We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly notorious for its moral decadence. As a culture we have become “de-moralized” in the most literal sense of that word. The English historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) said that we are the first generation of man to try to build a society without a moral reference point. Similarly, Dave Breese wrote,
Our society, with its drastic degeneration, has moved to the place where it has no use for virtue. The support systems that were an aid to virtue have disintegrated, giving way to a society that is essentially subversive to moral goodness. The world has devised a thousand means to produce moral destruction in the lives of its individuals. This generation is being pressed upon with more opportunities to sin at a younger age and in increasingly clever ways.
In this gross and insensate world, the maiden of virtue is being daily throttled by the ogre of vice. What’s more, this brutalization is being done to the cheers, applause, promotion and sponsorship of a major segment of our population. The masses of earth that formerly could be called by the name humanity is now changing fast. People are becoming brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed.
In a thousand ways we see this. In our time we have seen statesmanship become politics, music become noise, enthusiasm become cynicism, love become sex, and sex become sodomy (Living For Eternity [Chicago: Moody Press, 1988], p. 54).
Yes, we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly notorious for its moral decadence. But I would suggest to you today that in the midst of all of this moral badness, the followers of Jesus Christ are called to be a people who will become increasingly known for their moral goodness.
I say that based on what I read in many places in God’s Word, including 2 Pet 1:2-22, the passage that serves as the foundational text for this particular series of articles titled “Christians Under Construction.”
In the first two articles we have already determined that there is a sense in which every Christian is a person in construction as well as under construction.
Every believer is a builder.
The Apostle Peter specifies seven building blocks that are to be used in the framing and fashioning of Christians in and under construction: virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.
In this article I will examine the character trait of virtue.
The word translated “virtue” in the KJV, NKJV, MEV, ESV, and RSV is rendered “goodness” in the NIV, HCSB, and the RSV. In other versions you will find it translated by such words as “moral excellence” (NASB, NLT, WEB, CEB), “excellence of character” (LEB), “excellence” (NET), or “moral character” (ISV).
In the original language the word is the Greek term aretē—which is best defined as “intrinsic eminence,” “eminent endowment,” or “excellence of person.” It is derived from a root verb that literally means “to fit together.” It was used in extra-biblical Greek to describe the qualities of a fine work horse, or the special intellectual capacity and physical capability of the ideal man living in the first century Greco-Roman world. Eventually, the term was used to refer to proper behavior. Thus, it really does refer to virtue or moral excellence.
This particular word may be found about a half dozen times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX), always used in reference to the praiseworthy deeds of God. For example, Isa 43:21 quotes God as saying, “This people I have formed for Myself; they shall declare My praise.” In other words, God wants His people to proclaim that He is good; that He is morally excellent and always does what is right. In fact, Peter alludes to this text when he writes in his first letter, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). We are to declare His moral excellence in word and deed. And we are reminded in 2 Pet 1:3 that we have been called “by His own glory (doxa) and virtue (aretē).”
In Phil 4:8 Paul admonished that “if anything is excellent (aretē) or praiseworthy think about such things.”
If we are going to be effective and productive for the Lord then we need to build upon the foundation of our faith a super-structure of Godly character, beginning with the building block of virtue/moral excellence.
Now that we know how that building block of virtue is defined, we also need to know how it is obtained.
We are reminded in the context (2 Pet 1:3-4), that everything we need for life and godliness is available to us from Him, through our knowledge of Him. So, essentially, what we need to do is to turn to Him in dependence on Him. We have the heavenly resource of His Divine power and His precious promises at our disposal.
I would like to suggest five Biblical, practical ways in which you can put the heavenly resources of His Divine power and precious promises to work in your life, so that you, too, might become morally excellent.
Pray for Virtue
First, you need to pray.
That step should be so basic and obvious, yet so many believers tend to overlook it.
If you want to be morally excellent, then the place to begin is to pray a prayer of consecration. For example, you might pray in the words of a great old hymn, “Take my life, and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to Thee.”
With respect to consecration I am suggesting, first, that you must present yourself to Him regularly and repeatedly and submit your will to His (Rom 12:1-2).
What is His will for your life with respect to this building block of moral excellence? It is clearly revealed in His Word. When it comes to moral purity there is no question or confusion regarding His will. I don’t think it can be stated any more clearly than it is with these words from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonica:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit (1 Thess 4:3-8 NKJV).
To be sure, today’s culture is floundering in a sea of moral relativity and confusion. In his 1932 book about the art of bull-fighting titled Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “what is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”
By contrast, the English author G. K. Chesterton once said that “morality, like art, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”
The truth of the matter is that, for us, God is the One who draws the line. For believers in Jesus, who are desiring a “rich welcome” into the everlasting kingdom (2 Pet 1:11), the bottom line is that if God says that something is wrong, then it is wrong, no matter how right it feels. If God says that it is bad, then it is bad, whether or not it makes you feel good.
If you want to be morally excellent, then what you need to do regularly1 is to pray a prayer of consecration in which you present yourself to Him, and in which you submit your will to His—no matter how you feel!
