Mark #7: Moral Excellence
2 Pet 1:5-8 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith [moral] excellence,43 to [moral] excellence, knowledge; to knowledge, self-control; to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, brotherly affection; to brotherly affection, unselfish love. For if these things are really yours and are continually increasing, they will keep you from becoming ineffective and unproductive in your pursuit of knowing our Lord Jesus Christ more intimately (emphasis mine).
Several questions are in order in preparation for this study on moral excellence. First, what is meant by moral excellence, i.e., what does this include? Second, why does man need moral excellence? Further, what is the relationship between moral excellence and being a believer of deep biblical conviction? In other words, how does one affect the other? How does Peter show or develop this in 2 Peter 1?
The Need for Moral Excellence
Ephesians 2:1-3 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2:2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 2:3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest.
Ephesians 4:17-20 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 4:18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 4:19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 4:20 But you did not learn about Christ like this,
The Bible is written to sinful people, to those who, because of their spiritual death and darkened understanding, are alienated from the life of God, a condition which naturally leads to the practice of all sorts of evil behavior. The early Christians had been idolaters and worshippers of demons, adulterers, liars, and thieves. Constantly, the New Testament called them, as it does all generations of believers, to not be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2).
Because mankind is born in sin and by nature the child of wrath, his natural tendency is toward moral degeneracy and every evil work, not moral excellency or virtue. In simple terms, the absence of virtue leads to the decay and destruction of society or the law of the jungle. Since the murder of Abel, history is loaded with illustrations as seen not only in murderous tyrants like Stalin and Hitler but in the lying, adulterous, treasonous behavior in our own nation’s capital.
The plain truth is that when nations turn away from moral truth and the absolutes of the Bible, it leads to the kind of behavior spoken of by Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 5:3-23. In these verses the prophet pronounces a series of woes (vss. 8-23) on the degenerate house of Judah. Each woe describes the nature of Judah’s sin as the basis for the divine judgment. The list reads like the headlines of today’s newspapers and teaches us that the lack of moral virtue in a person’s private life always has public consequences.44 The comments in Isaiah 5:20-23 describe the pathetic way Judah had twisted the moral precepts of right and wrong in her pursuit of self-centered living at the expense of others (5:23). The effect, of course, was moral breakdown that led to injustice and extreme conditions of crime. This condition existed from the leaders to the common man. It touched the whole of Judah’s society as it does today in our society.
Isaiah 5:20-23 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And clever in their own sight! 22 Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine, And valiant men in mixing strong drink; 23 Who justify the wicked for a bribe, And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!
The Source of Moral Excellence: The Cause of Moral Breakdown
I am particularly struck by the statement in Isaiah 5:21, “…who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight.” The root issue in these chapters of Isaiah was Judah’s lack of knowledge (biblical insight) because she had spurned the holy statutes of God’s Word. “Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; And their honorable men are famished, And their multitude is parched with thirst” (Isaiah 5:13).
In view of Isaiah’s plea to Judah, “Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord” (His truth or His Word), we should be reminded of Hosea’s statement to the northern kingdom later on in Hosea 4:6. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”
Where, then, is the moral will of God to be found? Naturally, since man cannot lead himself (see Jer. 10:23), it is to be found in the Bible—God’s special revelation to man. For an Old Testament illustration, note the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 4:5-8.
4:5 Look! I have taught you statutes and ordinances just as he told me to do, so that you might carry them out in the midst of the land where you are headed to take possession. 4:6 So be sure to do them because this will testify of your wise understanding to the people who will learn of all these statutes and say, “Indeed, this great nation has a very wise people.” 4:7 Indeed, what other great nation has a god so near it like the LORD our God whenever we call upon him? 4:8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as pure as this whole law that I am about to share with you today?
Through the Bible and the new life God gives us in Christ, He calls men to holiness, to a life that is contrary to their natural bent as those born in sin and under its domination (see Rom. 6; 8; Tit. 2:11-14; 1 Pet. 2:11-12; 4:1-3). Since the moral will of God is found for us in His Word, there is little wonder that these two, moral excellence and Scripture (“the exceeding great and precious promises”) are closely tied together in Peter’s argument in 2 Peter 1.
