The term “virtue” in Greek often refers to “moral excellence” and “goodness.” Arthur F. Holmes describes “virtues” in the following way:
A virtue is a right inner disposition, and a disposition is a tendency to act in certain ways. Disposition is more basic, lasting and pervasive than the particular motive or intention behind a certain action. It differs from a sudden impulse in being a settled habit of mind, an internalized and often reflective trait. Virtues are general character traits that provide inner sanctions on our particular motives, intentions and outward conduct.16
There are many key ideas in this definition, but for our purposes here I want to focus on two. First, a virtue is a tendency, stemming from who you are at your core level, to act in certain ways. Second, it is not simply, therefore, an impulse, good or bad, but rather a settled habit of mind. Third, it has a function of providing judgment on motives and outward actions. Virtues, then, relate to who we are as people; our character.
Plato’s concept of moral virtue or excellence (ἀρετή) centered on four inherent virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Garcia comments:
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates explains them through a doctrine of the three parts of the soul, suggesting that a person is prudent when knowledge of how to live (wisdom) informs her reason, courageous when informed reason governs her capacity for wrath, temperate when it also governs her appetites, and just when each part performs its proper tasks with informed reason in control.17
Aristotle added to this number and taught that such virtues were learned. The Stoics generally agreed with Plato. The Septuagint and the New Testament do not appear to use the word ἀρετή in the same way.18 Augustine was apparently the first one who began in earnest to bring Greek thought into theology and baptize it for Christian use.19 He developed the concept of the four virtues in relation to loving God and he added to them—and explained them—in light of the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. For him the virtues were firstly theocentric, not anthropocentric.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.21
1:3 I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence. 1:4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire. 1:5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence, knowledge…
The two central attributes of God are his holiness (expressed in his justice) and his love. These two characteristics, then, should characterize those who claim to believe in Him and follow Christ.
God is holy in the sense that he is both unique, i.e., there is no one else like him, and he is completely free of evil and infinitely good. From this character flows his righteousness wherein he always acts consistently with his moral nature (i.e., his holiness). He never breaks the standard of his own holy Law. Finally, he is just and his justice requires that all men live in accordance with the Law which he established. Thus, holiness, righteousness and justice—in a “creaturely” and derivative sense—should characterize the Christian’s disposition: “Be holy as I am holy,” says Peter, quoting the Old Testament (1 Peter 1:15-16). The one who claims to follow Jesus must be constantly growing in holiness, righteousness, and justice. The disposition of justice and goodness must permeate all other moral attributes, such as joy, conscientiousness, faithfulness, peace, kindness, gentleness; thus, I must be mixed with love, i.e., the best interests of the people involved. For example, gentleness is not a very admirable trait if it stems from a heart seeking immoral things. But if holiness and justice are its origin and permeate its presence, it is a beautiful thing. It is Christlikeness in action.
God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). The Bible preaches this message both by explicit and implicit means, through direct statement and a plethora of examples. Indeed, the cross of Christ demonstrates once and for all that God loves people (John 3:16). Love is at the very heart of God and motivates him to seek the welfare of lost and rebellious sinners. Love acts with the interests of others at heart. And it is precisely at this point that one must see it as needing: (1) holiness lest it go astray in determining what is best for someone and, (2) wisdom to know when and how to carry out the best actions. Thus, in Christian ethics, love is to be permeated with holiness and holiness with love and they find their fullest expression according to the wisdom that God gives us (e.g., Col 1:9-10). Holiness keeps love from turning into idolatry and codependence and love keeps holiness from turning into an aloof, austere judgmentalism. Holy love, therefore, must characterize the Christian who claims to be a disciple of Christ. We also aim to see it developed in the people God uses us to help. Finally, and just by way of note, the NT idea of love as oriented toward sacrifice for others is not really found among the pagans, but is a distinctively Christian development.
So holiness and love, that to which we have been chosen and called by God—the two overarching virtues—must undergird all other virtues giving them their motive and fire, contours, mode of operation, and goals.
The theological virtues are so-named because they relate primarily to the inner disposition of the heart toward God. But, of course, they are also intimately connected to and find their expression in our relationships with others (1 Cor 13:1-13). Faith in Christ gives rise to love for others and both of them are animated and strengthened by the hope we have in Christ (Col 1:4-5).
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1:3 because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
5:5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love.
1:4 since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints. 1:5 Your faith and love have arisen from the hope laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard about in the message of truth, the gospel.
