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. 

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