Traditionally in Christian ethics there was said to have been seven virtues, the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love from 1 Cor 13) and four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance). Our word virtue is derived from Latin words for strength. The Christian virtues were said to be graces wrought by the Spirit. In medieval theology (and Romanist today), the Christian life was said to be a pilgrimage in which the Christian the accumulates virtues by grace and cooperation with grace.
The Reformation rejected the doctrine of progressive justification by grace and cooperation with grace but we have not utterly rejected the idea of virtue. The virtue or power of faith, in the act of justification, is not faith itself but Christ, the object of faith. The Spirit, however, who works new life in the spiritually dead, also works in those whom he has made alive, to whom he has given faith, whom he has united to Christ through faith. We can speak of the virtues of love and hope (and prudence, justice, fortitude, humility and the like) that flow from faith, as Ursinus says. The Christian life is a journey. Sanctification is progressive. It is the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new. It is growing gradually into conformity into the image of Christ.
These virtues, however, are not those that dominate much contemporary Christian thinking about the Christian life. Arguably the highest virtue of our time is the virtue of niceness. The essence of niceness is getting along, being agreeable, being thought by others to be a good fellow. If you doubt the power of niceness, consider this sentence: “She is not a very nice person.” Should this judgment be uttered, should it find acceptance, one’s future in that circles is in great doubt. We have all said it. We have all thought it. We know how devastating this judgment is and yet just try to define “nice” or “niceness.” As Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, we know niceness when we see it.
If we compare niceness with the traditional virtues, however, we get a clearer picture. Niceness isn’t trust, fidelity, love, hope, prudence, temperance or any of the other virtues. It is something else. If it isn’t these virtues, which we say we value, why is it so powerful? Why is it so often confused with Christian virtue? The answer to those questions would take more time and space than a post affords but it worth considering, if only briefly. What if niceness is powerful because it is essential to success in our culture? In recent years we’ve heard a great deal about “idols of the heart.” They certainly exist and the human heart is certainly an idol factory but we haven’t heard much about the temptation to of going along to get along.
Think of it this way. Ask yourself whether the great figures of redemptive history and Scripture would pass the “niceness” test in our culture? The Lord closed the ark door (and presumably Noah agreed). Abraham carried Isaac up the mount. Moses killed a man. David was a man of blood. The prophets were hated and killed. Paul spoke up to Peter and was the subject of relentless criticism both outside and inside the church. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Right? Were any of them nice by our standards? Yet, these are the figures held up as models of faith and piety in Scripture. Our Lord himself would hardly pass the niceness test, after all, he threw the money changers out of the temple. He called the pharisees names. Was he nice? “Esau have I hated.” Is that nice?
In sanctification the Holy Spirit is creating fruit in us and he is producing in us virtues but niceness isn’t one of them. That niceness is so powerful among us and the virtues are so remote from our thinking says something about us.