4:20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 4:21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do.
11:6 Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
5:5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
5:5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness.
13:4 Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. 13:5 It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered, or resentful. 13:6 It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. 13:7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1:22 You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart.
Many of the Greeks including Aristotle and the Stoics argued that moral virtue was developed according to human achievement and that the goal in mind was personal happiness.22 Others argued that moral virtue was inherent, the natural disposition of the soul. But both of these ideas, while sharing some similarities with Christianity, are in fact at odds with Christianity’s essential ethical orientation. The “virtues” which the NT espouses have God’s character as their source, the Spirit as their efficient cause in the believer, Christ as their model, and love as their goal. They are developed in the context of the spiritual life as chapter 6 explained. They are certainly not inherent and they can be learned, but not apart from Christ.
The Christian virtues of faith, hope, love, wisdom, temperance, joy, courage, faithfulness, peace, and whatever other virtue there is, are learned in relationships with God (and the circumstances he brings into our lives) and others. By their very nature Christian virtues are relational; they cannot be learned in a vacuum. We learn to trust God deeper by joyfully going through the trials of life; wisdom by dealing with difficult people, courage by facing dangerous circumstances and people, faithfulness by constancy in promise keeping, patience by restraining anger, and humility by serving others. God has called us both into his body and to be salt and light in the world; he has called us into an interesting set of relationships which he uses and will always use to grow us. Personal discipleship of another person is one particular kind of relationship in which dispositions of faithfulness, gentleness, truth telling, patience, courage, etc should be esteemed and encouraged.
Wisdom is the virtue of discerning the true nature of people and circumstance, how these relate to the salvation Christ offers, and therefore what to do in any situation. It is given by God himself, acquired through the word and prayer, and serious reflection and seeking over time. Christ himself is said to be the very wisdom of God, in that he is God’s solution to the problem of sin and the Christian is commanded to ask for wisdom (James 1:5) realizing that all wisdom from God is more ethical in nature than it is speculative (Matthew 11:29; James 3:17-18). Wisdom is applied holiness and love.
1:9 And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight 1:10 so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, 1:11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
2:1 My child, if you receive my words, and store up my commands within you, 2:2 by making your ear attentive to wisdom, and by turning your heart to understanding, 2:3 indeed, if you call out for understanding, and raise your voice for understanding, 2:4 if you seek it like silver, and search for it like hidden treasure, 2:5 then you will understand how to fear the Lord, and you will discover knowledge about God. 2:6 For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding. 2:7 He stores up effective counsel for the upright, and is like a shield for those who live with integrity, 2:8 to guard the paths of the righteous and to protect the way of his pious ones. 2:9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity—every good way. 2:10 For wisdom will enter your heart, and moral knowledge will be attractive to you.
The Christian virtue of self-control is the consistent ability to say “no” to our appetites and to live in moderation. It is motivated by a desire for single-minded worship of God and holiness (for it helps guard against greed and idolatry—a holiness which itself springs from a love for God and is accompanied by joy, not a hatred for all desire and passion.
5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 5:23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
1:5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence, knowledge; 1:6 to knowledge, self-control; to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; 1:7 to godliness, brotherly affection; to brotherly affection, unselfish love.
The virtue of courage involves doing difficult and dangerous things in light of keeping God’s word and for the welfare of other people. Thus it is motivated by the realization of God’s holiness, and that I must obey him no matter what, but it is expressed in love toward other people, sometimes whether they receive it as love or not. It is most endangered by the peril of death, but is intimately related to hope—a hope founded on our unbreakable connection to a person who has overcome death.
An example of courage in a discipling relationship is telling the truth in love (Eph 4:15), even when it hurts. It is done out of obedience to God (though it may cost you the relationship with the other person) and for the growth of the other person. Sometimes this expression of courage isn’t well received (Prov 9:8), but sometimes it is (Prov 9:9). Of course, the greatest act of courage was Christ’s obedient death on the cross. There we see courage lived out in obedience to God’s holy demand (Matt 26:42) and for the ultimate welfare of lost sinners. Thus, courage is not foolhardiness and reckless abandon. Rather, courage aims at God’s holiness and the welfare of people, with a full realization of both the actual and potential danger and cost involved.
