Much emphasis has been placed on the role of knowledge in human moral development. If we hear about some moral or doctrinal problem, how often do we assume that insufficient teaching is a big part of the challenge? If we hear that someone we know has fallen for temptation and has sinned, how often do we respond by saying that they “know better”? How many times is there an assumption that if people know what is true and right that they will automatically believe and do what is true and right?
The knowledge-centered theory of human moral development has grown popular over the past three hundred years. This view assumes that the real problem with evil comes from human ignorance–where there is ignorance, sin multiplies, and so if we can just eliminate ignorance with right instruction, we can eliminate sin!
Knowledge is a critical component of moral development. Hosea lamented that the people of Israel were “destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Understanding what is good and right is necessary for growth and development in Christianity (Hebrews 5:14). There are many instances where ignorance has led to sin and proper education has led to more righteous conduct.
Yet whereas knowledge is critical for proper moral development, it is not sufficient in and of itself for proper moral development. As James declares in James 4:17, one can know the right thing to do and still not do it. Such is, itself, transgression and sin– but it is possible. Merely because one knows what is true and right does not mean that one will believe and act according to what is true and right.
The challenge exists because of the nature of sin. However one wishes to understand Romans 7 :7-25 in its context, Paul there exposes how sin corrupts and tempts even those who know right from wrong. If mere knowledge were enough, all should aspire to be as the lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 23:1-4)!
The difficult, sad reality is that there is no human being who, despite knowing truth from error and right from wrong, always chooses the truth and the right. None of us has ever kept or could ever keep God’s laws perfectly; not one of us can ever be justified on the basis of how well we have kept God’s law (Romans 3:20). That is why we must place our trust and confidence in God and His love and mercy toward us (Romans 3:24-29, 8:1-11, 31-39).
Knowledge is very important in order for us to develop morally; we do well to learn from God so as to understand good from evil, right from wrong (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). But we cannot assume that knowledge, by itself, will automatically lead to complete moral development. There will be many times when we will know the right thing to do and will not do it; likewise, there will be many times when we know something is wrong but we will do it anyway. This is because of the tempting, deceitful nature of sin (Hebrews 3:13).
Scripture teaches us that we will never be able to stand against every temptation by our own power alone (Jeremiah 10:23, Ephesians 6:10-18). If we stand, it will be on account of our submission to God and the strength which He supplies through Christ (Philippians 4:13, 1 Peter 4:11). This does not release us from responsibility; God will not provide that strength if we choose to remain in ignorance, refusing to learn of and to submit to Him. But if we understand that we will never be righteous on the basis of our knowledge or merits alone, humble ourselves before God, seek His paths, and pray for strength, we can have confidence that He will not reject our pleas. Let us trust in God and not in the power of our own knowledge and strength!