Tuesday, December 19, 2023


So far in this study of virtue we have looked at faith, hope, love, and piety. The first three are grouped together by Paul and have traditionally been known as theological virtues. They are directed toward God. It is important that we have faith, not just in anything, but in God, that we not merely have optimism, but a hope fixed on God and his promises, and a love which is also for our neighbor, but above all with our whole being for God. Piety fits very well among these virtues, as something that is first and foremost directed towards God as well.

In the rest of this series, I want to look at four more virtues that have been called the cardinal virtues. Usually they have been known as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (you might notice that those are all Latin-based names). I am going to use other words but cover the same areas: wisdom, righteousness, steadfastness, and self-control. 

What is Wisdom? 

The Bible says a lot about wisdom and contains a rich vocabulary of words that are related to wisdom: insight, prudence, knowledge, instruction, discretion, good sense, and understanding. I am thinking about this whole category of related terms concerning the right use of the mind for a good and godly life. 

What is contrary to wisdom? Folly and foolishness. What is wisdom? We might call it the right use and application of knowledge. We might use the word to refer to a sound mind. A professor of mine defined wisdom as skill in the art of godly living. Wisdom involves deliberation, understanding, and sound judgment. A wise person is able to take in the facts, figure out what the right thing is to do in a given situation, and then do it. 

Wisdom involves figuring out what is true and right and good. It also discerns what is the good and right thing to do in a particular situation. It also includes the ability to then fix upon that course of action. If you are always deliberating and get stuck there, you might have an active mind, but not wisdom. 

To be wise, you must have a thorough understanding of the principles of God’s law and godly goals, a perceptive understanding of the world and particular situations within it, and the ability to come to sound applications and conclusions, so that one acts wisely. A wise person perceives the principle behind the command so that he is able to apply it in other situations. A wise person perceives how the world works and the nature of his specific situation. What are the dynamics at work in this particular situation? What principles are relevant here? What course of action will be effectual in this case? Job's friends were not wise, despite knowing many things, misjudging his situation. The person who thinks everything is a nail because he has a hammer is not wise. We need an understanding of God's word, the world, the situation, and then the ability to come to a conclusion so that one acts wisely. 

Wisdom is important for all people and it is especially something that one should look for in decision makers. When the Bible speaks of appointing judges or rulers or elders or deacons, often one of the qualifications is that of wisdom. "Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads" (Deut. 1:13). Leaders like these need to be able to understand the cases that come before them and make the right decision.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Now there are several books in the Bible known as wisdom literature. Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are most commonly put into this category. All of them teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10, Job 28:28, Eccl. 12:13, see also Psalm 111:10). Jesus' teachings echo some of the wisdom literature as well and is wisdom himself. The book of James has been called "the Proverbs of the New Testament" and has many similar topics and emphases. But let us start with Proverbs. 

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). The fear of the Lord is fundamental to being wise. First of all, it is the height of folly to ignore God or rebel against him. He is the most fundamental thing to take into account in any decision that needs to be made. He is the most important factor in any equation. How can you ignore him who made heaven and earth, who will bring everything into judgment, who sees all things? Secondly, by the fear of the Lord, a person turns away from evil and the way of destruction, the way of folly and death (Prov. 16:6). By the fear of the Lord, one turns away from evil and to the way that is good. Thirdly, by the fear of the Lord, you are taught humility and teachableness before the Creator, the one who designed your world (Prov. 15:33). In Proverbs, there is a cycle where the fool rejects instruction but the wise person is teachable and grows in wisdom. So how does a person begin to be wise? How do you get started on the right track? The beginning is the fear of the Lord. Then you will begin to benefit from instruction and grow wiser through instruction and experience.

Proverbs teaches that wisdom must be prized and pursued to be obtained. “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7). Wisdom must be sought out. A person must want it enough that he is willing to receive instruction and correction. Solomon, as a good teacher, spends nine chapters persuading his readers to love and seek wisdom before teaching it (read chapter two for an example of this). He describes its goodness and advantages and the danger of being without it. God made all things by his wisdom. It is wisdom that can preserve you from the strange woman and violent man and the ways of death. Wisdom is more valuable than silver and gold. Wisdom comes to those who seek it and no one else. In this way you will understand justice and righteousness and every good path and turn aside from the way that ends in destruction. Therefore, wisdom should be sought out from God, from his word, from parents, instructors, and friends, through instruction and correction and attentiveness. 

A God-fearing person will grow in wisdom through this training. This training is a combination of instruction, practice, and correction. A God-fearing person embraces this training. The old are expected to be wiser because they have had more opportunity for this training, although too many people neglect this opportunity. This is also why we expect there to be wisdom in tradition. Tradition is a repository of lessons learned over the generations, although it is not above critique or reform. 

One important tool of instruction in wisdom is that of the proverb. These short and pithy sentences make you think. Biblical proverbs usually use parallelism, saying something in two different ways or making a contrast between two things. They can be simply descriptive, observing how the world works, provoking you to think how you should live in light of this observation.  

Proverbs covers many areas in which wisdom should be applied. One big emphasis is that of speech. It takes much wisdom to communicate well. Words are small but powerful. They can be useful, but they can also be quite destructive. Proverbs also covers things like work, wealth, sex, marriage, child rearing, politics, and friendship.

Proverbs also teaches that virtue is wise. Righteousness, diligence, self-control, humility, and generosity are wise qualities. Diligence is wise, not sloth or theft. Self-control is wise, not sexual immorality or pugnacity. These wise virtues are home-building virtues, which we see especially in the last chapter of Proverbs. The vices that Proverbs describes are those that tear down homes, that tear down kingdoms, and leave destruction in their path. 

Wisdom in the New Testament 

We could also go to Ecclesiastes and Job and some of the complexities of living in a fallen world and the delay between now and the final resolution of all things in the judgment to come. But let us go to the New Testament. In Colossians 1:9-10, we have Paul's prayer for the saints in Colossae. “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God...” It should be our desire and prayer to know God's will in all wisdom and understanding, so that we can walk in a manner worthy to him. 

Not only does Paul pray for this, but he also works hard for it. In describing the work of Christ's ministers, he says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). 

In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul writes of the aim of his struggles, “…that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ. The Proverbs often talk about wisdom in a personified way and much of this language is picked up in the New Testament and applied to Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). As Proverbs describes wisdom being begotten of God before anything was created, so Jesus is eternally begotten of the Father before all ages. As all things were made through wisdom, so all things were made through Christ. Where do we find wisdom and take hold of wisdom? In Jesus Christ. It would be utter folly to reject him. But in him, we become truly wise and are reconciled with our Maker. 

In Colossians 3:10, Paul describes the image of God that is being renewed in the saints. We “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Compare this to the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:24 where he emphasizes holiness and righteousness. In Colossians, with it emphasis on wisdom, he brings out the fact that this divine image is being renewed in knowledge. 

How do we grow in this knowledge and wisdom? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). If Christ has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, we should want his word to dwell in us richly. This takes place through instruction in wisdom and also by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. 

Then Paul exhorts the saints in Colossians 4:5, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” Live wisely, redeeming the time, making good choices, especially before outsiders. Do not bring disgrace upon the gospel. Set a good example. Be a light to the world and refute the slander of the ungodly by your behavior. Be wise in how you speak to outsiders. "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (4:6). 

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus says, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." The Greek word used here for wisdom is the more specific word for prudence, shrewdness, or sensibleness. Jesus does not want his people to be simpletons or naive. You are sheep among wolves, so beware of men. Look out for the danger that comes. You should be like children in humility and teachableness, but Scripture also says, "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature" (1 Cor. 14:20).

