February / March - 2020 Vol. 108

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The Virtue of Faith
.“A Gift and Habit of the Heart”
By Don Schwager

Therefore.. let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” – Hebrews 12:1b-2

Part 1: Introduction

“Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5)

The Apostle Peter makes a very strong link between faith and virtue – “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5). Faith in Jesus Christ is the key that opens the door to a right relationship with God. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11). And what enables us to grow strong in faith, steadfast in hope, and fervent in love?

Paul the Apostle tells us that "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:5. We cannot draw near to God unless he first draw us near to him. Faith is both a gift and a response of belief and trust in the One who made us in love for love. Faith, hope, and love are gifts of God (and supernatural virtues) that enable us to live as sons and daughters of God. These gifts must be nourished and cultivated in us so that we may grow in the character of Christ. And how do we grow in the character of Christ? First, by looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and by following his teaching and example.

Jesus taught by example and by instruction. “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37), “I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). “Love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Training in Christian character is essential for the formation of mature leaders, teachers, parents, and pastoral workers who can pass on the faith and raise future generations of disciples for advancing God’s kingdom on the earth. 

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) identified all virtue with the person of Christ:

Now we require many virtues, and from these virtues we advance to virtue itself. What virtue, you inquire? I reply: Christ, the very virtue and wisdom of God. He gives diverse virtues here below, and he will also supply the one virtue, namely himself, for all of the other virtues which are useful and necessary in this vale of tears.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) explained the difference between doing good deeds and training in character.
There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is a man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on. They have a certain tone or quality which is there even when he is not playing, just as a mathematician’s mind has a certain habit and outlook which is there even when he is not doing mathematics. In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of a ‘virtue’ (Mere Christianity).

Habits of the heart
Virtues and vices can be described as settled dispositions or inclinations to act in particular ways. They are good or bad character traits. They are acquired through repeated acts of deliberate decision, and as such become “habits of the heart.”  A chief characteristic of both vice and virtue is an established tendency to act from deliberate decision. Vice is a bad character trait or habit of the heart which leads one into sin. It is a settled disposition or inclination to do what is morally wrong or sinful. It is usually a habit of character acquired through repeated acts of deliberate decision.

The word virtue, which comes from the Latin word vir for man, denotes strength of character leading to courageous deeds.  It signifies manliness or courage. Augustine of Hippo said that “virtue is a good habit consonant with our nature.” The virtues are dispositions or habits of character that lead us to do good. Virtues are good character traits or habits of the heart. Augustine further defined virtue as “a good quality of the mind by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use.”  The virtues dispose us to an orientation of life opposite that of the vices.

Many people today tend to call vice and sin not as character flaws or wrong-doing but simply as “behavioral problems” – and guilt is labeled as emotional distress.  The language of sin has been replaced by the language of symptoms. People rarely talk about vice or virtue anymore.
But in fact, virtues and vices are acquired habits of character, by which we are either perfected (i.e. becoming a mature person of integrity, moral vision, and good character) or degraded (i.e. becoming a person of bad character by embracing immoral ways of thinking, acting, and living).

Natural virtues and the supernatural virtues
If we want to grow in full maturity as men and woman of God we will need more than the natural virtues and human wisdom. The natural moral virtues, such as prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts. But the natural virtues in themselves are not sufficient for living a fully good human life as God has intended for the human race.

Gregory of Nyssa said that “the goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.”  It is not easy for fallen human beings, who have been wounded by sin, to grow and persevere in the virtues. We need God’s help and the strength he gives us through the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. These virtues are not just added on top of the natural virtues. They permeate and transform all of our natural virtues.

 Peter Kreeft in his book, Back to Virtue, explains how the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love inform and give life to the moral virtues.

The natural virtues are the seedbed, soil, or fertilizer for the flower of supernatural virtue. Ethics is preparatory to religion, because “the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” Having said these good things about natural virtue, it must be added that it is not sufficient, either for the next life or even for this life… The four cardinal virtues are not sufficient even for this life. Unless we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” all these other things will not be added to us. Unless we put first things first, second things will not come either. Without the supernatural virtues, the natural virtues fail.

