Dangerous Virtues: The Way of the Living

Detail of painting of Garden of Eden. Eve gives Adam fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We are sinners. We don’t deny it. But most of the time, we don’t think much about it. We don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about our own sins. We don’t punish ourselves or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, our sin feels more like a low-grade fever than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder us from being our best, but it doesn’t keep us from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother us that much, either. If anything, the fact that we are sinners serves as an escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” we want to say. “We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Of course, we went off the rails.” The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts upon which a majority of people agree. Most people identify with the label sinner.

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The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but also to study their sinfulness. One monk, who probably lived in the fourth or fifth century, described the benefit of a life of solitude by pouring water into the cup and pointing out that its cloudy nature became clear after allowing it to stand for a time. “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil,” he said. “But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.” 

Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics that generated sinful behavior. Why do we think so differently from previous generations about sin? One reason is that we have radically different notions about virtue in our day. Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense. The word seems outdated. Virtue sounds more like something that would have concerned our Victorian great-grandparents.

The ancient idea of virtue grew from a desire to overcome the human disposition that the Bible labels sin. For Christians, God is the key component in any notion of virtue. He is also the key component in any notion of sin. Virtue doesn’t just involve the measure of what we think is good as individuals. It is more than the community standard. In the Christian view, God is both the measure and the measurer of what constitutes genuine virtue. That same measure provides the dividing line that separates sin from virtue.

Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense.

David understood this. In Psalm 51:4, he declared, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” This is an astonishing statement, given the events that prompted it. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, after he learned that she had become pregnant. Or as theolgian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.”

Virtue or goodness has God as its primary reference point. Virtue is what we were made for. It is a life that reflects our design as creatures made in the image of the God who is Himself good and the source of all that can be rightly called good. But it it is equally true that we can’t think about personal goodness or virtue without also taking our own sin into account. Any possibility of true goodness depends ultimately upon God. We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.

Perhaps all of this sounds too abstract and detached for ordinary people like us. It’s one thing for theologians and philosophers to debate about sin and virtue. Why should we concern ourselves with such matters? We have jobs to go to and bills to pay. We mow the lawn and drive the kids to school. What does any of this have to do with the real world in which we live? The answer is that sin and virtue lie at the heart of everything we do. Our ideas of sin and virtue shape the way we work at our job, live in our neighborhood, and treat the members of our family.

What is more, these matters are a deep concern for us. Sin and virtue drive the storylines behind the television programs and movies we watch. Our lawcourts are backlogged with cases in which the parties involved dispute with one another over these same concerns. We may use different language when we talk about sin and virtue. We may speak of “doing the right thing” or talk about what people “ought” to do. We also seem to know intuitively when others have crossed a line. We may not agree about what is right, but nearly every one of us has a kind of moral radar that is hypersensitive to those who do something we consider wrong.

We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.

However, our moral sense seems to be one-sided. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult to see our own. Not only do we disagree with the ancient consensus of the church about the gravity of our sins, but we are also strangely comforted by its universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.

In general, our thinking about both sin and virtue is backward. We think more of individual sins than we do of sin. We treat virtue the same way. We tend to see virtue as a collection of righteous actions. Our concern when it comes to sin is that it will grow. Small infractions will become larger. Anger will accelerate until it becomes murder. Lust will take control and lead to adultery. According to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, sin moves in the opposite direction. It does not start small and increase. Those sins that we usually treat as minor infractions bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. Sinful anger springs from a murderous heart, not the other way around (Matt. 5:22). A lustful gaze is the offspring of an adulterous desire (Matt. 5:27–28). This does not mean that there is no difference between thought and action, or even that every sin is the same. Angry words are not the same as a shotgun blast to the head, though some might argue that both can be equally destructive in their own way. They might even say that between the two, the effects of someone’s cruel words might last longer. 

Righteousness in the Christian life is not a collection of good acts that balances out our bad deeds. Righteous actions spring from righteousness. Individual acts reflect the nature of those who do them. We have been made righteous to be righteous. Those who come to Jesus Christ in faith do not lose their capacity to sin. They gain the capacity to obey. This new ability springs from a changed nature, which is a reflection of their new standing before God. The Christian can do good because he or she has been made good through the blood of Jesus Christ. When we look at sin and virtue through the lens of Christ and His saving work, we discover that vritue or goodness is not a way of life. It is the way of the living. It is the pattern of life of those who have been made alive by Christ.