On the other hand, does prudence sometimes get used as an excuse to compromise? Sometimes cowards and sluggards appeal to prudence to excuse their vices (Prov. 26:13). Sometimes well-meaning apologists foolishly think they might win over their opponents by giving up less important doctrines. Many errors and heresies have begun as misguided strategies for defending the faith. Sometimes sins and cruelties are excused under the pretense of prudence, as if the ends necessarily justify the means. It is with good reason that Jesus adds, "innocent as doves." The devil was crafty, but he was not innocent as a dove. He was using that wisdom to do harm. We ought to be as wise as serpents, but in such a way that we do not become like the wolves we dwell among. All the virtues need each other. 

Let me finish then with the epistle from James. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). This is what true wisdom looks like. It is contrary to contention and selfish ambition. It is open to reason and impartial with a readiness to understand the situation rather than stubbornly sticking to assumptions. This true wisdom comes from above, from God, and it leads to peace and harmony. 

How does one receive this wisdom from above? Not only by instruction and practice, but also through prayer. In James 1:5 he says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” So lift up your voice and call out for wisdom. Pray to God that he might give it to you. Seek wisdom from the Lord, in the fear of the Lord, for he gives generously to those who seek it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023


“Piety,” like the word “religion,” is not an especially popular word today. Both words strike some as overly formal and sanctimonious and get unfairly associated with hypocrisy or formalism. It is possible to have the appearance of piety but to lack its power, but that is a distortion. Like religion, piety is a good word and concept. To others, piety is simply another word for private devotions or Bible reading and prayer. But piety is more and deeper than this.

Now, where do you find it in the Bible? If you looked in your Bible and you just searched for the word piety, you might not come up with a lot, and that is due to a matter of translation. The Greek word for piety is εὐσέβεια. In our English translations, it is usually translated as "godliness." So when you see the word godliness or godly in the New Testament, that is the Greek word, εὐσέβεια, which is the Greek equivalent of the Latin pietas, which is where we get our word piety. As with most concepts in English, we have two words for the same basic concept, one Latin-based (piety) and one Anglo-Saxon-based (godliness). You can use either word, godliness or piety, but the concept is the important thing.

What Is Piety?

So what is εὐσέβεια? What is piety? People have talked about this over the years. John Calvin uses the word a lot in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and he defines it too. He says, 
I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him - they will never yield him willing service. (1.2.1)
From a knowledge of God and his benefits, we therefore revere and love him. This reverence and grateful love producing willing service. Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary has a similar definition of piety. He says, 
1. Piety in principle, is a compound of veneration or reverence of the Supreme Being and love of his character, or veneration accompanied with love; and piety in practice, is the exercise of these affections in obedience to his will and devotion to his service. 
2. Reverence of parents or friends, accompanied with affection and devotion to their honor and happiness.
Like Calvin, Webster describes piety as a combination of reverence and love and as the exercise of these affections in obedience and service. Webster also speaks of what is called filial piety, piety directed toward one's parents. 

Building on these other definitions, piety can be briefly defined as dutiful devotion that springs from gratitude and reverence. Reverent fear and grateful love unite to produce dutiful devotion. A godly, pious life is marked by a devout diligence to fulfill your God-given duties, fulfilling them with gratitude and reverence. 

As a side note, while there is not a Hebrew word exactly equivalent to εὐσέβεια, the Old Testament does speak of these elements of piety: wholehearted love and godly fear of God, resulting in devoted service and obedience (Deut. 10:12-13). 

Piety in 2 Peter and 1 Timothy 

There are several books of the New Testament where godliness/piety is especially prominent, such as 2 Peter and 1 Timothy. In 2 Peter, we are taught that we have received all things that pertained to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us (1:3). Then Peter goes on to exhort us to make every effort to supplement our faith with several virtues, including godliness (1:5-6). Near the end of this epistle, after speaking of the second coming of Jesus Christ, he exclaims, "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness...!" (2 Peter 3:11). 

Paul speaks of godliness throughout 1 Timothy. For example, in 4:6-8 he writes, 
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
There is, first of all, a connection between the good words of the faith and its outworking in godliness. The truth "accords with godliness" (1 Tim. 6:3, Titus 1:1). There is also a connection between being trained in the words and training yourself in godliness. Two different Greek words for training are used here. In verse 6 the sense is “being nourished/fed/educated in the words of the faith,” while in verse 7 the sense is “train/exercise yourself for godliness.” Just as you eat properly and exercise your body to be healthy, so spiritual health is produced by being fed by good teaching and by exercising yourself in godliness. Notice that just as in 2 Peter, you are called to activity. You are called to train yourself for godliness. Just as you also train your body in physical virtue, so train yourself in the spiritual virtue of piety. Piety is of value in every way.

In 6:5-6, Paul speaks of false teachers who imagine that godliness is a means of gain. They are just practicing it to get some money out of you. Then he says in verse 6, "but godliness with contentment is great gain." And so, there is promise in godliness. In fact, that is what he had spoken of in 4:8, that godliness is a value in every way as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a win-win situation. Win now, win later. But this is true of godliness with contentment, not hypocritical godliness as a means to money, because the love of money is not godliness, but the root of all kinds of evil. And then in 6:11, exhorting Timothy, he says, "But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness." Flee vices, but pursue after true piety.

Piety Described 

Piety is preeminently directed toward God. It is expressed in dutiful devotion to him, springing from grateful love and reverent fear. Piety is directly expressed in worship, but it is also expressed in willing obedience in everything. As Cicero put it, “piety gives both duty and homage.” It is also an inner attitude that is expressed in these ways. Do not neglect the inner attitude, its expression in worship and devotions, or its expressions in obedience throughout life.

Piety toward God is born of faith. It is by faith that we learn gratitude and reverence, beholding the grace and majesty of God. 

Piety shows reverence rather than flippancy and irreverence. The false teachers described in 2 Peter were impious: they carelessly despised authority, blasphemed, and despised God’s judgment.

Piety shows gratitude rather than self-centeredness and ingratitude. Those who receive much from God but do not give thanks to him or serve him are impious. Secularism is thoroughly impious. 

Piety is exercised by dutiful devotion rather than unfaithfulness and lawlessness driven by sinful passions. In 2 Peter, Peter uses the word “ungodly” to describe: (1) the world of the ungodly destroyed in Noah’s flood, (2) Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what will happen to the ungodly, and (3) the destruction of the ungodly on the day of judgment. But those who are rescued, like Lot, are “the godly” (2:9). Today there is a great temptation to adopt an attitude that is irreverent, ungrateful, and lawless. The atmosphere we breath is impious. Swim against the stream! 

In a secondary way, piety is also directed toward other superiors to whom you have reason to be grateful, such as your parents and country. They have given you much, so be grateful and reverent toward them and therefore dutiful and devoted to them, giving back by your service. This is called filial piety (or patriotism in the case of your country). This is part of our piety toward God, especially in light of the fifth commandment. Paul spoke of piety/godliness in this way in 1 Timothy 5:4, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” Make return - in other words, as you received life from them, as you were brought up by them, as they cared for you when you could not care for yourself, so show this reverence and gratitude toward them by caring for them in their old age. We also show this filial piety for our parents by also honoring their children (your siblings). You show this piety towards your country by also honoring your fellow citizens for its sake.

