Ordo Salutis: Character & Virtue
Up to this point, we have been focusing on the section of the “way of salvation” that is all about putting off and putting to death. We cooperate with God’s grace to have transformed minds, emotions, and wills, and that means putting to death old patterns of thinking, feeling, and choosing. But putting off, in Colossians 3, comes before putting back on new clothes. Paul writes that we must put to death whatever belongs to our “earthly nature” (vv. 5-11) and then says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
But just what are the virtues, and how to they lead us to become people of “Christian character”?
Dallas Willard says, “Our character is that internal, overall structure of the self that is revealed by our long-run patterns of behavior and from which our actions more or less automatically arise” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 142). Character is shown by the thoughts, feelings and tendencies from which a person habitually acts. It is why people run credit reports–they tell a person’s spending habits, ability to pay off their debt, and give a picture of whether or not a person could pay off new debt. N.T. Wright says character is “the pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut into them, you see the same person through and through” (After You Believe, p. 27).
Character doesn’t come overnight. Wright asks, “Did you think you could sit down at the piano and play a Beethoven sonata straight off? Did you think you could just fly to Moscow, get off a plane, and start speaking fluent Russian?” The obvious answer is, “No.” They each take practice. Character is the same way.
Living by the Christian virtues is the way to develop character that lasts and character that leads us to God’s end goal of this life, which is to live as holy rulers and priests in God’s new heavens and new earth. Virtuous living is not just a matter of trying to become a better person. Character and virtue is for you, for sure, for your spiritual formation and growth, but also for God’s plan for His creation. It is for others. A person with a renewed mind, renewed feelings, and a will bent toward God’s is in good shape for what God intends!
Christians have identified seven virtues as the core. They are:
The last four come from Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived 350 years before Christ. Aristotle said they were the four “hinges” upon which the door to human flourishing would open. This is why they are called the “cardinal virtues” (cardo in Latin means “hinge”). Aristotle’s goal for humanity was happiness and flourishing. He believed if you practiced these, you would be able to do just that.
Christians translated Aristotle’s vision of virtuous living because for them, the goal was not happiness. To these four, they added the three primary virtues Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:13–faith, hope and love. Paul also writes extensively about virtue, without using that term, in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3.
Thomas Aquinas, the one who is famous for first listing these seven virtues, defined virtue as “good qualities of soul disposing us to live rightly, which we cannot misuse, and which God works in us without our help” (Summa Theologiae, p. 232). Aquinas says these good qualities dispose us to live rightly. They turn our hearts toward righteous living. They cannot be misused–one cannot have the virtue of wisdom and choose to use it for selfish or sinful gains. Also, God works within us to give us virtue without our help, though not without our consent. He will not work in us against our will or our participation with His will. We must be willing partners in the work of virtue.
Learning virtue is like learning a second language. It requires conscious action and repetition, making mistakes, learning the rules and the exceptions to the rules, memorizing vocabulary, etc. Eventually it becomes second nature to you. But it is possible to learn a language and then forget it. Someone who learns generosity as a child can find their habits as adults squeeze out generosity, and it has to be learned once more. Just as you learn a second language to become “at home” amongst others who speak it, so we learn the virtues to become “at home” in this world. To function as God intends, we must know the foreign language of virtue.