Virtue As We Enter The New Dark Ages

Virtue As We Enter The New Dark Ages

Virtue feels a bit out of place these days. Like a ninth grade student who has wandered into a party and isn’t sure if they’re in the right house, Virtue is a bit gangly and awkward, and surrounded by a bunch of people who are just trying to “seize the day.”

Their master Impulse would prefer it if Virtue just turned around and left.

The word itself means “moral excellence.” That sounds like a good thing. But today, people often use it as a sneer. ‘So-and-so is so virtuous.’ The tone suggests that being virtuous is like being judgmental, or acting as if you are better than someone else. And we certainly don’t want that.

It’s also fashionable to talk about how broken we all are. That makes sense. After all, it’s true. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” To speak of virtue can come across as self-righteous, or even arrogant—and that certainly doesn’t seem virtuous.

Hmm, a conundrum. What’s to be done?

Well, the truth helps.

We are called to growth and holiness. God says, “Be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16). This is why I think discussions about virtue are due for a comeback, at least in Christian circles. Virtue, rightly understood, and when placed in the context of discipleship, is an element of becoming more like Christ.

In this post and podcast, I’m going to share a few thoughts about how and why I think that is so. It’s a big topic. I don’t pretend to be comprehensive. But I do hope to share some food for thought for those who think that Christlikeness actually matters.

A New Dark Ages?

The world has changed and is changing. In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre surveys how different people have understood and pursued virtue throughout human history. Morality today, he writes, “is in a state of grave disorder.” Although we are not without hope, he makes a rather stark conclusion that we are living in “the new dark ages.”[i]

That may be so. We’ve never had more information, but it seems we’re short on wisdom. Golly, we’re even short on common sense. We’ve never had more tools for communication, but it seems we’re short on understanding. Many modern technologies are used to kill, not heal. And what should cause us shame is often celebrated.

Vanity Fair is a scene in John Bunyan’s famous allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. It depicts a carnival-type atmosphere where morality is scorned, naysayers are suspicious, justice is denied, and vanity is the rule of the day. There are many good things about the times in which we live, but make no mistake about it, Vanity Fair is in the air.

We seem to be entering an era with new overlords who will shame and stomp much of what doesn’t prop-up their own ideology. That is partly what C.R. Wiley is hinting at when he ominously warns that “The monsters are coming.”[ii] If that is so—and I believe he’s right—we followers of Jesus are wise to put our helmets on and get very familiar with Ephesians 6 and the armour of God.

We would also do well to kick off our training wheels and commit to Christlikeness. If we are to love our enemies, rejoice when we are persecuted, remain steadfast when people sneer at our ways, and pray for those who threaten our families, we are going to have to have a plan. We need to get serious. It’s no coincidence that the word ‘casual’ and ‘casualty’ sound so much the same.

Biblical basis

The current state of “disorder” has partly to do with not knowing which way is up. Someone might ask, “Virtuous according to whom?” It’s a fair point. If you and your family want to become more “gallant,” and if there are a variety of competing definitions about what gallant means, you’re going to have to decide who to listen to.

Our society is very diverse. There are many positive things about that diversity. I would rather live today than two hundred years ago. At the same time, there are many competing ideas about what is or isn’t good; there are contending definitions of what constitutes ‘moral excellence.’ This partly explains why the idea of virtue carries that sort of “gangly awkwardness” that I highlighted at the outset. Oh, and Vanity Fair isn’t content to let bygones be bygones. Those days are over. It wants everyone singing the same tune, or else.

As Christians, our guidance for what is or isn’t virtuous is found in the Bible. Scriptural wisdom is God’s wisdom. And that wisdom is always new and always relevant and always applicable.

The Greek word for virtue (areté) appears in a few different contexts in the New Testament, including these two.

2 Peter 1:5-8 (ESV)

In this letter, the apostle Peter begins by reminding the readers of their good standing before God because of his gift in Christ and how God has supplied everything they need to live godly lives.

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.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s a helpful text. We should supplement our faith with virtue (and with a whole host of other things). We should strive, with God’s help, for moral excellence. This will help us become effective and fruitful in our knowledge of Christ.

Philippians 4:8 (ESV)

In this frequently-quoted text by the apostle Paul, he is encouraging his readers to direct their minds to noble things as he brings his arguments to a conclusion.

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 [i.e. virtue], if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase ‘GIGO.’ It means ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ It originally had to do with computer processing. More recently it has been applied to our brains. If you ingest mental garbage all day you’re most likely going to produce mental garbage. That’s why we need to be very deliberate about what we mentally ingest. In a Christian context, Paul encourages us to direct our easily-distracted minds to whatever is virtuous.