Two Examples of Piety: Aeneas and Cornelius 

A popular example of piety in the ancient world was pius Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, the legendary founder of Rome. In that story, Aeneas demonstrates pietas by his devotion to the gods and his father by showing reverence to them and embracing the duty they gave him of founding the city of Rome for his people and descendants. The classic image of Aeneas was of him carrying his father and household gods out of the fall of Troy, leading his young son by the hand behind him. He introduces himself in the Aeneid by saying, “I am Aeneas, duty-bound. I carry aboard my ships the gods of house and home we seized from enemy hands. My fame goes past the skies. I seek my homeland - Italy - born as I am from highest Jove.” (The Aeneid, 1.457-460). The force that is opposed to pietas in the Aeneid is not only impiety, but furor (the Latin word for passion, frenzy, or rage). In the Aeneid, this frenzy and passion is personified by Juno who stirs up storms, the lust of Dido, the Trojan wives who seek to burn the ships, and the hostile forces and civil tumult in Italy, all of this to turn aside pious Aeneas from the path of duty. 

As in the Aeneid, the Bible describes εὐσέβεια in opposition to impiety and evil passions. The passions of the flesh “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11) much as they waged war against Aeneas to turn him aside from his duty and destroy him. But this deliverance from frenzy comes through Christ, who is “the grace of God” who “has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness [impiety] and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly [pious] lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:12).

It is interesting that Luke, a Gentile, recounts the healing of a lame man named Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) just before introducing a pious Roman centurion (Acts 10) in a book that ends with the gospel of the kingdom coming to Rome (Acts 28). Perhaps Luke included the account of Aeneas’ healing to indicate that pagan Rome and its piety was helplessly disabled, in need of Christ the Savior. 

In any case, in Acts 10 we come to a good example of a pious man who served the true God. Cornelius, the Roman centurion from Italy, is described by Luke the same way Aeneas is described by Virgil: “a devout [εὐσεβής] man” (Acts 10:2). Consider how Luke described this pious man. 

Cornelius feared God (10:2). I have already mentioned that the fear of God is an essential element of piety. And not only did he fear God, but he did so with all his household (10:2). That is, he practiced it with them in family worship, cultivated it through instruction and by example, and applied it in their way of life. This influence extended to the soldier who attended him, who is also described as pious (ESV: “devout,” 10:7). 

Cornelius gave alms generously to the people (10:2). Alms were gifts to the needy and were given in the synagogue and on the street (Matt. 6:2). Cornelius also prayed continually to God (10:2-3). Not that he prayed every minute of the day, but consistently throughout the day (such as at “the ninth hour”). His alms and prayers were like sacrifices to God (10:4, see also Heb. 13:15-16).

Cornelius was a just man (“upright,” 10:22). Piety itself is an aspect of justice - God deserves our reverence and devotion - and it moves a person to justly fulfill the rest of his obligations to God and man as service to the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). Piety is not only practiced in worship, but also in dutifulness before God in all of life. 

Cornelius sent for Peter so that he might hear Peter's message from God and he invited his household and friends to hear it (10:7-8, 24). His piety was evident by his regard for God's word. Cornelius received the gospel that Peter preached (10:44-48, 11:17-18). I believe Cornelius was already regenerate, believing in God's old covenant promises, but here he and his household received the gospel of Christ's finished work and were brought into new covenant blessings, being filled with the Spirit and baptized. A pious man receives the word of God, repents of his sin, believes the gospel, and receives baptism with his household. 

Cornelius is a biblical example of a pious man. We should all be training ourselves in piety. May we live in this way, living before the face of God. May we remember what we have received from God - his generosity and  kindness - that we might be loving and grateful to him. May we remember his presence and power and authority, that we might revere him. And with this gratitude and reverence, may we therefore live lives that are devoted to him, attending to our duties, turning aside from evil passions, and repenting when we go astray.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023


In addition to faith and hope, Paul speaks of "the love that you have for all the saints," your "labor of love," and "the breastplate of faith and love" (Col. 1:3-5, 1 Thess. 1:3, 5:8). Love is one of the virtues that we are to practice and exercise as we grow to reflect the character and excellency of our God.

The Importance of Love

Consider first the importance of love. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” In context, he was warning against teaching that was unprofitable and speculative. He reminded Timothy that this love was the aim of their charge as ministers of the gospel.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he answered in terms of love, quoting two passages from the Old Testament. 
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)
Not only are these the greatest commandments, but they are foundational for the rest, a summary of the law. 

Another place where Paul uses the triad of faith, hope, and love is in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Here he writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is greater than faith and hope. We might say that faith is the most foundational virtue. It is usually listed first because by it we receive Christ. Yet love is the most important as the highest virtue and the most enduring. Certainly faith and hope abide, but they also culminate in the age to come in such a way that faith gives way to sight and our hopes are realized. But love will continue as love in glory as we dwell with God and one another. 

In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” Not only is love for one another important, but so is love for the Lord. It is essential. Paul anathematizes those who do not have it.

The apostle Peter also spoke highly of love. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Do not stop, but keep on loving one another, and do so earnestly!

What Is Love? 

If love is so important, we should figure out what it is. The New Testament primarily uses two Greek words for love, agape and phileo. Sometimes when people teach about love, they overemphasize the contrast between different Greek words for love. In the Bible, these two words often overlap without a strong contrast. Sometimes they are used interchangeably within a passage. Phileo can emphasize the aspect of friendship a bit more than agape. In fact, a form of phileo is used as the word for friend, as when Lazarus is described as Jesus' friend. Agape is used more commonly, but phileo is more common in compound words (love of money, love of God, love of husband, brotherly love).

The Greek lexicon defines agapao (the verb form of agape) as “(1) to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love; (2) to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, take pleasure in” (BDAG). It defines phileo as “(1) to have a special interest in someone or something, frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend; (2) to kiss as a special indication of affection, kiss” (BDAG).

Both of these Greek words can be used for bad loves. Not every exercise of love is good. The love of money, for example, is strongly condemned in Scripture. Both Greek words are used for it. There are also good loves, like the love of Jesus. Both Greek words are used for that too. So the object of love and its proportion is important. That is also true of faith. Is all faith saving faith? Are some faiths bad? If you put the faith in a false god, that would be a bad faith. Faith is a virtue when it is exercised in the true God and his gospel. The same with hope. You could have vain hopes. You could have hope in the wrong thing. You could hope for bad things. But there is a Christian hope. The same is true with love. Properly ordered love is a virtue. In fact, it is the highest virtue.

Can you think of what would just be the opposite of love? Hatred is an opposite of love. Think of how John commonly contrasts love and hatred (1 John 3:11-15). Related to hatred is envy. Other alternatives contrary to love include neglect, contempt, and apathy. A person who loves another will care about that person. 

One Reformed writer says, “Spiritual love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We show this type of love by loving God for His sake and our neighbors for God’s sake” (Godefridus Udemans). It is very common to define the virtue of love in this way, and with good reason. Love for God is preeminent. The love of neighbor ought to flow from it. 

Love for God

Thomas Watson (1620–1686) has a section on love in his book on the Ten Commandments. He says, “What is love? It is a holy fire kindled in the affections, whereby a Christian is carried out strongly after God as the supreme good.” I think that is a good description. Love is an inner affection, a holy fire kindled in the affections. It has an object, God. It also carries you out after the object, that you might participate in him. It fixes on God as the supreme good. And it is a vigorous affection. 

Watson goes on to say, “Wherein doth the formal nature of love consist? The nature of love consists in delighting in an object … This is loving God, to take delight in him.” Watson also points out that our love for God ought to be with a whole and undivided heart, that we ought to love him for himself, not just because he might do something for you, but because he himself is the supreme good. We should seek to enjoy him, to love him above all else, to love him as much as we can, with all our ability, to love him constantly, and to exercise this love in every sphere. “Love to God must be active in its sphere. Love is an industrious affection; it sets the the head studying for God, hands working, feet running in the ways of his commandments. It is called the labour of love. 1 Thess. 1:3.” 