For instance, without charity, which goes beyond justice, no one can be just. We cannot fulfill the requirements of the natural law of justice to our neighbors except by the power of love. “Love is the fulfillment of the law,” not by substituting for it, as if we did not need to do the works of justice when we love, but rather by fulfilling it, for when we love someone, we want them to receive justice.

Another example is that it is very hard to be totally courageous without hope in Heaven. Why risk your life if there is no hope that your story ends in anything other than worms and decay? Also, no one can be truly wise without faith, for faith sees higher and farther than reason or experience can. It sees “through a glass, dimly” but it sees deeply. Finally, no one can successfully practice self-control without God’s grace, for we are all addicted to sin, self-indulgence, and selfishness…The two levels, natural and supernatural, hang together.

The source of godly virtue
The true source of godly virtue comes from God and not human beings. All that is good has its origin in God who is the very source of goodness. Whatever goodness we have is derived from him. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, he frees us from our sins and gives us the help and strength we need to reject whatever is evil and to choose for what is good. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit, and our cooperation with him, that our lives are changed and transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul states that “we are being changed into his (God's) likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Christian virtue consists in a living relationship with God, in conformity with his words, in obedience to his will, and in a profound and lasting turning towards him. Faithfulness in following the Lord's way is the fundamental virtue for walking with God. It's also a requirement for keeping God's covenant (Exodus 19:5). On the other hand, the fundamental vice is to follow some god other than the true God and to be unfaithful to God’s covenant with us by departing from his way. The virtuous person who puts his trust in God finds delight in following God’s commandments (Psalm 1, and Psalm 15).

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (Psalm 15:11).

Jesus describes the perfect disciple in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, Luke 6). In summary he says that the heart of a true disciple is free from evil and full of love and mercy towards friend and foe alike.

The deadly vices have their source in sinful attitudes of the heart. If unchecked, sinful attitudes easily become habit-forming and thus relatively permanent features of one's orientation to life. The deadly vices and the sins they breed are forms of behavior resulting from sinful intent or neglect. It is behavior dictated by wrong attitudes, in habits of the heart, that make the heart lukewarm, then cold, hardened, and evil.

What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Mark 7:20-22).

When we separate ourselves from God through sin we become incapable of controlling our evil desires and of remaining master of ourselves (1 John 2:16).  In such a condition we cannot find in ourselves the strength to resist the weight of our passions. When we are united with God we discover the strength or capacity to live virtuous lives.  It is the strength of the Lord that is our strength. Without it we remain fainthearted and listless in the face of evil.

God calls us to live virtuous lives (2 Peter 1:3-11). We need the virtues to counter the vices.

Part 2: Faith as a Virtue

Christian faith is believing, trusting, and expecting the Lord Jesus to work in and through us by the gift and working of the Spirit who dwells in us.

Christian faith is following Jesus Christ in a committed relationship of loyalty, obedience, love and faithfulness.

The root meaning of the word
faith is trust, reliability, and faithfulness. It is a trust that is based on honesty, truthfulness, integrity, and commitment. Another word for faith is to believe– to believe that someone’s word is truthful, reliable, and trustworthy. The New Testament Greek word for “faith” is pistis and the word for “believe” is pisteuo. They both share the same root stem. Keeping one’s word or promise is the mark of true faith and trustworthiness.

Josef Pieper on Faith / Belief

    To believe always means: to believe someone and to believe something... The believerin the strict sense of the wordaccepts a given matter as real and true on the testimony of someone else. That is, in essence, the concept of belief.
    Strangely enough, in theological disputation the two elements of belief that we here present as linkedassent to the truth of a subject and assent to a personhave repeatedly been isolated and played off against one another, as though they were by nature incompatible. Martin Buber, for example, states that there are “two modes of belief”, the “Greco”-Christian mode and the Jewish mode. The first, he says, depends exclusively upon holding propositions to be true, whereas the second affirms a relationship of trust to God as a Person. It is not for me to define the nature of belief as it is conceived in religious Judaism. But the Christian concept of belief, at any rate, explicitly embraces both the material and the personal element. “Everyone who believes assents to the testimony of someone.” “Belief is always addressed to a person.” The first of these two sentences is by Thomas Aquinas; the second by Martin Lutherevidence that on this score no difference of opinion existed between the Reformer and the last great teacher of a still undivided Western Christendom.