1:6 Be strong and brave! You must lead these people in the conquest of this land that I solemnly promised their ancestors I would hand over to them. 1:7 Make sure you are very strong and brave! Carefully obey all the law my servant Moses charged you to keep! Do not swerve from it to the right or the left, so you may be successful in all you do. 1:8 This law scroll must not leave your lips! You must meditate it day and night so you can carefully obey all that is written in it. Then you will prosper and be successful. 1:9 I repeat, be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid and don’t panic, for I, the Lord your God, am with you in all you do.”
16:33 I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but have courage—I have conquered the world.”
16:13 Stay alert, stand firm in the faith, show courage, be strong.
Faithfulness often has to do with doing what we say we’re going to do and not doing what we say we don’t do. It is being in practice what we claim to be and it involves doing it over long periods of time. The person who shows up for a meeting on time all semester long is a faithful person. But again, the virtue of faithfulness must be ungirded by holiness and love. Are we faithful at something in an attempt to bring God glory and the greatest good to others, i.e., loving them buy demonstrating long term commitment to them? Or are we faithful only to what we want and striving after that? There is nothing necessarily evil with wanting something, and let’s say, working hard over a long period of time to get it. But what about faithfulness to other people and their legitimate needs?
5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 5:23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
1:3 I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth (NRSV).
Peace as a Christian virtue includes the idea of being at rest and harmony on the inside, irrespective of what’s happening on the outside. It is the opposite of being in turmoil and emotionally upset, and even further, being restless. It is available to those who live a holy and loving life and is centered in the knowledge of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. It rests on the knowledge of his kind disposition toward us and the truth that we know that he works all things together for our good, according to his predetermined plan to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-39). Therefore, we can still have peace—harmony and well-being in our soul—even when we’re suffering in difficult circumstances. We cannot, however, expect God’s peace when we’ve not dealt properly with known sin. And, we must also realize that there are times when he withholds his peace, even after we’ve confessed, in order to deepen our confession and give us more zeal in the mortification of sin (cf. Rom 8:13). From our peace with God we are to exhibit peace with other people. Indeed, as far as it depends on us, we are to be at peace with all men (Rom 12:18; Col 3:15).
Peace, like other virtues, is not an end in itself nor the highest virtue. It is not more important than “truth” rightly understood and held, nor is it more important than “truthfulness.” Thus it too must be informed by God’s holiness and lived out under the watchful eye of genuine love.
14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage.
3:15 Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart, for you were in fact called to this peace, and be thankful.
Gentleness as a Christian virtue is often closely related to kindness and is the opposite of being intrusive and obnoxious. It is exhibited in tenderness, softness, and the conscious exercise of loving caution in dealing with people. It is very concerned about “where other people are at” and seeks to befriend and come along side to help. It is not cowardly, however, but strong and caring. It shares the truth, listens attentively, and asks permission before blindly speaking into someone’s life.
4:5 Let your gentleness be seen by all. The Lord is near!
3:13 Which of you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings.
Christian virtues are settled dispositions that cause us to act in certain ways—ways that are Christ-like. All godly virtues are integrally related to the overarching Christian virtues of holiness and love and are produced by the Spirit as we strive to see them matured in our lives.
1. What is a virtue? Restate the thoughts in the notes in a different and memorable way.
2. What are the overarching Christian virtues and how do they relate to other virtues. Give some example that explain the connections and relations.
3. How do the virtues relate to knowing God’s will? See Romans 12:1-2.
4. How do the virtues contrast with momentary attitudes, emotions, or responses to situations.
4. Discuss at least three virtues (other than love and holiness) and relate them to corresponding vices. See Galatians 5:16-24 for help.
16 Ethics: Approving Moral Decisions, Contours of Christian Philosophy, ed. C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 116.
17 Jorge L. A. Garcia, “Cardinal Virtues,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 103; Plato, Republic, bk. 4.
18 See O. Bauernfeind, TDNT, I: 457-60. In the LXX the term ἀρετή means “excellence” or “fame.”
19 See R. H. Mounce, “Cardinal Virtues, Seven,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 193; W. N. Kerr, “Virtue, Virtues,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1146.
21 See Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, The Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 33 (Dallas: Word, 1983), in loc. elec. version. He says, “Very likely Paul, in using this word, had in mind the Stoic sense of “moral excellence or goodness” in spite of the fact that for the Stoic ἀρετή tended to focus attention on the excellence, merits and achievement of mankind rather than upon God’s deeds.”
22 Happiness, in much of Greek ethical thought, however, was understood differently than we think of it today. We think of it primarily as a psychological state of mind. Many Greek philosophers understood it more in line with a deep seated contentment resulting from a life well lived.