Temptation, we’re told by James, is rooted in disordered desire. Sometimes we simply want to do wrong (James 1:14). Paul tells us that God provides a way of escape from temptation (I Corinth. 10:13). Of the various escape routes available to the believer, this post focuses on just one: the virtues.
Virtues are moral traits of human persons: love, compassion, courage, justice, steadfastness, and many more. Virtues, properly speaking, can only be done by a person who has been renewed by the triune God, in faith, and aimed toward God’s glory (WCF XVI.VII).
The New Testament places a high premium on the virtues, commanding believers to “put them on” and providing virtue lists in some thirteen places: 2 Corinthians 6:6–8; Galatians 5:22–23; Ephesians 4:32; 5:9; Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:12; 1 Timothy 4:12; 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22; 3:10; James 3:17; 1 Peter 3:8; and 2 Peter 1:5–7 (see J. Daryl Charles, “Vice and Virtue Lists,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity, 2000). Actively developing virtues is a non-negotiable for the believer in Christ.
One increases personal virtue through routine: choosing to be kind, for example, and acting on it (the sad news is that the virtues can also be diminished through neglect and giving into vice). Do it enough times and it becomes a habit, which in turn re-forms our character. So it is with much in life: practice piano scales or free throws or healthy eating enough and they become second nature. In union with Christ and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, even the believer’s desires are re-shaped and re-oriented through moral habituation. We get nervous about virtue-talk because it seems to pit our moral efforts against growing morally in Christ. But to put it like that is like pitting love for the inscripturated word against love for the incarnate Word. While in practice it is difficult to maintain the balance, there’s simply no theological tension. The virtues we develop through personal effort are ultimately wrought by the Lord (compare Phil. 2:12, 13).
The virtues relate to temptation in at least two ways. First, in developing virtues, your desires are being re-shaped; your desire for good things ascends, and your desire for wrongdoing descends. Second, in a tempting situation, a virtuous person has strength to overcome the temptation; though we need to keep in mind that in becoming virtuous, we never achieve moral perfection this side of glory, and the road is marked by occasional setback. We, while renewed, don’t always choose well. We give into temptation. We sometimes experience moral incontinence (being weak-willed), as philosophers put it. We are sometimes hurtful, lacking in courage, and unkind (although apostasy, the specific wrong Paul addresses in I Corinth. 10, is one no elect can commit). Such is the life of the believer in these, “not-yet” days.
So developing virtues is not moral perfectionism, but it is crucial. It is one aspect of sanctification, and should be practiced alongside regularly receiving the ministry of the word, prayer, participation in the sacraments, and giving oneself to the fellowship and service of the saints. The fact that we won’t attain sinless perfection before the eschaton doesn’t diminish the fact that we are called to cultivate virtues.
Mr. Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.