The Problem with Good Morals

November 8, 2017

Colossians 3:14

14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

CONSIDER THIS

There is a word inserted in today’s scripture reading that can’t be found in the biblical text. See if you can spot it.

If you guessed, “virtues,” you are correct. It happens from time to time. In order to make the meanings flow clearer in a given language a translator will help it along. It’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it rarely changes the meaning. At times, though, it can have the effect of shading the interpretation by triggering in the reader a whole range of additional meanings that come from their own cultural context.

Virtue is such a word, and if the translators were translating an actual Greek word here it would be less of a problem. They are not. Most translations leave it at “these,” as in, “14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “These,” of course, refers to “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” from v.13.

So what’s the problem with “virtue?” The problem is the framework it sets up with its half brother, “vice.” Virtue and vice shift the concept of holiness and sin from health vs. sickness to shame vs. honor. I don’t think the unfolding vision of the Bible is to produce God-fearing moral citizens. Rather, the vision is to birth God-filled human beings; men, women, girls, and boys who embody a quality of holiness exuding from the very image of God who is Jesus Christ.

The biblical word for this is not virtue. It is love. I am convinced the Bible calls us to leave behind all the old earth-bound categories of moral and immoral, vice and virtue, shame and honor, and even sinner and saint (in the limited ways we think of them). This is why the Bible does not set forth a moralistic behavior management approach, but rather a death and resurrection reality. The Bible concerns itself with  the movement of the decisively supernatural reality of holy love into the decidedly human realm characterized by the sickness of sin and the domain of death.

Think about it—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bound together in the perfect unity of love—these are not the ruts of morality but the realm of the miraculous. We don’t need a moral vision. We need a vision of holiness—a.k.a. the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I’m willing to be wrong about this, but here’s how I see it. Morality is a very low bar, and if that’s what we are aiming for, our lives will hover back and forth just above and below this threshold. Virtue is simply good morals on steroids. Love, on the other hand, is the holy presence of Jesus Christ filling human beings together to the measure of all the fullness of God. This is “the secret” long hidden and now revealed. It’s not about aspiring to better behavior but becoming abandoned to Jesus.

14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

THE PRAYER

Abba Father, we thank you for your son, Jesus, who not only embodies the holiness of love but who imparts it to us. Come Holy Spirit and lift me out of the broken ways of virtue, vice, shame and honor and lead me into the life of the resurrection life of love. I will never find it on my own. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.

THE QUESTIONS

  1. These are massive thoughts I can hardly get my mind around. How are you thinking about them?
  2. Do you tend to agree or disagree with this contrast between virtue and holy love? Does it make any difference in your daily life?
  3. What are the implications for you of getting life out of moral categories virtue and vice and into the realm of death and resurrection?

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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. jd.walt@seedbed.com.

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