The Christian Virtues, Part 2: Moral Excellence.

October 6, 2014.

As we continue on our journey though the Christian virtues, if you haven’t started at the beginning, I encourage you to read the first post here. We started out our discussion of the virtues by talking about faith and diligence, two characteristics that aren’t traditionally included in the virtues found in II Peter but are very relevant to applying each. We must start out with faith in order to add any supplement to it. Further, it is going to take diligence, or as the ESV puts it, it is going to take effort in order to apply these virtues to our lives that we might be holy and consecrated for the Lord. Once we are willing to make the commitment to this process, we can jump right in. Let’s begin with the first virtue.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(II Peter 1:5-8)

It may seem to be an odd statement to say that the first virtue is, well, virtue. “Supplement your faith with virtue.” What even is virtue anyways? It is times like these that other translations (or perhaps a dictionary) come in handy. The New American Standard Versions reads thusly: “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence…” If you were to look up the definition of virtue you would find something along the lines of high moral standards. So, the first thing we need to add to our faith is… high moral standards?

Shouldn’t we already have that? Well, not necessarily. When John first started his ministry of laying the path for the coming Christ, what was his message?

The beginnings of moral excellence.

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”
(Matthew 3:1-3)

This was the same message that Jesus preached when He began His ministry (ref. Matt. 4:17). I don’t know about you, but actual repentance seems like it might take more than a day to me. Well, I guess it wouldn’t be the commitment to repent that would take time, but the application of repentance. It takes some time to change the way you live your life, especially if what you need to change has played such an integral role in your life. Don’t get me wrong, we are indeed commanded to repent as this is the call of the gospel, but applying this repentance is something that I think most of us have to work on.

Further, moral excellence implies more than just repenting of the sins in one’s life, but also developing moral values and living up to moral standards. You do not have to do something ‘bad’, necessarily, to miss morality. James warns us of this:

But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows theright thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
(James 4:16-17)

So moral excellence is holding to a high moral standard, and that standard is Christ. I believe that there is a reason this is the first virtue mentioned by Peter. If you are going to add virtues, you must first have a foundation of, well, virtue. Perhaps that’s a bit confusing. Let’s say it like this. In order to improve your moral character, you must first begin with the right moral standard. This standard is based on our faith in Jesus, thus why it is written “add to your faith virtue.”

We will get into how we decide what the standard of moral excellence are in tomorrow’s post when we talk about knowledge, but before we need get into the specifics, I believe that there is a base moral standard that is exhibited throughout the human race. This standard is not always upheld by everyone, but it is nevertheless present. It is on this observation that C.S. Lewis makes the argument for God in his book Mere Christianity. We all have this sense of moral law written within our hearts. This is why we can say “that’s not fair!” We have a concept of fairness. Justice. Good and evil. We might not agree on every point of this law, but it is nevertheless there. With this in mind, I propose that in a lot of cases during our every day walk, we know what moral excellence is. We know we should not lie when the opportunity presents itself. We know we should not use people to our own advantage when it hurts them. We know we should praise the Father daily and pray to Him often. These are some of the things we can typically know based in our faith in Christ without the needing the next virtue right away.

The purpose of moral excellence.

I think it is good to put things in perspective and understand why things are laid out in the way that they are. With this in mind, I ask the question, why do we need moral excellence? Didn’t the blood of Christ cleanse us from all sin? Isn’t that the purpose of grace? I ask these question in somewhat of a facetious manner, as they are quite thoroughly answered in the New Testament. It seems that we are not the only ones who asked these questions.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
(Romans 6:1-4)

It seems that the Romans had this idea that since they were washed in the blood of Christ, they were clean and could continue in sin that grace may abound. This did not set well with Paul, and he rebukes this idea in the passage above. We are not to continue in sin because the purpose of the blood of Christ was to cleanse us from sin, to bring us out of sin. How can we who died to sin still live in it? It doesn’t make sense for this to be the case. We are dead to sin so that we may be alive in Christ. Further, the Hebrew writer says that if we continue in sin, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
(Hebrews 10:26-27)

Yes, the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, so long as we continue to walk in the light. So long as we, say, add to our faith moral excellence. But I think the purpose for moral excellence even runs deeper than this. We know we are supposed to stay out of sin because we have died to sin, but why is this even the case? It is because our sins separate us from God (ref. Isa. 59:1-2). Why? Because God is holy, and He cannot be associate with sin. It goes against His nature. We are to be holy because God is holy. Peter talks about this in his first epistle.

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
(I Peter 1:13-16)

There is a reason this is the first virtue.

Applying moral excellence.

Now we get down to the portion of our discussion that really matters: the application. We can have all knowledge about a particular subject, but if we don’t apply it, this knowledge is basically useless. So how do we apply moral excellence to our everyday lives?

First, I believe we must start to make good judgements before we act. When we go to say or to do something, perhaps we should do a quick check of “is this morally excellent?” Obviously it is impossible to do this for every action throughout a day, but I think we know when this decision needs to be made.

Typically, we know when something is not moral, or even borderline moral. I think this goes back to the moral law that resides within us and is based on our faith in Christ. Remember those WWJD bands that used to be a big fad (perhaps I’m showing my age here)? I think the concept behind them was good. Ask yourself, if Jesus were here, would He encourage what I am about to do? Would He laugh at the joke I am about to make? Would He think the comment that I’m about to say to my coworker is appropriate? When we hear questions like this, it is often our first response to feel burdened with judgement. But I propose that we are not asking these questions out of judgement, but rather out of a drive for moral excellence. We are to be holy, for God is holy- even when it makes us uncomfortable.

So let’s try it then. As you go throughout your day today, strive to be holy. Supplement your faith with moral excellence. Take an extra stand against the temptations of the adversary. When you want to concede, tell yourself that you are going to live up to the standard today and not let the passing pleasures of sin entangle you. This might be hard, but it is what we are called to do. In the end, it will all be worth it. Live this day for Christ. Don’t worry about tomorrow, next week or next year. Take it one day at a time. Rely on the power of Christ. We can make it through.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
(Luke 9:23-24)

Suggested Daily Reading: Luke 6, Colossians 3, I Peter 1, II Peter 1.

Add to your faith virtue.

-Walter

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