Edwards on the Recovery of True Christian Virtue

Christian virtue is lovely to behold.

Jonathan Edwards, in his treatise A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of Virtue, described it as, “Something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty, or excellency.”[1] Edwards did not mean that a delicate flower or an excellent meal possess virtue; rather, considering their pleasantness in metaphorical expression, “Virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature; i.e. such as are attended with desert of worthiness of praise or blame.”[2] A particular action can be virtuous, and, therefore, by the cumulative efforts of their actions, a human being can be described as virtuous in nature.

Every Christian ought to strive towards such evangelical elegance in their lives. And yet today many scoff at the concept of virtue, and the word itself may even invite ridicule in some circles. But virtue is reported by the Apostle Peter to be one of the utmost important qualities for a Christian to add to his faith (2 Pet. 1:5, where ἀρετη could be translated as “moral excellence”).

Sadly, the word virtue is hardly considered or understood by most moderns. There was a time, however, when the world distinctly knew the necessity of virtue and clamored for it to be taught to men (and women!) so that they would not be unprofitable or unfruitful for Christ and His Kingdom (2 Pet. 1:8). There was a time when the world not only knew these things and taught them but exercised them as well.

A Life Honest and Rightly Formed

In his commentary on 2 Peter 1:5, John Calvin states that virtue is to be understood as “a life honest and rightly formed… .”[3] Virtue, then, is that quality of the Christian whereby, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, his life is lived honestly and in accordance with Scripture, being shaped and molded into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

This concept is helpful when handling Edwards’ text on virtue. Edwards wrote that virtue is not merely the speculative work of philosophers, but belongs legitimately to the, “Disposition and will, or (to use a general word I suppose commonly well understood) to the heart.”[4] And, thus, for Edwards, a heart must be honest and rightly ordered by Scripture, since “Virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them.”[5]

Men without Chests[6]

There is a longstanding tradition in philosophy of viewing man as being ruled by three parts: His head (the seat of reason), the chest/heart (the seat of virtue), and the stomach (the seat of appetite, passion, and desire). The idea is righteous men need to be led by their chests—they need to possess virtue. Men without chests seek to serve only their most sinful desires. They are led by their stomachs and, in pursuit of lusts and vices, use their heads only to accomplish evil—especially sexual immorality.

What is lost when Christians fail to practice virtue? We need not look far to see the answer to this question. We live in a society of sexual confusion and distortion. The goodness of moral commitments like allegiance to God, chivalry, marital commitment, love for others, devotion to the Church, self-respect, self-control, patience, meekness, boldness, courage, and so on, have been all but forgotten. When they seldom make appearances, they are immediately mocked as the misogynistic notions of yesteryear.

Such is the result of the atrophy of men’s chests. The loss of virtue is the loss of moral goodness, beauty, and a moral code in the world.

So how can Christians recover and develop virtue within their lives?

Rediscovering and Recovering True Virtue

Edwards believed that virtue could be taught, cultivated, developed, and matured within Christians. The first step, of course, is salvation. Apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there is no faith for the Christian to practice. But once the Holy Spirit enters the believer and performs the great work of spiritual regeneration, faith enters the Christian. From here, the Christian can begin to do two important things: know God and love God. This is where the cultivation of virtue must begin.

Edwards stated that, “True virtue must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.”[7] If one does not know and love God, virtue cannot be cultivated or expressed because, “all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory.”[8] This is the heart of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40: we must love God and our fellow man.

A virtuous man must, first, confess Jesus as Lord and Savior and then live life as a slave to righteousness (Rom. 6:15-23). Only in seeing God as perfect, and loving Him above all else, can a man truly begin to cultivate a heart of virtue, for at the heart of virtue is love for God and His creation.

A virtuous man must, likewise, set the whole Law of God before himself. Since virtue is moral excellence and beauty, and since the Law of God is the greatest display of virtuous laws and ethics, Christians must be men and women of the Book. We must be continually plumbing the depths of Scripture, drenching ourselves in the beauty of God’s Word, while putting the Law-Giver’s commandments into practice.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism helps put this into perspective when it opens by asking, “What is the chief end of man?,” answering that it is to, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The Christian cultivation of virtue depends upon a heart that loves God and is filled with joyful faith seeking His glory above all else. Edwards explained:

A truly virtuous mind, being as it were under the sovereign dominion of love to God, above all things, seeks the glory of God, and makes this his supreme, governing, and ultimate end. This consists in the expression of God's perfections in their proper effects,—the manifestation of God’s glory to created understandings,—the communications of the infinite fulness of God to the creature,—the creature’s highest esteem of God, love to, and joy in him,—and in the proper exercises and expressions of these.[9]

This love for God will ultimately lead to a virtuous life that expresses itself through a love and care for others reflected in a beautiful witness that draws them to God’s exquisite glory. Again, Edwards wrote:

"And so far as a virtuous mind exercises true virtue in benevolence to created beings, it chiefly seeks the good of the creature; consisting in its knowledge or view of God’s glory and beauty, its union with God, conformity and love to him, and joy in him. And that disposition of heart, that consent, union, or propensity of mind to being in general, which appears chiefly in such exercises, is virtue, truly so called; or in other words, true grace and real holiness."[10]

To practice true virtue is to practice true grace and real holiness, because it can only be performed by a heart that has been united to Christ by faith. Thus, the man who knows Christ will be a man of virtue: a man with a chest.


Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, currently have one son, Josiah. He is completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Related Links

"Sobriety and the Gospel" by Gabriel Williams

"Paul, the Virtues, and Theological Conflict" by Scott Swain

"Lewis and the Moral Law" by Arthur Hunt III

Strange New World by Carl Trueman

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker


Notes

[1] Jonathan Edwards, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, within The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1.122.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXII, trans. by John Owen (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2009), 373.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, within Works, 1.122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] cf. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 1–26.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, within Works, 1.125.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 127.

[10] Ibid.