Celebratory Failurism

Do we fail? Of course we do. But that doesn’t mean we should sit satisfied in our puddle of muck. Jen Wilkin has coined the phrase “celebratory failurism.” It’s the idea that since we often fail to keep God’s laws and live rightly that we should just accept it and acknowledge how beautiful grace is.[iii]

Grace is indeed beautiful. In fact, it’s amazing, as many of us have sung for generations. But Wilkin wisely warns against giving up on obedience. With God’s help we should seek godliness and virtue.

Make an effort, not excuses.

The 7 Deadly Sins (and Corresponding Virtues)

Through time, Christians have assembled different lists containing common sins and virtues. Perhaps the most famous is the “seven deadly sins.” It was first curated by Pope Gregory the first in the sixth century. These came to be associated with corresponding virtues. Here they are.

Pride is always listed as the chief sin. It’s the granddaddy of sin. Just ask Adam. It is a me-first idolatry. Its corresponding virtue, therefore, is humility. C.S. Lewis wrote: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but of yourself less.”

A towering figure in church history, and in history in general, is Augustine, the north African bishop. He drew attention to the fact that humility needs to go first: “If you try to build a tall house of virtues you must first of all lay a deep foundation of humility.”[iv] The metaphor of a foundation is helpful. Ask any homeowner. If your foundation is faulty, you’re going to run into expensive and life-disrupting problems.

In an enduring devotional work from the fourteenth century, Walter Hilton also reinforced the importance of developing humility as a substructure for your spiritual growth: “Humility is the first and last of all the virtues.”[v] In other words, humility is constantly required if we are to grow in other areas as well. Humility isn’t a box you check; it’s a way of life.

Next on the list is charity. It corresponds to greed. In a sermon from about 1500 years ago, Gregory the Great said: “The only real riches are those that make us rich in virtues.”

Purity corresponds to lust. Gratitude or contentment corresponds to envy. Self-control corresponds to gluttony.

Patience corresponds to anger. But here, as in the other areas, we need to remember that each person is unique. For some who exhibit continual and unchecked anger, they may need to grow in patience. Others may need to cultivate surrender. Much depends on the individual.

Lastly, diligence (or zeal) corresponds to sloth.

I recently led a devotional with the elders at the church I pastor. After discussing these sins and corresponding virtues, several commented that in our culture today many of the sins are actually celebrated. It was a good observation. That is one of the reasons why virtue finds itself in such a curious place; its very presence challenges the crumbling moral fiber of our culture.

Recently, I was in a clothing store. Its marketing campaign was based upon the idea that you should want to make other people envy you. Sigh. Theologian John Owen once wrote: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”[vi] Those aren’t the words of a grown-up toddler who casts an occasional and approving nod to Jesus whenever it suits him. They are the words of a humble, mature adult who is serious about taking up a cross and following the Lord as he directed us to do.

Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice

In medieval moral theology there were four well-known universal virtues. These were thought to be ‘universal’ (also called ‘pagan’) because it was believed they were accessible to anyone, including non-believers. These were known as the four cardinal virtues. The word ‘cardinal’ means ‘hinge,’ suggesting that they are a gateway to more abundant living.

First was prudence. We don’t use that word much anymore, but it’s a great one. It brings together wisdom, caution and frugality.

Second was temperance. Again, we don’t use that word very often. It pops up in old movies or books about the ‘temperance movement,’ but that’s about it. Temperance is about self-control and keeping focused on the important things instead of being ruled by the fleeting impulses and passions of the moment. Many people think they are being “free” when they are really just being ruled by that previously-mentioned master, Impulse. Temperance is less naïve and more clear-headed than that.

Third was fortitude. Ah, that’s a word for the ages. Fortitude. The word itself could knock down an enemy’s gates. Theologian J.I. Packer says this means “courage plus endurance.”

Fourth was justice.

Faith, Hope and Love

Alongside the four universal virtues where three theological virtues. They were specifically designated as “theological” because they are only open to believers who have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.

They come to us from that ever-famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The word for love (agapé) was often translated as “charity,” so these three also appear as “faith, hope and charity.”

Faith is trust. It is trust specifically in God—in who he is, in what he has done for us, in how his world functions, and a commitment to who he calls us to be. Faith is a healthy skepticism about what we see with our eyes in favour of what God has revealed in his Word.

Hope has both wings and roots. It is a grounding that which is to come. It is knowing that better is coming, and then living today in a way which reflects that hope. I look out my window and see green plants starting to push up through not only the soil but the remaining snow and ice of winter. Hope.