Love for Your Fellow Man

If we love God, we will also love those who are made in his image, for his image in them. That is why we should not kill them, because they are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). But more than that, we ought to love them, as fellow image bearers of our Creator. 

We have all the more reason to love those who have been born of God, those who have been adopted and regenerated and are being renewed after his image. As Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). In view here is love for your fellow disciples. This is plain from the following verse, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Among fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, we are able to mutually participate in this Christ-like love and Christ-motivated love. 

There is also a love for family that Scripture exhorts us to as an aspect of this virtue. They are some of your closest neighbors. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. In Titus 2, he says that older women should train younger women to love their husbands and their children. The Song of Songs describes the mutual love of its groom and bride as something strong and enduring, as "strong as death" (8:6). 

The love of neighbor also extends beyond fellow saints and family members to the person in front of you, even the stranger (Lev. 19:34). Jesus taught this in the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was good because he acted as a neighbor to the wounded Jew that he found on the side of the road. 

Love is even to be extended to your enemy, as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:43-48. Why should you love your enemy? Because God is benevolent and merciful toward his enemies and you should imitate your Father. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust ... You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:44–45, 48). Not only did God love us when we were his enemies, choosing us and bringing us to salvation, but he even shows kindness to the reprobate in this life, giving them good things that they do not deserve. He is long-suffering and patient. He shows kindness not only to those who love him, but also to the wicked and ungrateful (Luke 6:35). Therefore, you who are his children should imitate him and love your enemies. 

Characteristics of Love 

In describing love, one cannot forget Paul's description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. It was written in the context of a church that needed love, having been divided by rivalries and party spirit. It had been divided and disordered in its practice of the Lord's Supper as well as in its practice of certain spiritual gifts. Paul not only insists on love's necessity, but also describes its true nature. 
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4–8a)
These are characteristics, qualities of love, the love that Christians ought to exercise toward one another, resembling their Savior. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that while knowledge can puff up, love builds up. That is a characteristic of love as well. It is edifying. It builds up other people. 

There are also related virtues to love, such as generosity, kindness, and mercy. Mercy is love exercised towards those who are in misery or danger. When you see the distress of those whom you love, love turns into mercy as you lay their misery to your own heart and desire to help them. Another related virtue is hospitality (Heb. 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9). Scripture also speaks of natural affection in Romans 1, or to be more precise, the lack of natural affection (translated by the ESV as "heartless"). Fallen mankind usually continues to exercise a basic natural affection, but sometimes even this is corrupted. While the Gentiles usually love those who love them and greet their brothers (Matt. 5:46-47), sometimes they do not. While unbelieving mothers and fathers will often have natural affection for their children, there are times when even this love fails and parents turn cruel to their own flesh and blood. So even natural affections can be undermined by sin and should be purposefully maintained by the believer. 

God's Love for Us

God's love is primary in several ways. Not only should we love God more than anything, but his love is the original love, the model of love, and a motive for our love. God's love was the first love that ever existed. The Father loved the Son in eternity past before creation (John 17:24), and even his love for us existed in eternity (Eph. 1:4-5). God has a general mercy towards all. He has a love for his elect in Christ. The Triune God loves us. Not only did the Father love us by sending the Son (John 3:16), but the Son himself also loved us and so gave himself for us (Eph. 5:1-2). He laid down his life for his friends. There is no greater love than that. 

So in this redemptive work, the love of God was expressed. As 1 John 4:8-9 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” This is how we know love and it is also our motive for love. We learn from his demonstration of love that someone who loves another will seek the good of that person, delight in fellowship with that person, and be willing to sacrifice for that person. And we love because he first loved us. We love him who has loved us. We love him for himself and we love others because of him.

The Source of Love

This virtue of love comes from God. He produces it in his children. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It is founded upon knowledge and faith. When a person perceives the goodness of God and God's grace toward him, he seeks God and delights in him as his supreme good. If you did not know anything about God, why would you love him? It is by knowing God, by knowing his goodness, by knowing that he has loved you, that we love him. We know him by reading Scripture and by receiving him in faith. Therefore we love. Remember, our aim is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. As Paul says, what matters is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). 

Love in Action

Love expresses itself in good works, acts of charity to others and obedience to God's commandments (1 John 3:16-18, 5:3). Like the woman at Jesus' feet, we love much because we are forgiven much, and therefore we show that love by acts of devotion to him (Luke 7:44-50). In fact, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:14 that we should do all things in love. Do everything out of a motive of love and therefore in a loving manner. Love is the inner affection that produces loving deeds. 

Love should not be primarily defined as the behavior it produces. Primarily, love is the motive that produces good deeds for others. It is the motivation of loving behavior. But the deeds of love can be called love. You can see love in the form of loving words and deeds. After all, the world is supposed to see the love that Christ's disciples have for one another. 

The Maintenance of Love 

I want to conclude with the maintenance of love. Love is like a fire that needs to be kept aflame, otherwise it might grow cold. Remember the Ephesian church, which had lost the love they had at first (Rev. 2:4). They had declined in their love and their fervor. Jesus speaks in Matthew 24 of the love of some growing cold. So Thomas Watson exhorts us, 
You who have love to God, keep it flaming upon the altar of your heart … As you would be careful to preserve the natural heat in your body, so be careful to preserve the heat of love to God in your soul. Love is like oil to the wheels, it quickens us in God’s service. When you find love abate and cool, use all means to quicken it. When the fire is going out, you throw on fuel; so when the flame of love is going out, make use of the ordinances as sacred fuel to keep the fire of your love burning.
Remember that you are responsible to maintain and to exercise this love. Peter exhorts us to make every effort to add brotherly affection and love to your faith (2 Peter 1). Ponder the glory and excellence and goodness of God displayed in his word and his world, so that a sense of these things might inflame that love. Then exercise it in service, in song, in worship, and in prayer. The same goes for your love for the saints and your love for other people. Grow in love by consistently exercising love and inflaming it through a meditation upon the love of your God.

Monday, November 27, 2023


Colossians 1:3-5 is one of several passages in which Paul mentions the triad of faith, hope, and love. "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven." Having written of faith, let us proceed on to hope. 

In speaking of hope in Colossians 1, Paul speaks objectively. Faith, hope, and love can all be used subjectively and objectively. We usually use them in their subjective sense - hope you exercise in something, faith you exercise in something, love you have for someone. You can also use the words in an objective sense and speak of the thing you have faith in as "the faith," the thing that you have hope in as "the hope," or the one whom you love as "my love." So in this passage, Paul speaks of the thing for which the saints hope as "the hope laid up for you in heaven." 

We can have hope for a lot of things. Sometimes the Bible uses hope in a very commonplace sort of way, as when John says, "I hope to come to you" (2 John 12). But when we speak of hope as a virtue, we are speaking of hope in God, hope in his word, hope in the things that he has promised for us, such as the glory that awaits us (Lam. 3:19-24, Titus 1:1-3). Like saving faith, Christian hope is directed toward God through Jesus Christ. And just as we have faith in God and therefore receive his word by faith, so we have hope in God and therefore have hope in his promises, the things that he has taught us to expect from him. 

Now, what is hope? How would you describe hope? As my son has put it, when you hope for something, you think it is going to happen and you want it to happen. Those are the two basic parts of hope, expectation and desire. 

The Hebrew word for hope,  יָחַל, has the sense of waiting for, with patient expectation. You are going to wait for it with the expectation of it coming to pass. The Greek word, ἐλπίς, means “the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment, hope, expectation” (BDAG). As another lexicon has it, hope is "the expectation of good" (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). If we have the expectation of something bad, we would not call that hope. Hope is an expectation of something that you want, of something that is good. 

