The irony is that it is only when our virtue is recognized as commendable by unbelievers that we stand to win them to our faith or compel them to regard us favorably. Aspiring to be winsome will not likely gain their approval or conversion; but demonstrated virtue sometimes does. That being so, why not strive for virtue, which is pleasing to God (2 Pet. 1:11) and good for our fellow man, and lay aside all concern about being regarded as winsome?
For some time now many among us have been extolling winsomeness as a trait to which we should all aspire. It is an understandable effort, as many in the Reformed world have a tendency to be contentious and ungracious. But winsomeness is not the proper response to their incivility; indeed, I daresay that what is needed in many cases is a dose of blunt rebuke. The problem with winsomeness, as I have tried to show elsewhere (here and here), is that it is not a scriptural concept but a cultural one, the state of being perceived by others as charming, likable, and pleasant. No one who is faithful in emulating Christ and declaring his truth is likely to be perceived as winsome by the world – in his words, “you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9) – and the danger is that we will compromise our message in the probably vain hope of being perceived as winsome by unbelievers.
There is an alternative ideal to which we might aspire, however, and unlike winsomeness it is reliably within our power to achieve. In addressing the conflict-troubled church at Philipi Paul instructs his audience about a way of living that is pleasing to God:
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. (Phil. 4:8, ESV)
Peter does similarly in his second epistle:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Pet. 1:3-7, ESV)
In each case several desirable traits are presented. In the interests of simplicity I shall sum them up with the term virtue. This is the word that many English translations use for the Greek ἀρετῇ/ἀρετήν (areté/aretén) in 2 Pet. 1:5, but it has a variety of meanings, and I use it here in its widest, most general sense to mean simply moral excellence. That broad category includes within it the various particulars mentioned by both Peter and Paul: virtue is the general principle and disposition of character that issues as such particular traits as purity and godliness.
The virtuous person is the one who has this principle of moral excellence implanted in his or her person, and who thinks, speaks, and acts in light of it. As the wicked and foolish act in accord with their basic natures (Prov. 10:14; Isa. 32:6), so also do the virtuous and the wise (Prov. 10:23; 14:5). It is this fact of having a basic character disposition and acting in light of it that is presupposed by verses such as Rev. 22:11 (“Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”)
Virtue has its source in God, for it is he “who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:11). It arises because of our new nature in Christ. Having been born again (1 Jn. 2:29), we have a new life that is hostile to sin and which is characterized by the fear of the Lord (Eph. 4:17-24). This life is marked by union with Christ (2 Cor. 5:15; Gal. 2:20) and guidance by the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-17), and while it can never be lost or extinguished (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30), like our physical life it needs to be diligently guarded and nourished (2 Tim. 1:6-7, 14). It is because it can be developed and strengthened that Paul and Peter tell us to do so in the passages above.
Virtue is present also in the lives of many unbelievers. Experience attests that some of them attain to a high degree of moral uprightness. Yet there is a difference in that in believers virtue arises because of God’s saving grace that has been manifested in their new birth and sanctification (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Pet. 1:3-5, 23), while in unbelievers virtue is a result of God’s common grace. Where believers attain to a righteousness that is well-pleasing to God because they have been justified (Rom 3:22-28; 5:1) and their good works are God’s work within them (Eph. 2:10), the unbeliever attains to a merely civil righteousness. His uprightness is frequently marred by self-interest (such as the desire for praise) or is counteracted by other faults. Cicero’s honesty and courage are undermined by his arrogance; Cato’s opposition to the power hungry by his suicide at the end of the Roman Republic. God in his providence has been pleased to use virtue among unbelievers to restrain evil from fully dominating human affairs (as happened before the flood, Gen. 6:5), but their virtue does not reconcile them to God, nor release them from sin’s dominion (Rom. 3:9-19). Only faith in Christ suffices to do that (Gal. 5:5-6; Heb. 11:6).
There is a curious practical consequence of God causing virtue in unbelievers. It creates a state of affairs in which, because virtue is esteemed, the virtue of believers may impress unbelievers and commend our faith to them. This is far from certain or automatic, but it is a real possibility to which experience attests and which forms the basis of some of scripture’s practical injunctions (Matt. 5:16; Titus 2:7-8; 1 Pet. 2:12, 15; 3:1-2, 16). The irony is that it is only when our virtue is recognized as commendable by unbelievers that we stand to win them to our faith or compel them to regard us favorably. Aspiring to be winsome will not likely gain their approval or conversion; but demonstrated virtue sometimes does. That being so, why not strive for virtue, which is pleasing to God (2 Pet. 1:11) and good for our fellow man, and lay aside all concern about being regarded as winsome?
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, S.C.