Virtue, vice, and double negatives

You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.

Christian virtue offers just one example of the mysterious coexistence of divine sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility. Even for those who are saved, any attempt at self-reliant virtue promises to be about as successful as Peter’s stroll on the Sea of Galilee. We cannot foster our own holiness any more than a bee can conjure honey through sheer willpower. Yet on the other hand, the Christian walk is described as a fight, a race; we are exhorted to “run in such a way that you may win.” Like Peter, we’re entirely dependent on Christ for any hope of reaching our destination, but, also like Peter, it’s still our responsibility to fight our way over the waves.

Part of that fight is to resist sin. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit”; being a Christian means learning to hate what our Father hates. In fact, one might easily imagine virtue as a sort of path threaded safely among various “thou shalt nots.” So we pray that our children will not fall into bad company and we exhort teenagers to avoid premarital sex and we counsel men on how to avoid being pushovers, and very often we completely miss the point.

C.S. Lewis wrote that the devil always sends errors in pairs of opposites. Martin Luther famously compared the Christian to a drunkard on a horse who, after a painful tumble into the roadside ditch, steers clear with a zeal that promptly plunges him face-first into the ditch on the other side of the road. Walking away from virtue invariably takes you into sin, but the reverse is not true. There are just too many ways to go wrong.

One might sum up the danger by noting simply that it is unhealthy to stare at evil, even for purposes of avoiding it. This is not to say we can safely ignore the “thou shalt nots.” As Paul cried in response to such a suggestion, “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” But, as we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives, and as we disciple children and friends, students and siblings, we ought to make a habit of following each “thou shalt not” back to the root from which it grows. As we pursue holiness, we must quite literally pursue holiness; not merely avoid unholiness.

When a Pharisee asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

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