Is Faith a Virtue?

David asks,

I know that we would say that faith is an instrument whereby we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness, but is there some biblical or theological reason why we would not want to say that faith is also a virtue? Can’t faith be a virtue and an instrument? Or is there something about faith being a virtue that would undermine the Protestant doctrine of justification?

In the middle ages and in Roman theology today was and is common to speak of faith as one of the three theological virtues (along with hope and love). That approach created problems. Along with hope (spes) and love (caritas) the virtue of faith became (and remains for Rome and for moralists) its Spirit wrong, sanctifying power. In other words, historically to speak of faith or hope or love as a “virtue” in this way has been to locate the power of faith in faith itself or in the effects of faith.

The English noun “virtue” is derived from the Latin noun “virtus,” the root sense of which is “strength” or “power.” To speak of faith “as a virtue” tends to cause folk to locate the power of faith in faith itself.

The WCF uses the word “virtue” with the sense of “power” or “strength” in 8.6:

Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect….

WCF 13.1 speaks of the “virtue of Christ’s death.” 14.2 uses the expression “by virtue of the covenant of grace.” 30.1 speaks of the “virtue” of the keys of the kingdom. Of the Reformed confessions, the Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566) uses the noun “virtue” in the same way. Chapter 10 explicitly denies that we were called or elected because of any virtue inherent in us (2 Tim 1:9). In chapters 14 and 16 we are exhorted to strive toward virtue as a consequence of our redemption.

2 Peter 1:5 is to the point here:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (αρετη), and virtue with knowledge….

Given this sense of of “virtue,” as “strength” or “moral excellence”) neither the Three Forms nor the Westminster Standards speak of faith as a “virtue.”

In contrast to the medieval and Roman Church, Protestants think that Christ is the virtue of faith (WCF 13.1). It was the Remonstrant/Arminian move back to toward the medieval conception of faith as virtue with intrinsic qualities that concerned the Reformed Churches.

Notice how how WCF 14.1 characterizes of saving faith:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

We may speak of the virtue of faith but only if we finish it by saying “is Christ.” He must be the virtue of faith because he is the object of faith. There is nothing intrinsic to faith that makes it powerful. The mystery of faith is that it is, in itself, empty. It is a sign of our perversity that we continually try to fill faith with something other than “Christ for us.” We want to make the power of faith to be faith itself or Spirit-wrought sanctity or something else beside Christ.

The Westminster Divines (with all the Reformed Churches) were acutely aware of this tendency. Thus they defined faith, in the act of justification, very carefully in order to preclude this very thing:

Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

Faith does not justify because it is “formed by love,” i.e. made powerful by Spirit-wrought sanctity and/or cooperation with grace. It is “ever accompanied” (11.2) by other “saving graces” but these other saving graces do not make faith what it is. Contra the rationalists and moralists faith is made powerful by being intrinsically powerless. I highlighted in the quotation from 11.1 above the expression. “nor by imputing faith itself….” This is the Remonstrant error. It is not faith itself that is imputed. It is Christ’s active and passive obedience that is imputed to us. Faith, as the divines remind, rests and receives. As the Belgic says, it “leans.” It isn’t even the act of believing itself.

Christ and nothing else is the virtue of faith.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this very helpful post. David and Myself have been wrestling with this issue. But I have a further question would it be okay to say from a Reformed and Biblical perspective that faith is good intrinsically and is a instrument, but not a power that is good (a virtue)? If Faith is not intrinsically good then is it intrinsically bad or morally neutral (or perhaps not even in the category of good nor bad)?

    Thanks for your time,

    Nathanael P. Taylor

    • Nathaniel,

      This seems to me to be another way of asking the question whether
      faith is a virtue. The premise of the question seems to be that there
      must be something intrinsic to faith per se. It
      seems to me that, e.g. the way “faith” is used in Romans suggests that
      it’s not faith “per se” that interests Paul but what faith does, i.e.,
      unites one to Christ or apprehends his righteousness or produces
      sanctity as a result of receiving Christ and his benefits.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Perhaps I am not making myself clear. I am asking: Is there any other sense in which we can say that faith is good that is distinct from the idea of a virtue or power (which I obviously want to avoid saying)? The reason why I am asking this is because it just seems very strange to me that God would command something of us that is not good. Is the Faith that is logically prior to justification morally neutral or evil?

    Thanks again for your time

    • Nathaniel,

      I understand the question but I question the premise.

      Faith, i.e., trusting in, resting in, receiving, leaning on Christ and
      his finished work is good but it isn’t the leaning, trusting, or
      resting or apprehending that makes faith good, it is Christ that makes
      it good. Faith means nothing apart from the object. The question seems
      to assume that faith has some quality apart from the object.

      If the object is the virtue then faith, considered per se apart from
      the object, has no quality. It’s only function is to lean, trust,
      receive, or apprehend.

  3. The reason we call them Christian virtues is because separate from Christianity, they cease to be virtuous. Hope is an excellent example. What do we hope for? As Christians, we hope for the coming kingdom of God. Because we have hope we will work for that kingdom, even when it seems unreasonable to do so.

    If we weren’t Christians we might hope for all kinds of awful things, and that hope wold not be a virtue. A virtue is something which cannot be twisted into something evil, and it is only Christianity that makes hope a virtue.

    It seems to me you are saying much the same about faith. Faith in Jesus is a virtue, faith in other things, not so much.

    What does WCF stand for?

  4. You are loathe to use the word “virtue” because you disagree with how pre-Reformed Christians used it. Nevertheless, it IS also a biblical word as you (sort of) acknowledge. And *saving* faith is not the end of the story, but the beginning.

    It is Christ’s work from first to last, but that is not quite the same thing as saying that it IS Christ.

    “He [Christ] must be the virtue of faith because he is the object of faith.”

    This seems to say that faith is its own object… exactly what you do NOT want to argue.

    • KAM,

      Not at all. First, I want to distinguish justification and sanctification. That distinction being made then, fine: it’s a virtue relative to sanctification. In fact the Westminster Confession of Faith says (11.2) that it is “the alone instrument of justification: yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” Faith operates as a virtue in sanctification but relative to justification it does not. We still believe in the three theological virtues but we don’t make faith the virtue in justification.

      You seem to quite misunderstand me in your last comment. Faith is NOT it’s own object. That was the Remonstrant view. The Reformed view is that Christ is the object of faith. Faith looks to Christ. It is, as Mr Murray said, “extraspective.” It looks outside itself, outside of the believer, to Christ and his righteousness for us. This is one of the very great differences between the Reformation and Rome (and all other forms of moralism, i.e., those who teach that we’re justified because we’re sanctified).

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