Purge Unwholesome Thoughts
Second, you must purge unwholesome thoughts, feelings and actions from your life. In other words, you need to “clean up your act.”
One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 101. It expresses in both negative and positive terms what I would call the creed of the man [and/or woman] who would build moral excellence into his/her life. If Paul warns, “But each one should be careful how he builds” (1 Cor 3:10), then it is David who explains at least in part, just what that entails.
I will sing of mercy and justice; To You, O Lord, I will sing praises.
I will behave wisely in a perfect way. Oh, when will You come to me?
I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.
I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me (Ps 101:1-3).
I think it is not just important, but imperative, that all believers be so resolved. Here, in the words of the English poet, Alexander Pope, is a good reason why:
Vice is a monster of such hideous mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen
But seen too oft, familiar with her face
We first endure, then pity, then embrace
The tragic truth of the matter is, that when it comes to vice, I am afraid that too many of us, in the words of an old Broadway song, “have grown accustomed to her face.”
Dr. Joseph Stowell, former president of Moody Bible Institute, writes,
Increasingly, the society in which we live celebrates sex in terms of a redefined function. In our society, sex is both entertainment and recreation… (and) it is to be enjoyed without restraint.
Increasingly, our congregations have less and less sensitivity to the purpose and practice of sanctified sex and are becoming increasingly vulnerable to moral laxity…Christians have become increasingly numb to this societal invasion of the sanctity of sex. Captured by soap operas we end up rooting for someone to have an illicit affair, or we blandly entertain ourselves with nudity on the silver screen, as though these things were in the proper parameters of legitimate permission in our lives. Music lyrics from pop to country to rock entertain us with seductive and suggestive notions about sexuality. MTV celebrates sensuality without boundaries, and magazine covers invite readers to peruse their pages to learn how to enhance their sex lives from a distinctly pagan point of view (Shepherding the Church, p. 198).
It is in such a cultural context that believers are called to make a difference. May God give us the courage to say resolutely and absolutely, “I will set before my eyes no vile thing” (Ps 101:3), and to pray just as urgently and fervently, “Turn my eyes away from worthless things” (Ps 119:37).
We must determine to purge from our lives any material possession and/or even personal relation that will hinder our progress in becoming morally excellent. I like the way Paul states this truth in Rom 13:11-14,
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.
But, some may ask, “How do we do that?”
Peter would say, “It is by depending on the Divine resources that are found in His precious promises!” And Paul explains in 2 Tim 3:16-17 that the inscripturated Word of God is useful, not just for teaching and training, but also for rebuking and correcting (i.e., for purging, if and when it is necessary).
Pursue Wholesome Thoughts
Third, you must pursue wholesome thoughts, feelings, words and deeds in your life. In his letter to the Philippian congregation, Paul said it like this,
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue, and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things (Phil 4:8).
In other words, feed your mind only that which is good!
Another way to do that is to surround yourself with godly people to whom you will make yourself accountable. I suspect that is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Timothy, “Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22). If you are serious about pursuing moral excellence, then the value of having one or two or more people, to whom you are willing to be held accountable, is probably inestimable.
Remember God Is With You
Fourth, remember that God is always with you. Don’t ever forget that. And because He is always with you, then you can never be without Him.
In Psalm 139 the songwriter, singer, and shepherd of Israel asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Ps 139:7).
The answer? Nowhere! Because, He is everywhere! And because He is with you wherever you go, He sees whatever you do! Indeed, “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:13).
You and I need to keep that thought in mind the next time we are tempted to sin. Don’t forget that even those sins we think are done in secret are not hidden from Him: “…Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23).
Prepare for Difficulty
Fifth, and finally, prepare for some difficult times!
This sinful world is no friend of grace, and it is becoming increasingly impatient with and intolerant of those of us who are—especially those of us who would pursue moral excellence.
It’s been said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. You need to know that if you make every effort to add to your faith this building block of moral excellence, then it won’t be long before you will discover that much of what the world treasures is really trash, and just about everything you treasure as a believer will be trashed by the world.
I believe that if you really want to be morally excellent, then besides praying, purging, pursuing and remembering, you need to be preparing for difficult times. I don’t think the situation is going to get any better before Jesus returns.
Not of the World
We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly notorious for its moral decadence. But we are in the world, not of the world!
So, what in the world are we coming to?
Well, it seems quite clear to me that we are coming to the end of the world (as we now know it). And if that is true, then it means that we are fast approaching the day when all believers will stand at last before the Judgment Seat of Christ.
I don’t know about you—but, I don’t want to lose what I have. Honestly, I don’t want you to lose it, either. What I want for my fellow believers is that you live in such a way today that you will actually add to what you will receive.
According to 2 Pet 1:11, in order to receive a rich welcome into Christ’s kingdom you need to make every effort to add to the foundation of your faith in Jesus Christ this first building block of virtue. I submit to you that in the midst of all of this moral decadence, the followers of Jesus Christ are to be a people who will become increasingly known for their moral goodness and for doing the best things in the worst times.
1. Many have quipped that the problem with a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1) is that it keeps getting off the altar. That is why we need ongoing consecration.