Now in the Bible, hope is usually not a mere wishful expectation, but a confident and certain expectation of future good which we desire. The Puritan John Owen put it this way, “Where Christ evidenceth his presence with us, he gives us an infallible hope of glory; he gives us an assured pledge of it, and worketh our souls into an expectation of it. Hope in general is but an uncertain expectation of a future good which we desire; but as it is a gospel grace, all uncertainty is removed from it, which would hinder us of the advantage intended in it. It is an earnest expectation, proceeding from faith, trust, and confidence, accompanied with longing desires of enjoyment.”

This confident expectation brings us joy. It proceeds from God's promise and the way it works in our hearts is that it proceeds from faith, trust, and confidence. You have hope because you have believed.

Now what would be the alternative to hope or the opposite of hope? Some alternatives to hope are a sense of impending doom and despair, either expecting bad things or not expecting good. Also, the absence of desires or goals would also be contrary to hope. A person with hope has goals and an expectation of reaching them. So a person without hope either does not have goals or has no expectation of reaching them.

Another distortion of hope would be what we would call presumption or vain hope. This would be to expect something that you do not have a good reason to expect. You may come across this in more mundane matters, where a person gets their hopes up for no good reason, only to have them dashed in time. This happens in great matters too. It is a vain hope to expect pardon apart from faith in Christ. Some people think that of course they will go to heaven. Yet, they do not have any good reason to think they are going to heaven if they do not realize that they are a sinner in need of grace and then receive that salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Mere presumptions and vain hopes not grounded upon God's word are not the virtue of hope. (Nor is it a virtue when your desires are for unlawful things.)

Hope is built upon faith. Faith in God results in love and hope. Godefridus Udemans has defined Christian hope in this way: “Hope is the fruit of the Spirit whereby we look forward with patience and endurance to the fulfillment of God’s promises.” Hope is is indeed produced by the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” 

The Lord’s Prayer is a good summary of Christian hope. It both directs our desires and gives us an expectation of them, if we ask in faith as his disciples. Jesus did not teach us to pray these things in vain. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to have hope that God will be revered, his kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, in you personally and in the world. It teaches us to hope that God will provide for our earthly needs in accord with his wisdom, that he will forgive our debts (sins), and that he will deliver us from evil (world, flesh, devil). 

Believers have reason to hope for personal sanctification, hope for deliverance from the power of evil and for growth in righteousness. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Believers have reason to hope for the future of God's church. Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” He was writing to the people of God as they were encountering difficulty and exile, but God would not cut off his people. He would give them a future and a hope generations later. He would continue to sustain his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

Believers have reason to hope especially for eternal life, resurrection, and glory. After all, Paul did say, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Our hope goes far beyond our daily bread. We hope for eternal life with God after death, dwelling with Christ in heaven, being raised in incorruptible glory on the day of Christ's return, and inheriting the kingdom of glory forever in the new creation.

We wait eagerly for these future realities. In fact, the whole creation awaits this great restoration and glorification. Romans 8:23-25 describes this hope:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

As faith can be contrasted with sight, so hope can also be contrasted with sight. You do not hope for something you already have. We might call that enjoyment, but not hope. You hope for something that has not yet arrived or is not yet in your possession. Therefore it requires patience. We so have a foretaste of this future hope, the firstfruits of the Spirit, who is "the guarantee of our inheritance" (Eph, 1:14). 

What are some results and fruits of Christian hope? 

Hope leads to joy. Paul connects rejoicing with hope at least twice in Romans. “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). Our expectation is a joyful expectation. We rejoice in the hope of participating in this glory of God that is set before us. 

Hope leads to courage and steadfastness. You can have courage in the face of difficulty and threats - the short-term expectation of harm or suffering - because you have hope of good in the end. In 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul speaks of "your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." As a person works and labors out of faith and love, so he is steadfast because of his hope. You are able to stand fast through suffering and difficulty, waiting eagerly for what is to come, for glory, for eternal life, for God's care for his people and his faithfulness to his promises.

Hope also leads to diligence and work. 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of the hope of the resurrection and it ends with an exhortation that follows from this hope: "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

There are many fruits and benefits from the hope we have, the hope that is rooted in faith and God's Word. This hope is strengthened as we call these things to mind. "But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope" (Lam. 3:21). We should train ourselves to meditate upon these things and to exercise our hope, more and more. When you meet with challenges or see the wicked prosper, remember the exhortation of Scripture, "Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off" (Prov. 23:17–18).  

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


One triad that Paul liked to use is that of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13, Col. 1:3-5, 1 Thess. 1:2-3, 5:8). Paul varied the order of the last two, depending on his emphasis, but faith is consistently listed first. And so, in this series on virtue, we will begin with these three - faith, hope, and love - beginning with faith.

In these passages, you see that it talks about the object of faith. Faith in what? What do we put our faith in? Jesus. That is what Paul says in Colossians, "faith in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:4). He also talks about the fruit of faith, their "work of faith" (1 Thess. 1:2-3). Faith was demonstrated by their work, just like love also produces labor and hope produces steadfastness.

One note before we go further: the word for faith, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, when it is used as a verb, is usually translated "believe." So if I say "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ," that is the same as saying "have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." They might be two different words in English, but in the Bible, it is usually the same Greek or Hebrew root that is being used.

So what is faith? Specifically, what is saving faith? The Bible will use faith in some different ways. There is some faith that is deficient in one way or another, but still can be called faith. But the faith that we ought to be practicing, saving faith, what is that? How would you describe it?

Our shorter catechism describes saving faith in this way, "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel." 

One way that faith has been described is that includes knowledge, assent, and trust. And the idea of trust is this idea of receiving and resting. The knowledge and assent are important to get to that point, but you do not want to stop with them. 

For example, are you sitting in a chair right now? Do you trust that chair to hold you? Do you have faith in that chair? Yes, you have faith. This is not saving faith, faith in God, but it is faith, because otherwise you would be scared. You would doubt. You would not sit there. But first of all, you know that the chair is supposed to hold you. You also agree that the chair will hold you. And then you also trust in that chair and therefore sit in it, right? You receive and rest upon it. You rest your whole body upon it, thinking that it is going to hold you up. That is an example of what we mean by faith. In this case, the object of your faith is the chair. But you are not trusting in the chair for salvation, right? What are you trusting in the chair for? You are trusting the chair to hold you up so you don't fall on the ground. With Jesus, we are trusting in him for salvation, for life, for all that is offered in the gospel. And so our faith in him is a much more important faith.

Here is another analogy. Let us say you are in the ocean. Can you picture yourself in the ocean? Except you are literally in the ocean. You are going to sink. But someone threw a life preserver out to you and it is floating there in front of you. Well, you know that it is there in front of you and that it is supposed to hold you up. And you agree that this life preserver will hold you up. Then you trust in it by receiving and resting upon that life preserver, taking a hold of it so that you might be saved. Well, that is a little closer to what it is like to trust in Christ, right? Because there you are trusting in that life preserver to save you from drowning.

With Jesus, we learn about him in the gospel. We also then assent to the gospel. Yes, Jesus is the Savior. He is the Son of God. But do the demons recognize that? Do the demons assent to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God? They do. They even called him that. They addressed him, "O Son of God" (Matt. 8:29). But do the demons receive and rest upon Jesus Christ for their salvation? No, no. So James says even the demons believe that God is one - and shudder (James 2:19)! The demons believe in that they have knowledge and they give assent to it, but they don't receive and rest upon God. They do not trust in him. So their faith is deficient and it is not saving faith. It is a faulty faith. It is not a living or saving faith. Therefore, it also does not produce works. Why would the demons do good works out of that faith? Instead, the fruit of that faith is shuddering and fear and the attempt to escape. That is not the fruit of our faith. The fruit of a faith that receives and rests upon Christ is very different.