Source: Faith, Hope, Love, by Josef Piper, Ignatius Press, 1997, 2012

Faith defined in Scripture
The New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews uses two expressions to define Christian faith.  He uses the word assurance and the word conviction

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” – Hebrews 11:1-3.

Faith is not something vague, uncertain, undefineable, or something which requires a leap of the imagination or worse, some kind of blind allegiance.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Faith is a response of trust and belief in what is reliable, truthful, certain, and real. To have faith is to believe and trust in someone or something.  We believe in the power of electricity even though we can't visibly see it with the naked eye. We know we can tap into that power and use it to do things we could not do by our own human power.  Faith in God works in a similar way. 

When God reveals himself to us he gives us the assurance and conviction that his power and presence and glory is just as real, and even more real, than our experience of the natural physical world around us. Things around us are subject to change, but God never changes. He is constant, ever true to his word, and always faithful to his promises. That is why we can have the greatest assurance of his unconditional love for us and why we can hope with utter conviction that he will give us everything he has promised. The Lord Jesus is God's visible proof that his word is reliable and true; his love is unfailing and unconditional; and his power is immeasurably great and unlimited.

Abraham, the father of faith (Hebrews 11:8-19)
Abraham is the greatest model of faith in the Old Testament. Paul the Apostle calls him the "father of all who believe" (Romans 4:11). What made him great? Exceptional gifts, leadership skills, wisdom or experience? God chose Abraham to be the father of a mighty nation because he was faithful -- every ready to believe what God spoke to him and ever ready to obey his commands without hesitation. Abraham was evidently a good listener.  He was attuned to God's voice and hungry for God's word. He trusted even when God told him to do something he didn't fully understand. Genesis 12 tells us the story of Abraham's journey of faith to an unknown land of promise. What must have gone through the minds of Abraham's relatives and friends?  "There goes that dreamer again, in search of adventure and fortune."  Abraham was willing to forsake everything he had and cherished for the sake of the God who called him.  God was evidently pleased with Abraham and called him his "friend" (2 Chronicles 20:7, James 2:23).

How did Abraham grow in faith?  "In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations" (Rom. 4:18).  Abraham's wife Sarah was too advanced in age to conceive. No wonder she laughed when three angelic visitors told Abraham he would have a son by the following year (Gen. 18:12-14). Abraham hoped where there was no human hope because his trust was not in human capability but in divine power. The supreme test of Abraham's faith was the sacrifice of his son Isaac to God.  Abraham not only obeyed.  He trusted that God could bring his back to life again!  Now that's trusting, believing, expectant faith!  True faith takes God at his word.  Abraham fulfilled the definition of faith given by the author to the Hebrews: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). God strengthened Abraham in faith much the same way a metallurgist strengthens iron and forges steel.  He hammered away at Abraham's character until there was nothing left but pure metal, refined, molded, and shaped into a perfect instrument for his purposes.

Abraham had to learn the way of living by faith in the same way we learn it.  Faith grows by consistency, taking daily steps of obedience and trust in God's word. If we want to grow in faith and allow the Lord to use us as his instrument, then we must cooperate with God as Abraham did.  He will test us, not to make us fail, but build into us the character and strength of will that does not waver in the face of doubt, trial, and affliction. Paul describes how Abraham grew in faith:  "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised" (Rom. 4:20-21). Do you trust that God will be faithful to you and accomplish everything he has promised you?

Faith grows with love and hope
Faith in God and hope in his promises strengthen us in the love of God. They are essential for a good relationship with God, for being united with him. The more we know of God the more we love him and the more we love him the greater we believe and hope in his promises. The Lord Jesus, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, gives us a new freedom and power to live in faith, hope, and love. Paul the Apostle writes, "For freedom Christ has set us free... only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [sinful inclinations], but through love be servants of one another" (Galatians 5:1,13).

