The Danger of Virtue
Your initial impression on reading the title of this article might have been, “Has he lost it?”, “How could virtue ever be considered dangerous?” Isn’t that what religion is all about? Isn’t morality and being good the whole point of religion? Religion yes, Christianity no! Let us look at the Apostle Paul as a case in point. Paul, before Christ, when measured by the standards of this world, was a moral paragon, a virtuous man. Listen to his claim in Philippians 3:4ff—“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more, circumcised on the eighth day of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the Law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the Law blameless”. What a spiritual resume! What a religious pedigree Paul possessed! He was the “Mother Teresa” of his times. He claims that he had a righteousness that according to the Law was blameless. And yet when Paul met Jesus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9) his self understanding experienced a radical transformation. Paul discovered that all of his “righteousness”, “virtue” and “goodness” were in reality obstacles and barriers to knowing the real God, Jesus Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:7ff “but whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” Amazingly, Paul says that which he considered of value and profitable before knowing Christ, he now considers a loss.
The universal religion of mankind is: we develop a good record and present it to God and then He owes us a good and blessed life. We use our goodness and virtue as leverage to negotiate with God. He is obligated to bless us for our efforts at being good. The Gospel is that Christ has developed a perfect record that has satisfied God and that He gives it to us freely. We are justified freely by His grace, and sanctification is our grateful response. We owe Him. Paul did an about-face regarding his virtues. He now considered his virtues vices. What at one time he prized and valued above all, his record and reputation, now he is growing more and more dissatisfied with increasing intensity. The text says all things, i.e. everything on which Paul might want to place his confidence and hope are no longer a profit but rather are a loss. Paul tells us that what he previously regarded as assets are not merely without worth but are positively damaging. They are spiritual liabilities. What he once regarded as righteousness is now revolting. It is dung, skybala, excrement. Have you ever looked at your virtues and goodness this way? What is it that we regard as profit—our record, reputation, tradition, career, family, etc., etc.? Our pride in our virtues and our self reliance are gross sins. Paul viewed his virtues as vices because they were deceiving him and blinding him to his desperate need for the real righteousness God requires, the righteousness of Christ. Paul’s righteousness was external, observable but tainted and flawed because it was driven by an unbelieving self-reliant hart. He wanted to control his life by being his own savior. Paul is the classic elder brother in the parable of the two lost sons (Luke 15).
Paul learned that Christ must become his righteousness. He must become ours as well. In Philippians 3:9 we read, “…and be found in Him not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law but that which comes from faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”. What is this righteousness all about? It is about being in the right with not about being right. It is a relational term not a behavioral term. It is being right-with-ness. Paul gave up his own efforts toward establishing his own right relationship with God and submitted to another, alien righteousness. Paul had attempted to win the approval and acceptance of God by obeying His will. It was an attempt to be right with God by achievement and self effort. Instead, he now looks outside of himself for the only righteousness that God can accept, what Luther called an alien or passive righteousness. It is not righteousness produced by us but righteousness received by us. Paul then asserts that true righteousness is obtained by abandoning one’s efforts to obtain it and to receive it by faith alone. Faith is the opposite of seeking to obtain one’s own righteousness by the works of the Law. Works and faith in regard to justification are mutually exclusive. They are absolutely incompatible. Faith considered negatively is the act of counting as loss all things that ma be conceived of as grounds for self confidence before God (coram Deo). Positively considered, faith is the despair of our goodness and our clinging to the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is the spiritual organ of the soul that unites us to Christ. We then receive the acceptance and approval that Christ alone deserves. Believing this truth that Christ’s righteousness is now mine frees me to pursue a life of active righteousness. Refusing to believe it turns me back to a life of self righteousness and moralism.
Paul sees the rest of his life as growth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Paul’s passionate desire was to know Him and to be shaped by his participation in Christ’s cross and resurrection. In this way he Gospel becomes the central power in his life. Have you ever repented of your righteousness and your goodness? They may be the biggest obstacles and barriers in your heart that obstruct intimacy with Christ. Do you have a passionate drive and desire to know Christ? Do you value His righteousness far beyond your own? If not, you might be religious but you might not be a Christian. Paul addresses this ver issue in romans 10:1-4—“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”