In verses 5-11 Peter gives us a list of Christ-like qualities that we are both to possess and increase in. These are, in essence, marks of spiritual growth and maturity. Only with such growth can we experience maximum production in the Christian life and become effective in leadership. But again, let’s not fail to notice that these verses on character are sandwiched between verses that point us to the Word and the need to develop and act on biblical understanding and convictions. As Paul emphatically teaches us in Romans 1:18ff, unrighteousness is the result of ungodliness; but ungodliness is the result of rejecting the knowledge of God.
Moral Excellence as Used in this Study
Moral excellence has to do with excelling in the moral will of God, which, of course, is to touch every area of the Christian’s life. But it is important to recognize that by moral excellence we are not simply talking about a list of taboos or overt sins such as adultery, fornication, drunkenness, lying, gossiping, stealing, and cheating. Moral excellence means the pursuit of the moral will of God in every area of life. This includes values, attitudes, priorities, goals or purposes, devotion, and Christ-like character in the home, at the office, at church, as well as in one’s hobbies, and entertainment. Moral virtue is something that should characterize the Christian everywhere and in everything.
Peter’s Development of the Process of Moral Excellence
First, with Peter’s emphasis on “the knowledge of God” and “the exceeding great and precious promises,” the Word clearly becomes both the foundation and instrumentation for the production of the qualities of Christ-like character (vss. 2-4).
Second, Peter then follows this with an exhortation that calls upon us to make every effort in the development of these qualities of Christian character listed in verses 5-7.
Third, this is followed by a section we can define as motivation and fruitful realization i.e. the realization of our salvation in fruitful living and eternal rewards (vss. 8-11).
Fourth, in verses 12-21 we have two more sections dealing with the Word. This is of utmost importance because, as the rest of the book makes clear, we are living in days of intense apostasy which means apathy, self-centeredness, false teaching, and doctrinal and moral error. False doctrine and mere human opinions always lead to moral corruption rather than moral excellence. These verses fall into two sections: (a) recollection—the need to recall what they had been taught as a protection against forgetfulness (vss. 12-15) and (b) justification—the defense for this emphasis through the fact and nature of inspiration (vss. 16- 21).
In the process of developing verses 5-7, Peter used what we might call the pyramid principle to show how we are to be developing mature qualities of Christ-likeness from a proper position toward and use of the Word as God’s inspired revelation.
(1) This pyramid of qualities sits on the foundation of the Word, the precious and magnificent promises and the new life we have in the Lord. The Lord has provided everything that is needed for life and godliness through His Word and its revelation. Christians need diligence in the personal appropriation of that truth for continued growth and spiritual change.
(2) The first quality is faith, faith in the power of God’s grace and provision. While we must add all diligence to advance in the moral will of God and spiritual change, we are not to do so by the arm of the flesh but by faith in the provision and power of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10).
(3) The capstone is love. Love stands at the heart of Christian maturity and is a necessary quality of Christian leadership and servanthood. But this passage teaches us that without the other levels in the structure, we lose our capacity to love and thus also to lead as servants rather than as tyrants.
Each quality is to be produced in the sphere of the preceding quality: each seems to grow out of the soil and climate of the other. But that is not all. The new quality supplements and perfects the preceding until we reach the capstone which is love, the goal and that which is the epitome of Christ-like service. But the point is we cannot have the capstone without the rest of the building blocks of the pyramid. This is not to say that we cannot produce love until we have produced all these qualities to maturity, but there is a progression and a mutual dependency in that we can show love only to the degree that we are developing the other qualities. The point is, each one becomes the productive sphere or the soil out of which the next quality grows.
Of course, the ministry of the Spirit is the inward energizer or the power to produce each of these spiritual qualities as Galatians 5:23 indicates. This passage in 2 Peter, however, shows the process the Spirit uses and how we must be diligent in cooperating with the Spirit’s work and plan. In this, we have both the divine side and human side of responsibility.