How did Abraham demonstrate his faith in God? Do you remember a big test that Abraham was given, whether he would believe God or not? God told him to sacrifice his son. Not only was that a horrible thing to think about, but his son was also the promised son. So it was difficult to see how God would bring to pass his promises through the sacrifice of this son. But Abraham believed God and therefore he obeyed God because he received him as his God and rested upon him and his promise of salvation through Christ.

Now, how is faith is unique compared to all the other virtues? We say that we are saved by faith. Do we say we are saved by love? Do we say we are saved by our righteousness? Do we say we are saved by our wisdom? No! Do we say we were saved by faith? Yes! How does faith save? What is special about faith? The saving act of faith is that of receiving Jesus (John 1:11-12, Phil. 3:8-9). It is the act of receiving and resting upon Jesus for salvation, as he presents himself in the gospel. He presents himself in the gospel as Lord and Savior, as the Christ (prophet, priest, and king), and we receive him as such. Where is salvation to be found? In God and in the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for us. And so it is by receiving this gift, by receiving Jesus, that we are saved.

Sometimes the Bible speaks of saving faith as faith in God, who delivered Jesus for our trespasses and raised him from the dead (Rom. 4:24-25). Our faith is in God and his gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Again, it is this receiving and resting that is the saving act of faith.

So faith does not save as a virtue. It does not save as a good work. It is a good work and a virtue, but that is not how it saves. It is not that God is really impressed with your faith and says, "Oh, I better make an exception for this person. His faith is really impressive." That is not how faith saves. God pardons us and accepts us as righteous in his sight on the basis of Christ's righteousness. Faith saves as an instrument by which we receive Christ and his righteousness. Romans 3:24-25 speaks of this, that we "are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." Faith is unique compared to hope and love and righteousness and wisdom and all of these things because it is receptive, because it is a way you receive a gift. So the basis of your justification is Christ's righteousness, but faith is how you receive it. 

This is how we can say we are justified by faith alone, by faith apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28), because faith is the only thing that receives Christ. And all of salvation is found in Christ. Justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification - we receive and rest upon him for all these things. 

It should also be said that we receive Christ in such a way that we also give ourselves to him. How does a bride receive her husband? She receives this man as her husband at the same time as she gives herself to him as his bride. In a similar way, we receive Jesus as our savior, as our prophet, priest, and king. At the same time, we are also giving ourselves to him as his people, as his disciples. So we receive and rest upon him, but that faith also includes the idea of giving ourselves to him, as we own him as our Lord and our teacher.

Now, where does faith come from? Where does saving faith come from? It comes from God. We do not boast about our faith because it is a gift that God gives. As Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44). 

And what does God use to produce faith in us? Is there an outward, ordinary way in which God produces faith in us? Yes. In Romans 10, we find that Paul is speaking of faith - "For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved." Then beginning in verse 14, he says, 
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
So faith comes as a gift of God, and it is produced through the word of Christ. Christ himself is preaching to us, through the preaching of the Word. He has delivered to us the Word of God, which we find in Scripture. 

Now, Scripture even speaks of infants having a kind of faith. Psalm 22:9-10 says to God, "you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God." The Reformers would speak of this faith like a seed, a seed of faith. This seed is sown in regeneration by the Holy Spirit, but it sprouts and is exercised more and more in response to God's Word as the child grows in his understanding. So even if the seed is there, children still ought to come to the Word of God that this faith might sprout and grow and take firm hold of what is offered there. 

Now, what is the opposite of faith? Doubt, fear, and hesitation. Faith and doubt are contrary to one another. Could someone believe and yet also have doubt? Yes, it is possible for a person to have faith and doubt, but these things would struggle against each other. While saving faith is equal in its saving efficacy because of its object, it is different in degrees, weak or strong, small or great. Some have great faith (Matt. 8:10), while some have little (Matt. 6:30). We should pray that God would increase our faith (Luke 17:5) and we should use rightly the means of grace for the building up of our faith. Faith grows by the blessing of God as we support and exercise our faith in him. 

I want to conclude with Hebrews 11. In Hebrews 11:1, faith is described as confidence regarding things we hope for, conviction regarding things unseen. Faith can be contrasted with sight. It is referring to future things and invisible things. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Believe in the invisible God and in what he promises.  

We also learn in Hebrews 11 that a person who has faith in God will have faith in God's word. If we regard him as trustworthy, he will also regard his word as trustworthy. If we believe in God, we are going to receive his word, his whole word, whatever he says. We will also act upon it in a believing manner. 

By faith, a Christian obeys God's commands (Heb. 11:8), trembles at his threatenings (Heb. 11:7), and embraces his promises for this life and that which is to come (Heb. 11:13). By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place. By faith, Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. He could not see it yet, but he trusted God and so built the ark. He heeded the warning. By faith the patriarchs, not having received the things promised, yet saw them and greeted them - embraced them - from afar. So if God gives us a promise, by faith we embrace it. If God gives us a command, by faith we observe it. If God gives us a warning, by faith we heed it.

And so as Luther says, "what a living, creative, active, powerful thing is faith!" Faith works. Faith produces good works. As Paul says, faith works through love (Gal. 5:6). It is also foundational for our hope. Without faith, you are not going to have hope. Without faith, you are not going to have love, not the type of love that is good. Not only does faith justify as an instrument by which we receive Christ, but it also sanctifies in a totally different way. It sanctifies, not only as a reception of Christ, who is our sanctification, but also as a power within us by which we live. We now live by our faith in Jesus Christ, acting by faith upon his word.

So let us believe in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, embracing Christ for our salvation. And let us use his word, sacraments, and prayer to build up our faith, that our faith might be strengthened. And may our faith strengthen the rest of the virtues that we are going to discuss in this series.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023


I have recently begun a new lesson series at church on growing in virtue, looking in each lesson at a particular virtue mentioned in Scripture. I plan to adapt this series for the blog, beginning today with this introduction on virtue.

The Greek word for virtue, ἀρετή, is used in 2 Peter 1:3-5. It is translated as virtue in verse five and as excellence in verse three. Peter wrote of God's excellence - God's virtue - as well as the excellence or virtue which we ought to add to our faith. Virtue is listed as its own thing, but all of the qualities mentioned in that passage can be described as virtues. The word refers to virtue, excellence, or praiseworthy qualities.

In earlier Greek, the word was used with the sense of valor, manliness, and strength. This word is used in Homer, in which the heroes do deeds of virtue in battle that win fame. But early on ἀρετή began to refer more broadly to other praiseworthy qualities and excellence in general, to the right use and strength of all your faculties.

The word and concept already had a long history by the time the Bible used the word. Aristotle discussed it as being a habitual disposition by which the affections and faculties are exercised properly, without deficiency or excess. He wrote, “the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well” (Nicomachean Ethics). He wrote that we think of the virtue of the eye as the excellence by which it is a good eye and sees well, or the virtue of a horse as that by which it is a good horse and it does its work as a horse well, or the virtue of a man by which he is a good man and does good.

So virtue does not refer only to occasional acts of righteousness, but qualities and habits that express themselves in good deeds. You are not only to do individual good deeds, but to become good, to develop good habits. 

C.S. Lewis just talked about virtues in this way. He says, “There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is a man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on” (Mere Christianity). A good tennis player has those habits and strength and skills by which he's going to be a good tennis player consistently. Even so, we ought to train ourselves for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). We want to be sanctified by God's grace so that these become dependable traits and qualities that are ours and increasing, like Peter says (2 Peter 1:8). 

