The Greater Virtues
by Rick Shrader
It is the selfish part of our human nature to place our energies on the showy but lesser virtues rather than upon the more difficult and greater virtues. Jesus said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23). The lost world is steeped in fornication, violence, and profanity. The believer may feel good about himself that he does not do these obvious things, but having not committed adultery or killed or stolen or cursed, the believer neglects to go on to the weightier matters of virtue.
The New Testament lists of virtues and vices begin with the prerequisite of faith. Paul, in Galatians 5, sharply contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. John, in 1 John 1, divides those who are under the cleansing blood of Christ from those who are not. Peter, in 2 Peter 1, insists that you can only add virtue to true faith. In fact, Peter tells us that we have all things that pertain to life and godliness because we have escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pet. 1:4).
The unsaved world is given over to fornication and violence because these are the greatest temptations to our sinful nature and they have no defense against them. Though even a lost man or woman can display human virtues, they generally gravitate to the baser things of the flesh and leave the weightier matters of civility and virtue undone. The unregenerate soul has little to no defense against sin.
To the believer in Jesus Christ, it is a matter of serious immaturity to wallow in fornication, violence, and vulgarities and not proceed further to the better yet more difficult virtues of judgment, mercy, and faith. Peter says that we must first “add” purity to faith and then add other virtues in similar order (2 Pet. 1:5). James said that the wisdom from above is “first pure” (Jas. 3:17). Paul reminded the Corinthians that they could not grow in knowledge because they had not first dealt with their carnality (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Peter says that when we have added virtue to faith, then we can add knowledge to virtue, and then temperance to knowledge. Temperance is usually translated self-control. After this there comes patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.
As a pastor, over the years I have watched believers stall out at the step of temperance or self-control (egkratos, “self-governance”). We all start out our Christian life with our sins forgiven and being filled with the Spirit. We begin to add the knowledge of God’s Word and we attempt to do the things we read but soon become discouraged at our lack of ability to do them consistently. At this point, rather than adding patience (the ability to bear under the load) to self-control, believers fall prey to sin, cycle back to the first things, and try again. The same scenario happens again and again and going on to the greater virtues becomes a revolving door to more defeat.
As we have seen in Romans 6, the believer still has a sinful nature and still lives in the “body of sin.” Therefore the believer can also wallow in the baser sins of fornication, violence, and vulgarity. These kinds of things are immediately satisfying to the flesh like sugary dessert to the palate. The tragedy is that they keep us from going on to the maturity and joy of the deeper virtues of life. We have seen too many moral failures among leaders, all of which do great damage to the cause of Christ. We should have out-grown the sins of our youth. Paul admonished young Timothy to be an example of the believer in purity (1 Tim. 4:12, 5:2) and to exercise himself rather unto godliness (4:7). We should go on to the greater virtues and not leave these basic matters of morality undone. This is surely one of the blessings of old age, but even senior saints can miss out on the blessings of the greater virtues. We need this spiritual growth in youth and elders alike in this permissive generation.
The greater virtues then are not the showy things that others see. We can, after all, busy ourselves with serving to be seen of men; with social action that pleases the world; or with great swelling words of wisdom that attract a crowd. We can even be proud of ourselves that we have not killed anyone lately, robbed a bank this year, or committed adultery while married. “These things ought ye to have done!” But what about those inward virtues that are even more difficult to manage: pride, meekness, a quiet and gentle spirit, patience, civility? These are also things which we must bring into subjection and for which we use our members as instruments of righteous. These are the things that are often lacking in our Christian life.
Those early choices in life
It is almost impossible for a young man or woman to foresee how the early choices in life will determine most of the rest of life. The family teaching and conviction will greatly determine the college one chooses. The college one chooses will probably provide the mate one chooses for life. This life’s mate will then determine family relations, your children and how you raise them, and even your children’s children. These choices will in turn determine your church life and your adult convictions and choices about worldly and cultural things. It will be these relationships that one must rely upon in the older and needful years of one’s life. Who could know these things early in life?
My mother used to say that it is a shame we don’t have the wisdom of later years during those younger years when we teach our children. But she also admitted that she wouldn’t trade the strength of those early years even for the wisdom of the later years (and vica versa!). But the Bible has a great solution to this dilemma. Listen to your elders! “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: for they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck” (Prov. 1:8-9). “He taught me also, and said unto me, let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments and live” (Prov. 4:4). This is a virtue that is being lost in our current culture.
A humble spirit
God said through Isaiah, “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isa. 57:15). Pride is the most profound effect of sin upon the human soul. The sinner finds himself without God’s leading and protection and prides himself as the master of his universe. The believer must also guard against this sin because we still have this independent streak within. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud” (Prov. 16:18-19).
A humble spirit is not a resignation to failure. It is to rely on God and not on ourselves, to realize that He is the Owner and King of our lives. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7). “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk. 14:11).
The patience of Job
“Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (Jas. 5:11). In the New Testament, patience either expresses the ability to remain under a burden (hupomenē) or to take the long look (makrothumia).
We all have burdens to bear in life and some have much greater burdens than others. “Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (Jas. 1:4). Sometimes we are persecuted for our faith and we are admonished to “take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (1 Pet. 2:20). We all wait for the coming of the Lord to deliver us from this present evil world, “Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (Jas. 5:8).
When we were young we wanted to grow up sooner; when we were in school we wanted to finish and get on with our lives; when we were single we wanted to be married; when we were in the lowest position at work we wanted to be the boss; when we became the boss we wanted to retire. Though the Lord wants us to “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1), we are not very good at it. How much better and more useable our life would be if we were patient.
