The Problem with Good Morals


Colossians 3:14

And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.


There is a word inserted in today’s Scripture reading that can’t be found in the original Greek text. See if you can spot it.

If you guessed virtues, you are correct. It happens from time to time. In order to make the meanings flow clearer in a given language, a translator will help it along. It’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it rarely changes the meaning. At times, though, it can have the effect of shading the interpretation by triggering in the reader a whole range of additional meanings that come from their own cultural context.

Virtue is such a word, and if the translators were translating an actual Greek word here, it would be less of a problem. They are not. Most translations leave it at “these,” as in, “And over all these put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” “These,” of course, refers to “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” from verse 12.

So, what’s the problem with “virtue”? The problem is the framework it sets up with its half brother, “vice.” Virtue and vice shift the concept of holiness and sin from health versus sickness to honor versus shame. I don’t think the unfolding vision of the Bible is to produce God-fearing moral citizens. Rather, the vision is to birth God-filled human beings: men, women, girls, and boys who embody a quality of holiness exuding from the very image of God, who is Jesus Christ.

The biblical word for this is not virtue. It is love. I am convinced the Bible calls us to leave behind all the old earthbound categories of immoral and moral, vice and virtue, shame and honor, and even sinner and saint (in the limited ways we think of them). This is why the Bible does not set forth a moralistic behavior management approach, but rather a death-and-resurrection reality. The Bible concerns itself with the movement of the decisively supernatural reality of holy love into the decidedly human realm characterized by the sickness of sin and the domain of death.

Think about it: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bound together in the perfect unity of love—these are not the ruts of morality but the realm of the miraculous. We don’t need a moral vision. We need a vision of holiness—a.k.a. the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I’m willing to be wrong about this, but here’s how I see it. Morality is a very low bar, and if that’s what we are aiming for, our lives will hover back and forth just above and below this threshold. Virtue is simply good morals on steroids. Love, on the other hand, is the holy presence of Jesus Christ filling human beings together to the measure of all the fullness of God. This is the secret long hidden and now revealed. It’s not about aspiring to better behavior but becoming abandoned to Jesus.

And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (v. 14)

No more moralizing. Domino #3/14 will remind us.


Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, who not only embodies the holiness of love, but who imparts it to us. Come, Holy Spirit, and lift me out of the broken ways of virtue, vice, honor, and shame, and lead me into the life of the resurrection life of love. I will never find it on my own. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


  1. These are massive thoughts I can hardly get my mind around. How are you thinking about them?
  2. Do you tend to agree or disagree with this contrast between virtue and holy love? Does it make any difference in your daily life?
  3. What are the implications for you of getting life out of moral categories virtue and vice and into the realm of death and resurrection?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

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Comments and Discussion

5 Responses

  1. JD, I’ll readily admit that I’m not a highly educated person, so I may have misunderstood the true meaning of virtue, but from my perspective; I equated virtue with the various fruit of the Spirit. I’ve never thought of virtue as something we could produce from our own power and strength.
    From this perspective I fail to see a problem with using these two terms interchangeably. Either one would be something that God the Father would pour into our hearts as the gift of the Holy Spirit given to all who repent, believe, and are baptized into Christ.
    Because, I’ve read from different Christian faith traditions, I’ve embraced the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin being like a disease which has released death into all creation, as well as causing the proclivity for fallen mankind to rebel against God’s love. Jesus is more than the Lamb of God who died on our behalf, he’s also the Victor over sin death and the power of Satan and our Healer. Because as members of His body, we too share in His victory and can experience spiritual health.

  2. 1) Just before I came to this post, I posted on Facebook: “Last week I met a stranger named Person & someone gave me a bottle of water simply labeled H2O. Perhaps we over label people!” Then I read your statement, “The Bible calls us to leave behind all the old earthbound categories.” Over categorizing things complicates life, and too much labeling of people limits our ability to show them love, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

    2) Trying to feel better about our wrongful behavior by comparing our “badness” to other people’s “immorality” is a false measure because we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” so much that none of us deserve the label “good.” The Bible even states that “All your righteousness is as filthy rags,” and “There is none righteous, no not one.” Self-effort can never make a person good. Instead, we need a supernatural change in our inner nature. We need to die to our unholy self and let the living Jesus live in, transform, and direct us.

    3) Although we like to categorize degrees of immorality, in reality there are no hierarchies of sin. Whether someone kills one person or a million people, he is a murderer. Whether he tells one lie or a million lies, he is a liar. Whether he commits one sin or a million sins, he is a sinner. We are all dead in trespasses and sins. The only way out is to be born again into Jesus’ resurrection life.

  3. God is love (1 John 4:16). The Holy Spirit then is love. The fruit of the Spirit is love. The expressions of Agape love are joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22). As we mature in Christ, we live in the spirit and walk in the spirit (Galatians 5:25), the fruit of the spirit should become our natural response/reaction to the world’s people’s brokenness, to another’s frustration and anger. Eros, Storge, or Philia love won’t do it. Only the love of the Holy Spirit that is in every believer can. When we instinctively react to another’s spiritual brokenness of anger from the Spirit’s fruit of Agppa Love, will another see “Christ in us.” When I don’t, I know it is the selfish me and not God’s Spirit in me responding.
    For clarity, when we react to someone, it is from an emotional, defensive stance. When we respond, we take a moment to consider if our response will add fire to the situation or water. The Holy Spirit is the living water that extinguishes all fires.

  4. What I am currently seeing across the church landscape is the pendulum being pushed from one extreme to the other on multiple fronts. Only time will tell if an over-correction is in the works.

    When it comes to church, I know for a fact that we need to get past the legalistic fundamentalism that previously prevailed. However, based on what I experienced in my local church; I am not convinced that Love without some sort of curbing is the answer. Reality is, church is nothing more than God at work in flawed human beings and we are currently seeing where flawed human beings can lead the church all in the name of love.

    In the meantime, I am learning that to maintain the integrity of the antique mall I am currently running, boundaries have to be set when it comes to what the vendors can and cannot do. I am also learning to maintain the boundaries by taking into consideration the individual and the overall impact of what that individual is or is not doing has on the store as a whole. Although I work with them for quite a while before I take action, ultimately, a decision has to be made and I strive to make that decision with grace and Love for the individual as the lead. Currently, I am struggling with whether or not to let a vendor in that would stretch the boundaries of the mall; he is insistent that this is where he wants to be, and all the indicators are he would be an excellent vendor but a boundary that I already allow to be pushed in small ways would be severely stretched.

  5. It is something we should aspire to/seek. But Paul was addressing the first iteration of Christianity and we are 2000+ years later and somewhere along the way the concept of the holy catholic/universal Church took shape to house all the different versions of Christianity and give us a house to “live in peace and acceptance” without having to share the same room. John Wesley was a pioneer in recapturing the possibility of perfect Love, and he still felt the need to impose theological and moral curbing on the societies under his supervision.

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