THE NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE
by Bob Wheeler
It is striking that even among professed Bible-believing Christians there is a poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about. One tendency is to think that because salvation is a free gift it does not matter how we live (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”). Another tendency is to think that Christian ethics consists mainly of avoiding certain sinful practices (smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, etc.). And even in Reformed circles there is a tendency to a form of dead orthodoxy.
What the Bible actually says about the subject, however, is quite different, and the apostle Paul gives us a snapshot of what that is in Colossians 3:12-15. He begins by describing the favored positions that Christians enjoy in Christ: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies . . .” (v. 12; NKJV). Here he uses three adjectives to describe the Colossian believers: “elect,” “holy,” and “beloved.” “Elect” points to fact that believers become Christians because they are first chosen by God. The second adjective, “holy,” points to the fact that they were set apart from the rest of humanity and enjoyed a special relationship with God. The third adjective, “beloved,” points to the fact that they had become the special objects of God’s love. Together the three adjectives underscore God’s grace in our salvation. We were poor, underserving sinners whom He rescued in His grace and mercy.
But this has definite implications for the way we should live. And so Paul tells the Colossian believers to “put on” certain virtues, in much the same way that someone night put on a coat or jacket. It involves a conscious decision to live a certain way.
He begins by listing several virtues: “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12). These all involve the way we feel and act toward others. The “tender mercies” (or “bowels of mercies,” as the old King James Version has it) refers to a tender compassion that we ought to feel toward others. “Meekness” might better be translated “gentleness.” “Longsuffering” literally means “slow to anger.”
Paul then goes on to describe how these virtues work out in actual practice. He says “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another . . .” (v. 13). The implication here, of course, is that as Christians we are still less than perfect, and that from time to time conflict will arise even in the best of churches. How, then, are we to deal with such conflict? First of all, by “bearing with one another.” We must make allowances for differences of personality and background. Some things are not worth making an issue over. And so if someone else’s action or behavior does not amount to actual sin, we should try to overlook it even if it rubs us the wrong way.
But some situations may require us to go to the other brother and confront him about the problem; and if he repents we should forgive him and restore fellowship. Christians should not hold grudges against each other.
But, one may ask, why should we do this? What is wrong with defending our rights? Paul goes on to explain why: “even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (. 13). Look at what Christ has done for us. Here was the sinless Son of God who came into this sin-cursed world, and offered up His life on the cross in order to save us. We were hell-deserving sinners, completely unworthy of the least of God’s favors. And yet in spite of our guilt we are now forgiven. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”! But if Christ was willing to do that for us, should now we be willing to do the same for others? Should we not imitate Christ’s example? And if we were hell-deserving sinners saved by grace we are really no different from the brother who sinned against us. If Christ forgave us our sins then we should forgive others.
Paul then adds, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14). Love, according to Scripture, is the preeminent virtue. It is not enough merely to be kind, humble or patient. These are largely passive virtues. All of this must arise from a heart filled with love, an active concern for others, a positive desire to do good to them. The commentators disagree over exactly what Paul meant by “the bond of perfection,” with some arguing that love is what underlies all Christian virtue, while others take it to mean that love is what binds Christians together. In other case love is the preeminent Christian virtue, the virtue from which all other virtues arise.
And then Paul says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body . . .” (v. 15). In the Bible peace is more than just the absence of conflict. It the sense of well-being that comes when everything is in order. And so to this we are “called in one body.” Every genuine believer is a member of the universal church, the mystical body of Christ. And that universal church is to be marked by peace – a harmonious unity of the entire body. That is the peace that we should let rule in our hearts.
And then Paul adds, “and be thankful” (v. 15). If it is true that God is our sovereign Lord and Creator; if He has saved us by His grace alone, and guides us and protects us through His providence, then we owe everything to Him. And that, in turn, should be reflected in a spirit of genuine gratitude in our hearts. We can claim nothing for ourselves; we owe everything to Him. That should draw out our hearts in praise and adoration to Him.
These, then, are the basic qualities of character that a Christian ought to “put on.” It is significant that many of them, “kindness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “love” and “peace” are listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23). They are the marks of a work of God’s grace in the heart.
It will be noted that Christian ethics largely concerns how we treat others. “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 13:10). It will also be seen that God is concerned not just with the outward action but with the inward motive. God looks on the heart, and what He sees are the thoughts and feelings that drive our outward actions. True Christian virtue stems from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirt, and arises from a genuine desire to please God and help our neighbor. Anything short of that misses the whole point of biblical morality.
This, then, is what the Christian life should look like. May God grant each one of us the grace to live a life that is pleasing to Him!