The opposite of virtue would be corruption, a word that Peter also uses (2 Peter 1:4). Man's nature has been corrupted by sin, by sinful desires and passions, the corruption of the world. Virtue is moral excellence, while sinful desires distort and defile. Your whole nature needs to be redirected, trained, and habituated in the ways of God by his grace (2 Peter 1:4, Titus 2:11-12). In Christ, we are not only saved from the guilt, but also from the power of sin. 

Now, Peter mentions that virtue is something which you ought to make every effort to add. We are exhorted to add these qualities and to practice them. These virtues are both gifts of God and qualities which we ought to do and practice and grow.

Another place where the word virtue or excellence is used, ἀρετή, is in Philippians 4:8-9. 
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence [ἀρετὴ], if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."
Paul uses a number of terms to describe these virtues. They are things that are praiseworthy or excellent or lovely or honorable. And not only that, but I think he is speaking of the same things when he speaks of those things which they had learned and received and heard and seen in Paul. How are we to grow in these virtues? "Think about these things." Use your mind. That is one reason I am writing about virtues, so that you can keep these things in your mind and understand them. Also, observe examples of virtue. Consider God and his excellence and observe those who have walked in his ways, like Paul. And then "practice these things." Having thought upon them them and seen them in others, put them to practice and exercise yourself in virtue. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Martin Bucer and the Reformation

Like Martin Luther, Martin Bucer was born in the Holy Roman Empire, baptized on November 11th, named after St. Martin of Tours, and began his adult life as a friar. After hearing Luther at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, Bucer like Luther came to Protestant convictions, took refuge in a castle for a time, and married a former nun. 

While Bucer would become known as the reformer of Strasbourg, that was not the first city he attempted to reform. In 1522 he was traveling to Strasbourg to drop off his wife with his parents before going to complete his doctoral studies in Wittenberg. They stayed the night in Wissembourg, and there he was convinced by the local pastor, Heinrich Motherer, to help him preach the gospel and reform the city (much like Calvin was later convinced to stay in Geneva by Farel). 

In Wissembourg, Bucer preached once every day and twice on Sundays and holidays, working through books of the Bible. His outspoken advocation for Reformation teachings got him excommunicated by the local bishop and aroused the opposition of powerful noblemen. After six months, he and his fellow preacher were forced to flee in the night with their pregnant wives to seek refuge in Strasbourg. It looked like his first attempt to bring about reformation in a city had ended in failure.

But Bucer pressed on. He would help lead the reformation in Strasbourg for the next 26 years and would help lead many other cities and regions to embrace the Reformation. Nor was his work in Wissembourg in vain. In 1534, the Reformation was permanently established in that city.

In fact, Bucer's time in Strasbourg would end the same way as his time in Wissembourg ended. In 1549, he was forced to flee with his (second) wife and children from Strasbourg to England because of the emperor's imposition of the Augsburg Interim.

While Bucer threw himself into assisting the Reformation in England, “The situation of the church in Germany tormented and anguished Bucer until his very death. Did not the very same fate threaten England, should it respond with the same indifference to God’s Word now revealed so openly and clearly? On the afternoon of February 28, 1551, Bucer urged those surrounding his deathbed to do all they could to make his grand design for the kingdom of Christ come true. That very night he died, at only fifty-nine years of age” (Greschat).

In one sense, his fears concerning England were well founded. Mary Tudor came to power in 1553, burning some of the Protestant leaders and causing many to flee to the continent. She even had Bucer’s remains tried for heresy and burnt with his books.

Nevertheless, due the courageous stand of some of the Protestants in the Empire, the Augsburg Interim was voided in 1552, allowing each territorial prince to decide whether the territory would be Protestant or Roman Catholic. So Strasbourg would remain Protestant, and the exiles from England were able to find refuge in the cities on the continent, including Strasbourg.

Despite discouraging circumstances, let us press onward and promote the kingdom of Christ, knowing that Christ reigns over all and is the faithful guardian of his church.
"What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth."
(1 Corinthians 3:5–6)

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

A Catechism on Covenant Theology

Question 1. What is a covenant?
Answer: A covenant is a sworn bond and alliance between two parties that establishes a relationship between them and defines the nature and obligations of the relationship, binding them together.

Q. 2. What are some examples of covenants between humans?
A. Some examples of covenants between humans are those made between kings and their vassals, between friends or peoples (such as David and Jonathan, and Israel and the Gibeonites), and the marriage covenant between husband and wife.

Q. 3. What is God’s covenant?
A. When God makes a covenant with people, he establishes a mutual bond of fellowship with them, takes them under his special care, and promises them eternal life and blessing.

Q. 4. What is the covenant of works?*
A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death.

Q. 5. What did man enjoy under the covenant of works?
A. In the covenant of works, God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, blessed them, confirmed his promise of eternal life by the tree of life, and they served him in accordance with his commands.

Q. 6. Has the covenant of works been kept?
A. The covenant of works was broken by the sin of our first parents and we lost fellowship with God. Outside of grace, all the heirs of Adam are condemned for their sin as treacherous covenant-breakers.

Q. 7. What is the covenant of grace?
A. God by his grace made this covenant with sinners through Jesus Christ. In it, he requires faith as the condition to receive the benefits of Christ’s mediation and promises life and salvation in Christ. In this covenant of grace, sinners are saved by God to be his people, that they might glorify and enjoy him forever.

Q. 8. How did God administer this covenant before Christ?
A. Ever since the fall, God has made his covenant with his people on the basis of grace through Christ. In the Old Testament, God called his people to faith in Christ through promises, sacrifices, and other symbols and ceremonies. God revealed it more and more as he made it with his people under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.

Q. 9. What is the new covenant?
A. With the coming of Christ, the covenant of grace reached its final and permanent form, the new covenant. Jesus provided the basis for the covenant of grace by his death and resurrection. He made the former ceremonies obsolete by fulfilling them and he instituted simpler ordinances, especially the ministry of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper. He also poured out the Holy Spirit in great abundance so that this covenant is held forth in greater fullness and power to all nations.

Q. 10. With whom was the covenant of grace made?*
A. The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.

Q. 11. Who are included in the visible administration of the covenant?
A. In every age since the fall, the covenant of grace has been made with those who profess the true religion and their offspring. This covenant people is the visible church of Jesus Christ.

Q. 12. What are the signs and seals of the new covenant?
A. The signs and seals of the new covenant are the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Q. 13. Who should receive these sacraments?
A. Like circumcision, baptism is to be given once to all covenant members, even to infants, that it may be used by them all their life. The Lord’s supper is to be taken often by all covenant members who can examine themselves and have knowledge of Christ, profess faith and repentance, and are resolved to lead a Christian life.

Q. 14. What is baptism?*
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Q. 15. What is the Lord’s supper?*
A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.

Q. 16. How should you live as a member of the covenant of grace?
A. We are bound by this covenant to believe in Jesus Christ, that we might be saved, and to obey the God who has redeemed us, according to his commandments. For he has delivered us through Christ that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Those who forsake the Savior through unbelief shall be cursed, but those who hold fast to him by faith shall be blessed forever.