A temperance movement
As we have seen, we are to add to our Biblical knowledge temperance. This seems like an old word referring to that movement where marching women protested alcohol. It is something like that. The word means to be self-governed and the NKJV always translates it “self-control” except in 1 Cor. 9:25 where the athlete is said to be “temperate in all things.” Neither is it a common word, appearing only in the New Testament three times as “temperance” and three times as “temperate.” We see that Paul reasoned or witnessed to king Agrippa about temperance (Acts 24:25); temperance is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23); and, along with a long list of virtues such as holy, good, and just, we are also to be temperate.
It would do us well to initiate a little temperance in our everyday lives. Americans are very fortunate to have the life-style we enjoy. But for the most part we are opulent compared to the rest of the world and to history. We spend a lot of money on things we don’t need; we eat a lot that we really shouldn’t; we entertain ourselves in ways that are questionable; we even hoard our wealth rather than distribute to the necessity of the saints. It’s not that God is a killjoy and doesn’t want us to enjoy the world He’s given us. But it is rather that we are here for a purpose; we are stewards of things that really belong to Him; and the greatest joys in life are more often the simple things that are already within our reach. Paul instructed the Philippians that whatever is true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report, “if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Minding our manners
In England when you step off the train you will see a sign at your feet that says, “Mind the gap” which means that you are to pay attention to the space between the train and the platform. Someone long ago said that the only thing keeping a nation from either totalitarianism or anarchy was manners—the ability to govern ourselves according to the moral law. Most of us were taught common manners when we were children: saying please and thank you, yes ma’am and yes sir, opening the door for a lady, not speaking out of turn, etc.
When the Bible says that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33), it uses the word ethos. That is defined today as “The character or attitude peculiar to a specific culture or group” (American Heritage Dictionary). The NKJV has “habits,” and the ESV has “morals.” Perhaps Paul’s description of the attitude of Moses is best, “And about the time of forty years suffered he their manners in the wilderness” (Acts 13:18). Sometimes we feel like that in our own American culture.
Sometimes the Bible speaks negatively of the “manners” (or more common, “manner”) of the heathen nations around His people Israel (e.g. Lev. 20:23). What are our manners like? Do we adopt an ethos of the lost people around us? Have our communications corrupted our good manners? What about our talking, social networking, self-expressions, and even modesty? These are virtues too.
Looking in the mirror
When you look in the mirror every morning, what do you see? Do you see a lot of things you don’t like and wish you could change, or do you see someone made in God’s image and someone for whom Jesus died? We have already seen that the things related to our sinful nature need to be worked on and changed for the good, and with God’s help we can do that. But here I am talking about the way you are; the person you are; the DNA you were given at conception. These are things in your life that you cannot change and must accept.
It is a terrible thing today for people to refuse to accept their gender or their personhood. This is to reject God as Creator and to reject the image of God, the Imago Dei, in their very souls. Rather we should see our physical existence, our very life, as a gift from God which He treasures very much. After all, He will one day resurrect all physical bodies and fit them for eternal life.
“Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written” (Psa. 137:14-16).
I must not complain to God for the way I am made. He has made me, and each of us, a special vessel to be used by His own sovereign hand. He has given me gifts and abilities that only I possess. He has placed me in a unique time and place, among people and culture that I am made to minister. I may be a clay vessel, but I am His clay vessel. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psa. 8:3-4).
The faithful steward
“Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). Faithfulness, then, is the capstone of our greater virtues. God requires it of us because He Himself is faithful by His very nature and we are to be like Him. Jeremiah saw the destruction of Jerusalem and yet could say, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23). David said, “Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds” (Psa. 36:5).
The Proverbs describe the godly man as “a faithful ambassador” (13:17), “a faithful witness” (14:5), a faithful man” (20:6, 28:20), and “a faithful messenger” (25:13). Paul often described his fellow laborers as “faithful in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17), a “faithful minister” (Eph. 6:21, Col. 1:7, 4:7), and “faithful brethren” (Col. 1:2). When we are faithful we are displaying the very characteristic of God. Even if we fail in this, “yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
Faithfulness to God’s house is a command of the Lord (Heb. 10:25; 1 Thes. 5:27) as well as to the ordinances of His house. We may also be faithful in our service to the needy. But faithfulness also reaches to those unseen actions that are so easily left undone. Our prayer life and Bible study are the life-blood of our Christian walk and yet unfaithfulness to these leaves us spiritually anemic. Opening our mouths and speaking the gospel to the lost can be omitted for weeks, months, or even years. Faithfulness is a characteristic the Christian has because God is faithful.
And so . . .
The greater virtues are the harder ones, those no one sees but you and God. The question is, are they real in your life? Francis Schaeffer was a well-known apologist who wrote many books and did much speaking. He died in 1984 but his wife Edith lived for twelve more years. L.G. Parkhurst wrote a biography of the Schaeffers and said of Edith, “Edith prays that as a Christian she will be like solid wood all the way through, and not like pressed wood with veneer on top hiding what is underneath.”1
It is easy to be a veneered Christian, showing the easier virtues on top of our lives, but it is harder to be a solid Christian all the way through. It is harder because it is not showy and no one else ever sees whether it is real or not. But I remind us all again of Isaiah’s words, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite one” (Isa. 57:15).
“Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart . . . This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face” (Psa. 24:3-4, 6).
- L.G. Parkhurst, Jr., Francis and Edith Schaeffer (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996) 13.