Distinguishing Christian faith from disordered desires and vices
The following chart contrasts the distinctive character traits of Christian faith and trustworthiness from fear, guilt, distrust, disloyalty, and rejection of belief, faith, fidelity to solemn promises and commitments

Distinguishing the Virtue of Faith & Trustworthiness from Its Opposites:
Fear, guilt, distrust & disloyalty, unfaithfulness, & rejection of belief/faith, & commitments

Fear, guilt, distrust block faith, belief, trust, and love for God and neighbor
Faith relates to God with confident trust and reliance, because God is trustworthy
Disloyalty, unfaithfulness, & rejection of belief/faith, covenant commitments   
“Do not fear, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom" Luke 12:32

Being fearful, mistrustful, suspicious of the good intention, reliability, and honesty of someone who is reliable, honest, truthful, and trustworthy

Distrust is an absence of trust or disinterest while mistrust is active suspicion. (Hate and mistrust are the children of blindness)

A general sense of unease toward someone you think may be dishonest, unreliable, and bad.

The feeling or sense that someone cannot be relied upon, or that someone is dishonest, unreliable, and not trustworthy.

Despair is the contrary virtue of diligence, by which we demonstrate zeal, integrity and effort in our spiritual undertakings.

While despair may have many complicated psychological motives, those falling into it ultimately conclude that God cannot or will not save them or give them the help and grace necessary to obtain the life He offers.

Despair is common today, when we too easily conclude that it is not possible live the holy life to which God summons us. Our modern world considers things like chastity, forgiveness, and self-control to be unrealistic, if not impossible. This is a form of despair because it denies that God’s grace can equip, empower, and enable people to live holy lives.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received divine approval.  By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.” – Hebrews 11:1-3

Mere acceptance of truth is not faith. 

Faith relates to God with confident trust and reliance, because God is trustworthy, reliable, and does not lie.

Faith proceeds from the heart and determiners how we will live. Faith at work in the heart produces hope in the mind.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).

Faith is mutually linked with hope and love: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” – Hebrews 11:1.

“Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” -1 Thessalonians 5:8.

The breastplate protects the heart and the helmet protects the head or the mind.

Christian faith and hope are both rooted in God and his word. Faith is in the present and hope looks towards the future. Hope is based on genuine faith in the heart and its expectation, in due time, will be fulfilled.  

Sinful unbelief and rejection of whatever is true, good, righteous, holy, and worthy of respect and honor (i.e. hatred toward God and his commandments and towards people of belief/faith),

Relating to God and people of belief/faith with contempt, prejudice, discrimination, and hatred

disloyalty and breaking one’s covenant commitment (Infidelity, adultery) without a just cause, disowning or abandoning one’s spouse or family (parents, children)

irresponsible and unfaithful to one’s duties and obligations (i.e. care for spouse, children, elderly parents, contracts, etc.)

Irreligion (indifferent), discrimination and opposition towards belief and religion, persecution

Deceit and deception both blinds and seduces people to believe a lie instead of the truth

Calling evil good and good evil – for example, labeling abortion (killing the unborn) and euthanasia (mercy killing of people with disabilities and the terminal illness), “hardness of heart”

Disinterest, distrust, skeptical, suspicious towards faith, belief, religion, and God

Select bibliography:
  1.  Faith, Hope, and Love, by Josef Pieper, first published in German in 1986, English edition reprinted in 1997 by Ignatius Press
  2. Summa Theologica, On Faith, by Thomas Aquinas
  3. Faith to Live By, by Derek Prince, 1977, Servant Books, and Regal Books
  4. Christian Character Course, developed by Steve Clark, 2004
  5. Back to Virtue, by Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, 1986
  6. Training in Excellence: How Godly Character Forms Strong,Mature Men and Women and Strengthens the Building of Communities for Generations to Come, 2014, Kairos Publications

> See related articles on Christian Character and the Virtues in the Living Bulwark archives.

Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website...

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