* Questions marked with asterisk have answers taken from the Westminster Shorter or Larger Catechisms.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Heinrich Bullinger on Covenant Theology

Heinrich Bullinger was a Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland. His book on systematic theology, published in 1551, is called The Decades, because it is composed of five series of ten sermons each. I have been reading it and recently came across the following passage on covenant theology and the covenant of grace in particular. (This passage can be found in the midst of his 90-page "sermon" on the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.)
"And therefore, when God's mind was to declare the favour and good-will that he bare to mankind, and to make us men partakers wholly of himself and his goodness, by pouring himself out upon us, to our great good and profit, it pleased him to make a league or covenant with mankind. Now he did not first begin the league with Abraham, but did renew to him the covenant that he had made a great while before. For he did first of all make it with Adam, the first father of us all, immediately upon his transgression, when he received him, silly wretch, into his favour again, and promised his only-begotten Son, in whom he would be reconciled to the world, and through whom he would wholly bestow himself upon us, by making us partakers of all his good and heavenly blessings, and by binding us unto himself in faith and due obedience. This ancient league, made first with Adam, he did afterward renew to Noah, and after that again with the blessed patriarch Abraham. And again, after the space of four hundred years, it was renewed under Moses at the mount Sinai, where the conditions of the league were at large written in the two tables, and many ceremonies added there-unto. But most excellently of all, most clearly and evidently, did our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself shew forth that league; who, wiping away all the ceremonies, types, figures, and shadows, brought in instead of them the very truth, and did most absolutely fulfill and finish the old league, bringing all the principles of our salvation and true godliness into a brief summary, which, for the renewing and fulfilling of all things, and for the abrogation of the old ceremonies, he called the new league, or new testament."
As later writers on covenant theology will do, Bullinger traces the continuity of this covenant of grace from post-fall Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to the people under Moses, to the coming of Jesus. There has always been one way of salvation for fallen man, one covenant of grace, although the administration of it has varied as it has been progressively unfolded over time, culminating in the new covenant. 

Something here (at least in this English translation from 1587) that I appreciate and have also noticed in John Knox’s writings is how “league” is used as a synonym for “covenant.” I think league, alliance, and bond are helpful terms to describe the biblical concept of covenant.

Notice also how Bullinger speaks of the Ten Commandments as being published as obligations of this covenant of grace. This makes sense, since they begin by introducing God as our God and Redeemer. They are not a rule by which we are justified or condemned, but they are the way we ought to live as God’s covenant people, redeemed by his grace.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

God's Reign Over Every Sphere of Life - A.A. Hodge

Shortly before his death in 1886, Archibald Alexander Hodge gave a series of popular lectures on theology. This series is available online as Popular Lectures on Theological Themes and are currently published by Banner of Truth as Evangelical Theology. Three of the lectures give attention to the reign and kingdom of Christ: "The Kingly Office of Christ," "The Kingdom of Christ," and "The Law of the Kingdom." I have quoted from the first one here and the second one here. Here I would like to share a couple quotes from the third of these lectures.

He begins by speaking of how the gospel of grace accords with the pursuit of the practice of righteousness in accord with God’s revealed will in the Holy Scriptures. Since our obligation to God is universal and absolute, Hodge goes on to note that God's law demands obedience in every sphere of a person's life. 
"This law, moreover, demands instant and absolute obedience, not only from all classes of Christians, but also in every sphere of human life equally. A Christian is just as much under obligation to obey God's will in the most secular of his daily businesses as he is in his closet or at the communion table. He has no right to separate his life into two realms, and acknowledge different moral codes in each respectively--to say the Bible is a good rule for Sunday, but this is a weekday question, or the Scriptures are the right rule in matters of religion, but this is a question of business or of politics. God reigns over all everywhere. His will is the supreme law in all relations and actions. His inspired Word, loyally read, will inform us of his will in every relation and act of life, secular as well as religious, and the man is a traitor who refuses to walk therein with scrupulous care. The kingdom of God includes all sides of human life, and it is a kingdom of absolute righteousness. You are either a loyal subject or a traitor. When the King comes how will he find you doing?"

He discusses the three uses of the law - to restrain the wicked for the good of society, to convince us of our sin that we might embrace Christ, and to be the rule and goal for the regenerated and progressively sanctified Christian who obey out of love and in the Spirit. Then he goes on to speak of the implications of this obligation for our social responsibilities. 

"Since the kingdom of God on earth is not confined to the mere ecclesiastical sphere, but aims at absolute universality, and extends its supreme reign over every department of life, it follows that it is the duty of every loyal subject to endeavour to bring all human society, social and political, as well as ecclesiastical, into obedience to its law of righteousness. It is our duty, as far as lies in our power, immediately to organize human society and all its institutions and organs upon a distinctively Christian basis. Indifference or impartiality here between the law of the kingdom and the law of the world, or its prince, the devil, is utter treason to the King of Righteousness. The Bible, the great statute-book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise. The King said with regard to all descriptions of moral agents in all spheres of activity, 'He that is not with me is against me.' If the national life in general is organized upon non-Christian principles, the churches which are embraced within the universal assimilating power of that nation will not long be able to preserve their integrity."
What this looks like in practice will vary in accord with each one's place and calling, but it is a project and goal that Christians should share. With the respect to the last sentence of that quote, it might be objected that it is possible for churches to resist assimilation into a national life that is non-Christian. It is possible, but it is also a real challenge. It might be easy for us to underestimate this challenge and overestimate the church's ability to be able to resist these forces, especially if Christian give up the effort to apply Christian principles to their life and culture. The more the life of a community or society is organized upon Christian principles, the better it is for that society and for the spiritual welfare of the people living in it. National life has an assimilating power, and it is better when this is a force for good that encourages faith and obedience, rather than a force that encourages unbelief and unfaithfulness.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Circumcision, Baptism, and the Feasts

In Colossians 2:6-23, the apostle Paul writes about how Christians under the new covenant do not need to adopt the ceremonial ordinances of the old covenant, since they already have the substance of these ceremonies in Christ. Furthermore, Christ has appointed new ordinances like baptism that fulfill the role of the old ones and better fit the present administration of the covenant of grace (Col. 2:11-12). Here are a few brief thoughts on the sacraments and holy days of the old and new covenants (for a more in depth post on this passage, click here).

Circumcision and Baptism

In the old covenant, circumcision was the seal of the righteousness that is had by faith, as well as a symbol of regeneration and repentance (Rom. 4:11, Deut. 30:6, Jer. 4:4). This sign was to be received by professing believers and their infant offspring (Gen. 17:7, 10, Ex. 12:48).

In the new covenant, baptism fulfills the same role. It is a different sign that symbolizes the same things (Col. 2:11-12, Gal. 3:27-29, Acts 22:16). Baptism is now the sign and seal of justification and regeneration and it is to be given to professing believers and their children. God still establishes his covenant with believers and their offspring, to be their God and the God of their offspring (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:38-39).

As the inability to profess their faith did not bar the children of believers from receiving circumcision in the days before Christ, so that inability does not bar the children of believers from receiving baptism today. Our babies are baptized as heirs of the covenant of grace and members of the visible church, to be raised as such in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4).

Festivals, Old and New

The festivals of the old covenant were shadows of the things to come, the substance of which belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16-17).
  • The Passover pointed to Christ, our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-13). 
  • The Feast of Firstfruits pointed to Christ, who rose as the firstfruits of the dead on that very day (1 Cor. 15). 
  • The Feast of Weeks pointed to Christ, who achieved lasting rest for his people (Heb. 3-4) and who poured out his Spirit on that day upon his disciples (Acts 2). 
  • The Feast of Trumpets prepared the Israelites for the next two events in that seventh month:
  • The Day of Atonement pointed to Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross (Hebrews 9-10). 
  • The Feast of Booths pointed to Christ as the true bread from heaven (John 6) and the rock from which comes living water (John 4, 7:2, 37-39, 1 Cor. 10). 
These feasts are profitable to know from Scripture, but the observance of them is no longer binding now that the new covenant order as been established (Col. 2:16). We have their substance in Christ. The holy day of the new covenant is the Lord's Day, the first day of the week, which is the Christian Sabbath. The new covenant feast is the Lord's Supper. Even though these observances are fewer and simpler, yet the covenant of grace is held forth in this age with more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy to all nations by the power of the Spirit.