Thursday, December 22, 2016

Loving Virtue. . .

It is an oft repeated fallacy that Lutherans and Lutheranism is unfriendly to virtue, to the pursuit of goodness.  Now to be sure, Luther and the Lutherans are adamant that no amout of virtue adds to the virtue of Christ whose sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection has provided all that is needed to atone for the sins of the whole world.  We are most especially grace alone people who refuse to taint the perfect goodness of Christ's perfect obedience and virtue with our own flawed and imperfect obedience and virtue.  That said, Luther and the Lutherans are not against virtue.  In fact, Lutherans are as adamant for virtue and goodness in the life of the Christian as they are that none of this contributes one bit to our salvation.

The sad truth is that the word virtue itself has become old-fashioned, even somewhat quaint in an age of self-indulgence and the celebration of desire (being true to this desire the highest of all good and the noblest virtue).  We have come to think of goodness in a far different way than Scripture or the fathers of the Church.  We call causes good and programs good and even people good but it is a relative goodness that has not much to do with the morality of the person or their pursuit of a life of obedience and keeping of the commandments.  Good is relative and has as much to do with the prevailing causes of society and this social justice as it does with individual acts of holiness (another word rather antique in our modern vocabulary).

The King James translation uses the word “virtue” in a rather surprising way.  From the story of the woman with the issue of blood, who was healed when she secretly touched Christ's vestments, the AV records:
And Jesus said, “Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.” (8:46)
“Virtue” here translates the word dynamis, which is normally rendered “power.”  This meaning of virtue is quite foreign to us but it is an old definition. This virtue is the “power” of a person to do what is good, right, and salutary.  While we might think of virtue as resident in the individual, this kind of virtue is acquired, learned, if you will.  Doing what is good and right and salutary requires a certain sacrifice, a self-emptying gesture, that is not inherent to the person (original sin) but the fruit of the Spirit's energy and life in the person. 

Though it is true we call people good, this goodness has more to do with what they have not done than what they have.  A good man avoids too much sin and evil but does not necessarily pursue goodness or holiness.  To be good is not to be excessive -- not even in the areas of holiness, piety, and truth.  We are not quite comfortable with people who are too holy, whose piety shows too much, and who are too wedded to a truth that refuses to adjust or evolve.  Principles get in the way of doing things, of making deals, and of compromise.  Instead of a virtuous society, we are a society that celebrates vice -- a vicious culture that indulges self within bounds and appeals to the desires of the heart.  So in our culture, sex sells.  If you don't believe me, watch some commercials.  Like children giggling when we learn a new bad word, we delight in the risque, at least in what is shocking enough to surprise.

For the Christian, redeemed by the blood of Christ and set right by God through an alien righteousness unearned but freely given by God in baptism, virtue IS the pursuit of this mortal life.  The commandments of God are not suggestions of what we might do but the very pattern of the life of those who have died and been reborn as God's own.  No, we do not presume that this life of holiness, obedience, and virtue is easy or easily accomplished or perhaps ever accomplished.  Yet it does not in any way diminish this Christ shaped life as the goal of our whole body, mind, soul, and strength.  Indeed to walk in the Light of Christ is to walk like Christ, disdaining the ways of sin and loving what is righteous, holy, good, and true.

The same St. Paul who insists by grace through faith and without works insists that Christians will walk worthy of their calling:
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, 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.  Philippians 4:8-9 ESV

For Paul this is personal as well:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  Philippians 2:12-16 ESV
Contemporary Christianity has become an enemy of this virtue and assumes that the more effective pursuit of  “evangelism” is to appeal to people's own desires, wants, and felt needs.  It is a church that has taken as Gospel "to thine own self be true" instead of the Christ who says "if you will not renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me, you cannot be My disciple."  You cannot save people by appealing to their passions and desires. These have become the prey of demons for they are our weakness, first to Adam and Eve and in every generation of those born of woman (except Christ).   Virtue is certainly not the precondition of salvation but it is the result of the Spirit's work in those who are saved, by grace, through faith, in Christ alone.  Until we begin to rescue virtue from its obscurity and reconnect the people of God to the power of virtue (which too many presume is a weakness), we turn the saved back over to their sinful desires and give them the false dream of life that is true to self instead of true to God. 

Luther and the Lutherans are for virtue.  God does not need it but our neighbor does.  Faith does not live without creating a new heart that loves God and goodness, even if such love is within the bounds of human frailty.  No matter how virtuous we become, we never outgrow our need to finish our righteousness with Christ's and to complete our holiness with His -- which is His gracious favor to do to those who belong to Him.  So if you are Lutheran, do not disdain virtue.  Love it.  Pursue it.  Claim only Christ's virtue before the throne of God but in the domain of the world endeavor to live out this virtue with all that you are and all that you have. . . and may God be glorified!

1 comment:

John Joseph Flanagan said...

I ask the question: Could it be Luther seemed to have an issue with the book of James? I read somewhere he felt that James was incompatible with the Gospel of grace, since James said, "Show me your faith by your works." I think James was right, not in the sense of one's earning salvation, but in the sense that believing faith should give some evidence, however slight, of virtue. Comments anyone?