Friday, 1 February 2013




Let’s look at an example of a problem you might address with a secular audience: dishonesty. How does the gospel answer this problem and how does it work out in real life?

Jonathan Edwards identified two kinds of moral behavior: ”common virtue” and “true virtue.”2The “common virtue” of honesty may be developed out of fear, either societal (“If I lie I’ll be caught and exposed”) or religious (”If you are not honest, God will punish you”). It could also be cultivated by pride, which again could be cultural (“Don’t be like those terrible dishonest people”) or religious (“Don’t be like those sinners; be a decent and godly person”).

By no means does Edwards intend to be scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the “splendor of common morality” as the main way God restrains evil in the world.3Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue, because if fear and pride are what motivate a person to be honest, but fear and pride are also at the root of lying and cheating, it is only a matter of time before such a thin moral foundation collapses.

Thus, common virtue has not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil; it has restrained the heart but not changed the heart. And this “jury-rigging” of the heart creates quite a fragile condition. Indeed, through all the sermons and moral training you received throughout your life, you were actually nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grew up with either liberal or conservative values. The roots of evil were well protected beneath a veneer of moral progress.

So what is the mark of honesty as a “true virtue?” It is the commitment to truth and honesty not because it profits you or makes you feel better but because you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness. It is when you come to love the truth, not for your sake but for God’s sake and for its own sake. True honesty grows when you see him dying for you, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. That kind of virtue destroys both pride (Jesus had to die for me!) and fear (Jesus values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will change his commitment to me). In this way my heart is not just restrained, but rather its fundamental orientation is transformed.


Underneath all of our behavioral sins lies a fundamental refusal to rest in Christ’s salvation. According to Martin Luther,

All those who do not at all times trust God and... trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep the [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments... combined.

And as this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are measured and directed, so also its work, that is, the faith

2. Martin Luther, Charity and Its Fruits, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue.

3. Paul Ramsey, “Editor’s Introduction,” from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 8: Ethical Writings (New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr, 1989) | 4

or confidence in God’s favor at all times, is the very first, highest and best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and measured.4

Luther says that if we obey God’s law without a belief that we are already accepted and loved in Christ, then in all our good deeds we are really looking to something more than Jesus to be the real source of our mean­ing and happiness. We may be trusting in our good parenting or moral uprightness or spiritual performance or acts of service to be our real and functional“saviors.” If we aren’t already sure God loves us in Christ, we will be looking to something else for our foundational significance and self-worth. This is why Luther says we are committing idolatry if we don’t trust in Christ alone for our approval.

The first commandment is foundational to all the other commandments. We will not break commandments two through ten unless we are in some way breaking the first one by serving something or someone other than God. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. We sin because we are looking to some­thing else to give us what only Jesus can give us. Beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ’s salvation and attempting our own self-salvation.

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