In the pyramid of virtues, the first one listed is faith. Faith in the promises and principles of Scripture is the first quality needed for true spiritual progress. Contextually, by faith, Peter is talking about biblical convictions and beliefs concerning the many themes and truths of Scripture like the doctrine of God, the person and work of Christ, the Bible, and mankind, etc. This naturally includes the concept of trusting God so that we act on our convictions and beliefs. Why? So that as spiritually growing Christians we can get from point A to B to C and so on because we believe that God is leading us and we are doing what He desires. This first level, which is faith, is directly related to having the courage to act on biblical convictions.
The second quality in the pyramid of virtues is moral excellence. “Moral excellence” is the Greek arete, “moral excellence, virtue.” While the word “virtue” can look at virtue in general, its use here as one in a list of virtues seems to stress a moral excellence that stands out in the midst of a pagan society.
The hand of God cannot prosper the life and ministry of those who are not concerned with holiness and Christ-like change. Because of the holiness of God and His commitment to make us like His Son, lives that are not committed to moral excellence must of necessity result in the law of returns, of sowing and reaping. When we continually fail to pursue moral excellence we start down the slippery slope of mediocrity that eventually leads to various levels of carnality. Because the apostle Paul knew this, his prayers often showed this concern. Note this element of pursuing moral excellence in Paul’s prayer for the Philippians in Philippians 1:9-11. Here the apostle Paul prayed that they might abound more and more in knowledge and in all (every kind of) discernment. The immediate aim or the intended result of this knowledge and discernment was that they “might test and approve the things that are excellent,” i.e., what is best and not merely good or just better. “Test” is the Greek dokimazo, “to put to the test, examine,” and then with reference to the result of testing, “to approve, accept as proven valuable.”
“Excellent” (NASB, KJV) or “what is best” (NET, NRSV, NIV) translates the Greek ta diapheronta, which, in this context, carries the idea of “things that transcend.” The verb here is diaphero, “to carry through,” then, “to differ, be different, be different to one’s advantage.” Thus, it came to be used of the things that differ in the sense of being superior, or having greater value and meaning.
Another purpose for which Paul prayed was that they might stand pure and blameless in the day of Christ. Such a spiritual condition occurs, however, only because one experiences the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, i.e., first by faith (justification righteousness) and then by fellowship with Him (sanctification righteousness). But this too had an aim, “the praise and glory of God.”
From the standpoint of our focus here, however, the key point is testing, approving, and choosing what is best, that which excels and is superior. The pursuit of moral excellence is not merely a matter of what is good over what is bad, but what excels and is best. It’s a matter of priorities and what is genuinely advantageous or most profitable to one’s spiritual life, growth, witness, and ministry. Mediocrity might be defined as that which is undeserving of blame but is unworthy of praise. The Christian’s life is one that is to result in the praise and glory of God.
When Christians fail to pursue moral excellence they eventually reap the results: they will seek bad counsel and company, make bad choices, and set in motion bad consequences. To live after the patterns of our old life, as Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 1:9, is to forget: the nature of our Savior, the purpose of His coming, the goals of our salvation, and the reality of eternity and the Bema Seat of Christ. It is to live as earthlings and to seek our satisfaction in that which cannot satisfy and which will pass away (cf. Isa. 55:1-3; 1 Pet. 1:13-18; 2:11; 1 John 2:15-17).
The figures around which Paul builds his arguments in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 are tremendously instructive here. They are figures designed to challenge us toward the spiritual change to be brought about in the lives of believers by the power of God. The following are some of the analogies used by the apostle:
1. putting off and putting on apparel
2. mortification and vivification
3. divesting and reinvesting
4. dehabituation and rehabituation
5. overcoming and becoming
Each figure or analogy is to be a product of and a response to the Christian’s new life in Christ. This means a thorough moral change through a vital relationship with the Savior. Anything else (the absence of moral change) is totally contradictory to the believer’s new life in the Savior. It is in essence to mock the Christian’s salvation in Christ.
