kind of morally corrupt justification for evil.
But the crucifixion proves just the opposite. Yes, the death of Jesus meant the salvation of the world. But that did not get those who shouted, “crucify, crucify!”, off the hook. Rather, it condemned them.
Let’s face it, the people who often employ the argument that the ends (success of the venture) justify the means, are not offering themselves up as the victim, are they? No. But they will tolerate and even approve of the wicked and ungodly means employed by others, if, by it, they might gain something supposedly “good” for themselves.
But “good” by what standard?
You can tell the goodness of something, said Jesus, by asking, “where did it come from?”.
By their fruits you will know them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. (Matthew 7:16-17)
One of the signs that we have lost our moral compass is when we start using arguments like, “the end justifies the means” as a way to secure our own safety, prosperity or success. But success, success at any price, is never the goal. Holiness is the goal and holy fruit depends on a holy root.
A life rooted, grounded, and anchored in Christ is a life rooted, grounded and anchored to holiness. The result is good fruit. A life grounded in “whatever gets you through the night”, grounded in pragmatism or the current cultural groove, is going to produce bad fruit.
In other words, the source material matters.
Holiness in our choices and our conduct matters. Holiness in money matters. Holiness at the root matters.
Jesus tells us to take a straight, honest look at the tree. Look at the fruit, then follow the root. In what are your decisions rooted and grounded?
The end (the outcome) no matter how “good” by our definition, does not justify ungodly means. If the root – that is, the grounds of our choices, the source of our well-being and prosperity – is bad, then the fruit will be rotten.
And so we have Abraham as our example,
But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the Lord God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will not accept even a thread, or a strap of a sandal, or anything that belongs to you, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” (Genesis 14:22-23)
It matters how we prosper. It matters how we get stuff done. It matters how we survive.
God’s desire for His people is holiness because He is holy. He does not need justification for His actions because all His ways are just (Deuteronomy 32:3-5).
But we need justification, and we need it badly. And that justification will come, not by pragmatic actions anchored to evil roots, but by the mercies of God who grants repentance and the tree of life to those who turn away from sin and love not their lives unto death (Revelation 12:11).