When it comes to exemplifying virtues, there is no better person to behold than Jesus.
Frank M. Hasel
“‘Behold the Man!’” (John 19:5, NKJV). Perhaps these words describe it all. When it comes to exemplifying virtues, there is no better person to behold than Jesus. He is the one-and-only human being who has truly lived virtuously. Through His radically generous life and infinitely sacrificial death, Jesus Christ displayed the most beautiful love the universe has ever seen.
As fallen human beings, we often miss the mark of virtuous living and loving. Although we would like to believe we’re capable of living righteously if we try hard enough, the truth is that we must have a power working outside of ourselves to produce the virtues we are incapable of producing.
While humanistic philosophy teaches that we can make ourselves more virtuous through our own efforts, the gospel contradicts this theory: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23, NKJV).1
God knows that as human beings, we have a tendency to feel more virtuous than we actually are. If we fall into this trap, we will lose our ability to view ourselves and others objectively and will also forget our dependence on Christ. Self-righteousness inevitably damages our relationships with God, others, and ourselves.
Jesus knew that people who felt too virtuous were in danger of missing the entire point of the gospel. This is why He told the following story:
“‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted’” (Luke 18:10–14).
The Pharisees found their sense of security by comparing themselves with others in order to feel morally superior. This is a trap that destroys Christian virtue and erodes genuine faith. We must constantly remember the actual standard by which God judges human beings. He does not compare our moral performance with that of other people—but rather, compares us to His perfect law of love.
Scripture makes it clear that all of us have broken God’s law: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. . . . For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:19, 23).
Regardless of how virtuous we wish we were, each of us has a history of past sin and a strong pull toward present sin. Sin goes beyond mere behavior, reaching deep into our thoughts and motives. But our sinfulness does not scare Jesus away. No matter how dark our past may be, with Jesus, there is a bright future ahead. When questioned about why He spent so much time with sinners, Jesus said, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (Luke 5:31, 32).
Jesus is the Great Physician, working to heal and restore us from the damaging effects of sin. He accomplishes this healing by being our virtue, by empowering us with His virtue through the Holy Spirit
According to Scripture, God’s law requires a perfect record of virtuous living. Because this is the case, we are easily tempted to try to earn, or “merit,” God’s favor through our works. But creature merit (righteousness coming from a human being) is not just difficult to obtain—it is absolutely impossible. Ellen G. White aptly stated: “If you would gather together everything that is good and holy and noble and lovely in man and then present the subject to the angels of God as acting a part in the salvation of the human soul or in merit, the proposition would be rejected as treason. . . . The idea of doing anything to merit the grace of pardon is fallacy from beginning to end.”2
Martin Luther, the famous Protestant Reformer, learned this lesson the hard way. Taught from his youth that good deeds could merit God’s favor, this young monk worked tirelessly to make himself virtuous. Nevertheless, the harder he worked, the less peace he found. No matter how much he fasted, prayed, and devoted himself to God’s work, he was still terrified by a haunting sense of his own sinfulness. Then one day, God revealed the beauty of the gospel to this troubled young man. While climbing the Roman Scala Sancta staircase on his knees (an act of penance believed to absolve sin), Martin Luther received a strong impression from the Holy Spirit. The words of Romans 1:17 were indelibly imprinted on his mind, “‘The just shall live by faith.’” This was the turning point in his experience. Martin Luther stood up, left the staircase, and began his life-changing work of sharing the message of righteousness by faith. Martin Luther had discovered that Jesus was his virtue.
The word virtue can be used in a few different ways. It is most commonly used to describe a moral behavior or quality of character (for example, the virtue of humility). But the word can also be used to explain a reason for something (for example, by virtue of the fact that Christ was always humble, and by virtue of the fact that His righteousness has been accounted to me, God treats me as if I have always been humble). The implications of Christ’s righteousness are astounding:
● By virtue of the fact that Jesus was always grateful, God credits this virtue to me, even though so many times I have been discontent.
● By virtue of the fact that Jesus was always patient, God views my record through this lens, despite my history of impatience.
● By virtue of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law, God treats me as if I’d never disobeyed, even though I have failed countless times.
The beautiful news of the gospel is that Jesus is not only our example of Christian virtue, but He is also our virtue. According to the apostle Paul, Jesus “became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Jesus became our virtue.
What a sweet relief to know that “there is virtue in the blood of Christ.”3 As you turn away from those things that can never truly satisfy your longings and put your faith in His sacrifice, “the righteousness of Christ will be revealed as your righteousness, the virtue of Christ as your virtue.”4
With this in mind, let us take a brief look at the life of Christ, gratefully realizing that every virtue He practiced was practiced on our behalf. As our Substitute and Savior, Jesus’ entire life was a manifestation of loving virtue.
Christ’s Virtuous Life
Jesus was a virtuous thinker. He loved God with all His heart and all His mind (Matt. 22:37). Jesus was friendly. His eyes radiated a warmth that attracted even little children (Matt. 19:14). Jesus was kind (Titus 3:4): “He bowed with tenderest regard to every member of the family of God.”5
Jesus was accepting (John 4:7–30). He loved those who were despised by society. Jesus was compassionate. His heart was touched by people’s infirmities (Mark 10:46–52; John 5:2–17; Matt. 9:36). Jesus was merciful. He offered grace and power to those trapped in sin and shame (John 8:1–11). Jesus was encouraging. He spoke hope to the sorrowing and comforted those in grief (Mark 5:22–43; Luke 8:41–56).
