Virtue: not rocket science

FAITH + 2015

David Voas, a sociology of religion professor, recently accused the Church of worrying about why people no longer come to church, without ever asking why they would want to. His point? That in the busy modern world, young adults have so many attractive alternatives that only seeing a compelling benefit in churchgoing will make them come. He thinks that is “community” (which, he notes, people can get without church) but I think the answer is richer than that.

So the problem is that the results of faith are mostly spiritual – eternal life, peace with God – and not as immediate as gym membership, afterwork cocktails and a digital screen. Yet there is a Christian answer: the gospel gives the one tangible thing nothing else can: the way to live a good life. Reintroducing the language of “goodness” or “virtue” into our discipleship, and thence into our families and workplaces for others to see, is essential for others to be drawn to “wearing God” with us.

The “good” life is described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, by Paul (eg Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3), by James, and in 2 Peter 1:5-7 (our church verses for 2015). Here is what a “good” life (virtue) looks like.

Virtue is not duty

Make every effort (to add to your faith) – 2 Peter repeats this phrase three times. Making effort appeals to those of us who are activistic types. We love to DO things.

But living a good life is impossible without spiritual change first – Peter says “make every effort” only once he has reminded us about God’s gift of faith and hope in Christ (“for this reason”) in verses 1-4.

Calling for a good life out of duty is like telling a dead person to walk. Start with faith in Jesus which brings you to know Him. Start with his power which promises immortality. Goodness comes from gratitude, not duty.

Virtue is not optional

Peter is deeply concerned that when he has gone, his readers will not give up on the gospel. He calls on them not to stumble & fall back (2:20), and to be pure & ready for the new creation (3:13-14).

It is true that “nothing will separate us from the love of God” and that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion”. Calvinism teaches the “perseverance of the saints”, and the Church of England Article 17 says that we,

“are called, justified, adopted, made like Christ, live by good works and by God’s mercy reach eternal happiness”

But…

James says that faith without works is dead (2:20). Paul says that a Spirit-filled person will produce “fruit” and has “clothed” themselves with the virtues of the gospel. Calvin – before he unpacks in detail how Christ’s death on the cross is all we need for salvation – urges that faith is inseparable from works, as the sun is inseparable from its rays.

For us who are Anglican, Article 12 of The 39 Articles says:

“good works are the fruit of faith; they follow justification and cannot pay for our sins; yet they please God, and spring necessarily from a true and living faith. You know living faith from good works as you know a tree from its fruit.”

The life of virtue (goodness or godliness) is not optional.

Virtue is not automatic

Make every effort” – learning virtue is like learning a language.  You need to turn up to class, listen, take notes, try out the sound of the words, learn the right way to put sentences together.

Make every effort, Peter says,  to furnish your faith – the image is of fitting out a stage for a show, hiring the best possible choirs and singers, with lavish provision.

Make every effort: virtue is not automatic.

Virtue is not ‘being nice’

Many of the seven “virtues” Peter lists are favourite Greek ones (goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, mutual kindness).

Yet he makes them Christ-shaped: perseverance is not just Stoical Greek or Churchill’s “never surrender” but Christian hope – we survive anything the world throws at us, not because we are tough but because Jesus is coming, not because the pain is small but because the promise of new creation is great.

And he tops and tails the list with two unique Christian virtues – faith, with which we start, and love, with which we continue and which lasts forever.

Virtue is not complicated

Peter’s list of eight virtues begins with faith, ends with love, and has gospel hope in the centre. These three “theological virtues” are the key ones, from which all others flow, in the New Testament1 and early theologians such as Augustine2.

The seven virtues which Peter lists flowing out of “faith” can be divided into: two by which I interact within myself (goodness/strength and  knowledge/wisdom); three by which I interact with the world (self-control, perseverance, godliness); and two by which I interact with others (mutual kindness and, supremely, love).

None of these eight things is complicated, all are about the daily habit of loving God and others, and all are based on faith in Christ.

So how do I ‘add virtue to my faith’?

Pray for it

If virtue is the gift of God beginning with faith and culminating in love, it makes sense to ask for it. The Anglican Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Easter Sunday in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) puts it well:

 “Almighty God who through Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened the gate of glory, grant that, as by your grace going before us, you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help, we may bring them to good effect.”

Practise it

That is, reflect on it, rehearse it, react using it, as you would learning a language. In practice this means immersing my life in what many call “the means of grace” such as baptism, reading Scripture, studying the lives of godly Christians, praise & thanksgiving, confession, prayer together and alone, serving others, giving, and sharing communion.

Is my life a silent sermon?

What would the world think if we began to live as Peter describes here in God’s grace?

Here’s how Victorian bishop JC Ryle urges us to live holy lives for the sake of others,

“We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others…Our lives will always be doing either good or harm to those who see them. It is sad indeed when they are a sermon for the devil’s cause, and not for God’s…far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are aware of…(People) may not understand justification, but they will understand love.”3

1 See especially 1 Corinthians 13
2 Augustine, Enchiridion, a book of “basic” teaching on the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer
3 JC Ryle “Holiness”, 3.2.f

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