Love means acknowledging that other people are made in God’s image, and pursuing God’s best for them. It is not perpetual agreement or fuzzy feelings. It is pursing God’s best for someone in practical ways, even when it costs you something.

Virtue is refined in adversity

We are one of the only generations in human history to be surprised when life gets difficult. We think that comfort is to be expected and that happiness is the point. Neither is true.

When we come to a place that takes seriously (a) that life is hard, and (b) that life is actually about glorifying and serving God and not ourselves, we can start to see things from a different point of view: that our hardships are a means to an end instead of a reason to crumble on the floor.

In the fourteenth century Henry Suso wrote: “Where is virtue preserved except in adversity?”[vii] We can let our hardships defeat and ruin us, or we can see them as tools for growth. It’s not a popular idea, and in the midst of a storm no one wants to be told that it has a silver lining, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. As a pastor, I’ve known many people for whom adversity has built wisdom, strength, humility, and faith into the castle of their character.

In 1534 Thomas More wrote a book called A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation while imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was the year before his execution by King Henry VIII. In it, a character named Anthony says: “For, as the philosophers said very well of old, ‘virtue standeth in things of hardness and difficulty.’”[viii]

True indeed. Virtue standeth in things of hardness and difficulty.


Christians are made right with God (i.e. ‘justified’ or ‘saved’) by repenting of sin and trusting in who Christ is and what he has done for us on the cross. As we read in Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

When that happens the Holy Spirit begins to live within and work through us. One of the places we learn about this is in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God.” This is commonly referred to as the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit.

Something the Holy Spirit does is make us more like Christ. “Be holy, as I am holy.” This process is called sanctification. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Although we continue to sin, and although we frequently stumble on the upward path, we are in fact on an upward path. Theologian John Calvin called it being “progressively conformed” to God’s image.[ix]

So yes, God is changing us to be more like him. And no, it’s not optional. If the Holy Spirit is in you, he will work. Rosaria Butterfield has a helpful perspective: “adding virtue to your faith is not optional, because faith in Christ is not the end but the start.”[x]

I point this out simply because it is a productive way to think about cultivating virtue. It is a part of our sanctification. The ultimate man of virtue was Christ himself. We strive to be like him.

In so doing we are the new “alternative lifestyle.”

“To will one thing”

Perhaps by now you have been convinced of my thesis—that discussions about virtue are due for a comeback, at least in Christian circles, and that virtue, rightly understood, and when placed in the context of discipleship, is an element of becoming more like Christ.

Perhaps you also agree that our culture is increasingly divided about what is virtuous and what is not. When many people don’t trust governments, the facts of biology, or even each other, it’s highly unlikely that we are all going to agree on the desired aspects of human character.

My sense is that you might also be unsettled by—but perhaps equally curious about—MacIntyre’s idea that we are entering a “new dark ages.” The approach of monsters tends to get one’s heart pumping as he or she awakes from their slumber and jumps up off the couch. Have you ever wondered if the “programming” on your TV or media was somehow programming you to look away from what matters most? I wonder.

No matter where you’re at, there are always reasons to hope. After all, Christ is on his throne. He is in the control room. He summons his people to know, serve, love and glorify him as his hands and feet. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Kierkegaard stated that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” No matter the churning world around us, the disciples of Jesus are committed to one thing: their leader and his kingdom come. Hope is knowing that better is coming. With God’s help, we are tomorrow’s hope today.

The final word is with the apostle Paul who was put in prison, flogged, exposed to death, beaten with rods, pelted with stones, and shipwrecked three times: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…”

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 256, 263.

[ii] C.R. Wiley, The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Canon Press, 2019), 102.

[iii] Jen Wilkin, “Failure is not a virtue.” Article at Published May 1, 2014.

[iv] As quoted in: Walter Hilton, ed. Halcyon Backhouse, The Scale of Perfection (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), 47.

[v] Ibid., 47.

[vi] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers (First Rate Publishers, no date given), chapter 2, section 1. First published in 1656.

[vii] Henry Suso, Little Book of Eternal Wisdom (Benediction Classis, 2009), 60.

[viii] Thomas More, A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, ed. Terri Ann Geus (Mineola: Dover, 2016), 60.

[ix] John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life, trans. Aaron Clay Denlinger and Burk Parsons (Sandford: Ligonier Ministries, 2017), 3.

[x] Rosaria Butterfield, Five Lies of our Anti-Christian Age (Wheaton: Crossway, 2023), 269.


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