Jesus was patient. He did not give up on those who were slow to believe (Luke 24:15–32). Jesus was gentle. “He exercised the greatest tact and thoughtful, kind attention in His intercourse with the people.”6
Jesus was courageous. He did not allow fear or doubt to divert Him from His mission but maintained an authority that the religious leaders of His day did not possess (Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32). Jesus was honest. He spoke liberating truths that set people free (John 8:32).
Jesus was inclusive. He showed concern not only for the marginalized of society but also for the rich and influential (Luke 19:2–10). Jesus was empowering. He entrusted His important mission to a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors. Jesus was tenderhearted. He treated women with respect even when culture did not value them. Jesus was meek. He did not seek fame, nor did He promote Himself (John 4:2).
Jesus was obedient. As a child, He voluntarily submitted to His godly parents (Luke 2:22, 42–52). Jesus was faithful. He always obeyed God’s will and His Word (John 6:38; Matt. 4:4). Jesus was grateful. He willingly accepted the life God had given Him, even though He experienced poverty and had “no place even to lay his head” (Luke 9:58, NLT).
Jesus was a prayer warrior. He often rose early in the morning to pray and earnestly prayed for those who were causing Him pain (Mark 1:35; Luke 23:34). Jesus was a good steward of His time. He avoided distractions in order to accomplish His mission (John 17:4). Jesus practiced rest. He observed the Sabbath and consistently rested in the Father’s love and care (Luke 4:16; Mark 6:30–32).
Jesus was humble. “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8, NLT).
Jesus was a peacemaker. He did not retaliate when mocked and abused (Luke 23:39–41; 6:28) but had the strength to forgive those who mistreated Him. Jesus was virtuous. “Virtue—the healing power of love—went out from Him to the sick and distressed.”7 Jesus was, is, and always will be love. His life, death, and resurrection revealed a quality of love the world had never seen before—love stronger than all the powers of sin and death.
It is impossible to express the beauty of Christ’s virtues fully. That is why the apostle John closed his Gospel account with the following words: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
As we ponder the life and love of Jesus, we will be filled with a sense of awe. Our hearts will be warmed with the good news of the gospel, the good news that all of Christ’s virtues, all of His righteousness, and all of His acceptance with the Father have been freely extended to us through the gift of salvation. Jesus is our virtue.
Jesus’ Empowerment of Us
The forgiveness of Christ is sweet, but the good news does not stop there. In addition to forgiveness, we need restoration and also renewal. In addition to pardon, we need strength to live the virtuous lives we were designed to live. Jesus wants us to live in harmony with the principles of love.
We all have an intense desire to be valued and loved. This longing is deep and constant: “What a man desires is unfailing love” (Prov. 19:22, NIV). Nothing on earth impacts our well-being and happiness more than the quality of our interpersonal relationships. The capacity to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, lies at the very core of human identity. We were created in the image of Love, by Love, and for Love.
Furthermore, because He created us this way, God’s deepest desire is to provide us with both the love we need to receive and the love we need to give. Christ reveals His rich love toward us in countless ways, and also places people in our lives for us to love (and to be loved by). In order to protect these relationships, we need the graces of Christian virtue. Virtues cause relationships to flourish, leading the way to the richest and most satisfying connections possible.
At the end of the day, virtuous living is all about fulfilling the two greatest commandments, which according to Jesus are “‘“love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”’” and “‘“love your neighbor as yourself”’” (Matt. 22:37–39).
Jesus knows that we cannot live virtuously or love adequately on our own. This is why He offers us His living virtue. The Bible promises that those who put their trust in Christ receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). God is eager to give this gift to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13). As we meditate on God’s love and His Word, trusting Him as our Righteousness, the Holy Spirit works to bring Christ’s active virtues into our lives. This beautiful mystery is what the apostle Paul referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). In the words of Ellen G. White, “The Holy Spirit is the breath of spiritual life in the soul. The impartation of the Spirit is the impartation of the life of Christ. It imbues the receiver with the attributes of Christ.”8
What is our role in this beautiful exchange? To abide in Christ.
God desires to manifest through you the holiness, the benevolence, the compassion, of His own character. Yet the Savior does not bid His disciples labor to bear fruit. He tells them to abide in Him. “‘If you abide in Me,’” He said, “‘and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you’” (John 15:7). It is through the Word that Christ abides in His followers. This is the same vital union that is represented by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. The words of Christ are spirit and life. Receiving them, you receive the life of the Vine. You live “‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). “The life of Christ in you produces the same fruits as in Him. Living in Christ, adhering to Christ, supported by Christ, drawing nourishment from Christ, you bear fruit after the similitude of Christ.”9
Perhaps the most beautiful description of Christian virtue is found in these famous words of the apostle Paul: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:1–8, NIV).
The rewards of Christian virtue are priceless—worth exceedingly more than anything their pursuit may cost, because love never fails.
Frank M. Hasel, PhD, is Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES