In some segments of the church it is now routinely suggested that Christianity is not about ethics; rather, it is about a relationship with Christ. While I applaud any resistance to reducing Christianity to an ethical system, I’m concerned that Christian antipathy towards ethics is itself unchristian. Christianity is not merely about ethics, but it does essentially include ethics. The Christian, as a follower of Jesus, should seek to embody the moral and intellectual virtues of Jesus Christ, our Lord. He is our moral and intellectual exemplar.
There is some resistance to ethics within the Christian spiritual formation movement as well. I affirm the emergence and flourishing of the movement, and am a strong advocate of practicing the spiritual disciplines for the sake of connection to and growth in Christ. But some approach these disciplines merely as avenues for having some sort of subjective, or even mystical, experience of God. While all believers should have such a thirst for Him, and part of the function of the disciplines is to enter into such fellowship with God, I believe there is great potential for moral formation that is at present untapped. And I believe that the Scriptures strongly emphasize this aspect of following Christ. The vital link between our experiential knowledge of Christ and growth in moral formation is our growth in virtue.
This is a New Testament emphasis. Jesus himself stressed the need for obedience as a condition for knowing God deeply, for obedience leads to personal transformation in character (see, for example, John 7:16-18). On this point we should reflect also on 2 Peter 1:3-11, which is worth quoting in full:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (ESV).
This is a rich and potentially very fruitful passage of Scripture.
First, it is God’s power that has been granted to us which enables us to grow in godliness. This is no mere self-help program; nor does it consist in the practice of certain “spiritual technologies.” With the aid of the Holy Spirit, through our knowledge of God, on the basis of the Word of God, we may become “partakers of the divine nature.” That is, our union with God in Christ is in part constituted by the virtues of Jesus—manifest in the revelation of his life in the Scriptures—as these become our virtues. There is, of course, a vast gap between the character of Christ and our own; but we can make real progress, so much so that we can, as Peter says, partake of God’s nature.
Second, we are to “make every effort” in our pursuit of growing in such qualities as faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, and love. We cannot make ourselves good, but we have a role to play in God’s sanctification of our character as we work with Him in the process of moral and spiritual growth. As Dallas Willard has said, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.” This is right. In order to grow in Christlikeness, we must intentionally focus on the virtues, seeking to cultivate them in an atmosphere of grace in partnership with God.
- (From a conference presentation, co-written with Doug Geivett, related to our book Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life (Eerdmans, 2012).
Art: The Good Samaritan, by Giovanni Antonio Guardi.