Many times Christians experience unfruitfulness simply because God removes His blessing from their ministry because they have grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit. But this is not the whole story. Such unfruitfulness is also the natural byproduct that immoral behavior will eventually have on one’s capacity to serve and lead. Negligence regarding moral excellence renders a believer carnal, capricious, and causes him to act out of self love and impure motives.
The principle is simply that moral weakness incapacitates. It must and will lead to failure in spiritual growth which will naturally negatively impact one’s capacity for any kind of effective service or leadership.
What, then, is the issue? The issue is, “Am I committed to moral excellence, true spiritual growth and change through my new life in Christ, or am I clinging to my own self-centered strategies to run my life in an attempt to find significance, security, and satisfaction?”
43 The translators note in the NET Bible has “Or ‘moral excellence,’ ‘virtue’; this is the same word used in v. 3 (‘the one who has called us by his own glory and excellence’).” The Greek verb is arete which means “moral excellence or virtue.”
44 Marvin Olasky has a new book out called, The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton that deals with this issue. In it the author asserts that private actions have public consequences, and shows this historically in the lives of a number of leaders.
Appendix: Discussion Questions for Marks of Maturity
MEN 7/52 is a men's ministry of bible.org. Our desire is to see all men become true followers of Jesus Christ 7 days a week/52 weeks a year.
These studies were developed in a team training environment where men were being trained for their role as church leaders, as fathers, and as effective members of a society that desperately needs to see what authentic, biblical Christianity looks like. So, exactly what does a mature Christian look like? A mature Christian is a believer whose life begins to take on the character of Christ-likeness. But what exactly is that? What are the specific qualities that mark out a person as Christ-like? This is the focus and point of this study.
The qualities that should characterize Christian leaders are also the marks of spiritual maturity as described in the Bible. While all of the qualities that will be discussed in this series are not unique to Christianity and are often promoted and taught in the secular world, many of them are, by their very nature, distinctive to the Bible or biblical Christianity. Thus, the characteristics that should mark out a Christian leader are also the marks of biblical maturity which are in essence the product of true spirituality. In fact, biblical spirituality can be described by the term maturity since Christian maturity is the result of growth produced by the ministry of the Spirit in the light of the Word over time. It is this biblical/spiritual element, at least in part, that makes the marks of Christian leadership distinctively Christian.
1. What is mankind’s natural tendency regarding morals and why?
2. What is the result of an absence of virtue?
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (v. 20)
3. Describe situations in which you are aware of evil being called good.
4. Where is good being called evil?
5. What are some of the subtle areas where evil is defined as good?
6. How are you and your family being affected by the redefinition of evil as good, and good as evil?
7. What actions are you taking in maintaining moral excellence in your household?
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight! (v. 21)
8. In your own words, describe what it means to be wise in one’s own eyes and clever in one’s own sight.
9. In what areas or instances do you find yourself relying on your own wisdom and cleverness?
10. What must you do to rely on God’s wisdom and His will?
Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine
And valiant men in mixing strong drink, (v. 22)
11. How does this verse apply to today’s culture, entertainment, and sports?
12. What role does alcohol consumption play in your life or in the lives of your family?
13. Describe the impact that alcohol or substance abuse has had on you?
Who justify the wicked for a bribe,
And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right! (v. 23)
14. Have you ever compromised moral or ethical principles in the conduct of your job, paying your taxes, or in achieving a personal or family goal? If, yes, please elaborate.
15. How does this verse apply to today’s culture?
16. How do you react when you see the wicked being justified and the God-given rights of others being violated?
17. To what do the Bible, and the new life God gives you in Christ, call you?
18. List the Christ-like qualities we must possess and increase that are in 2 Peter 1:5-11.
19. Describe Peter’s four phases which are necessary for the development of moral excellence.
20. In the pyramid example, why must we start with faith before we can develop moral excellence and, ultimately, love?
21. How is mediocrity defined in the text?
How does each of the following statements apply to your life?
- “I am committed to moral excellence, true spiritual growth, and change through my new life in Christ. ”
- “I cling to my own self-centered strategies to run my life in an attempt to find significance, security, and satisfaction. ”