The Importance of Virtue
In my previous post, I talked about the priority we should put on mentoring, just as Jesus and the apostle Paul did. But by itself, a commitment to mentoring is incomplete. Such a commitment needs to be undergirded and supplemented by attention being given to the importance of pursuing a series of Christian virtues.
Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, like 2 Peter (esp. 1:3–11, on which see my book Excellence), are full of references to virtues Paul’s apostolic delegates are to pursue. Take the following two examples:
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will preserve both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).
“Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
It is not enough for Timothy merely to watch his doctrine closely; he must watch his life as well, and first and foremost. This will have positive consequences not only for him personally but also for others to look to him as their leader and example. This is true even for those who, like Timothy, are young. We should aspire to excel in our words, in love and faith, and in purity.
Pride of place belongs to the virtue of love. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes that “the goal of our instruction is the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4–5). In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Tim 1:6–7). Believers are to love strangers but not money (1 Tim 3:2–3), and Timothy’s is exhorted to pursue love along with righteousness, faith, and peace, together with all those who call on God with a pure heart (2 Tim 2:22).
Faith and Faithfulness
Another virtue Paul stressors in his letters to Timothy and Titus is faithfulness. Faithfulness is the virtue of being able to be trusted, of being reliable in carrying out a task or mission. In the case of God’s servants, this means passing on the apostolic message of salvation in Jesus Christ without distortion, addition, or subtraction. This calls for humility. The world, even the scholarly world, prizes innovation and fresh ideas; God is looking for those who are willing to submit themselves to the gospel God has already given.
At the beginning of his first letter to Timothy, Paul affirms that God’s entire plan “operates by faith” (1 Tim 1:4). In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “And the things you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men who are able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). As Paul stressed repeatedly, the gospel he preached was not a message of his own making; rightly understood, it was God’s gospel (Rom 1:1): “the gospel I preached is not of human origin” (Gal 1:11–12). Thus, the gospel is a sacred stewardship with which we have been entrusted; this calls for humble, quiet faithfulness.
Godliness was a virtue also in the Greco-Roman world where it referred to religious piety (the Latin word is pietas). The word “godliness” is not common in the New Testament; outside of the letters to Timothy and Titus it is found only in Acts and 2 Peter (e.g., Acts 3:12; 2 Pet 1:3, 6, 7). In the letters to Timothy and Titus, the picture is different; various words making up the “godliness” word group occur as many as thirteen times, most notably the noun eusebeia, which is used ten times. The Old Testament features comparable vocabulary only in the book of Proverbs and Isaiah. In addition, eusebeia in the New Testament may be roughly equivalent to the Old Testament concept of “the fear of the LORD.”
Paul’s overriding concern is that believers live godly lives in the midst of a culture that desperately needs Christ (1 Tim 2:2). He urges Timothy to pursue spiritual discipline and godliness which, unlike mere physical discipline, holds promise in both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4:7–8, 10). Conversely, the opponents of the faith hold to a “form of godliness” while “denying its power” (Titus 3:5). In his letter to Titus, Paul opens programmatically with the statement that the “knowledge of the truth . . . leads to godliness” (1:1). Thus, for Christians, genuine conversion implies the mandate to pursue godliness in one’s daily life and to be disciplined in doing so. Godliness doesn’t happen by accident; it is the result of committed, disciplined effort, not only individually, but in community.
A closely related virtue is that of self-control. In its essence, self-control entails a sensible life that is undergirded by a sound, healthy mind that can assess a given situation from God’s point of view. This is a way of thinking and living we should seek to cultivate in young people, and it is way of thinking and living that should characterize more experienced Christians as well.
In this way, self-control is more than merely controlling one’s speech, one’s temper, and one’s physical and sexual appetites, important as it is to grow in this fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). It encompasses and describes a sensible life-style lived according to the values and within the plan of God.
Remarkably, self-control is urged for every gender and age in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus: women of any age and marital status, including in the way they dress but also in their life in general (1 Tim 2:9, 15); elders who shepherd the household of God (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8); and older men and women as well as young women and men (Titus 2:2, 4–5, 6).
Conclusion: Living a Virtuous Life
We’ve seen that in his letters to Timothy and Titus, written toward the end of his life and ministry, the apostle Paul presented the Christian life pre-eminently as the pursuit of godly virtues. Is this what you’ve heard preachers and teachers present as the essence of discipleship? Hopefully so. At times, however, the focus may be more on activities Christians ought to pursue, whether going on a short-term mission trip (nothing wrong with that, of course), reading the Bible (certainly vital, especially if we are doers of the Word and not hearers only, Jas 1:22–25), or attending various Christian gatherings. In this regard, the letters to Timothy and Titus make a vital contribution. For any true disciple of Christ, Paul urges, what is paramount is growth in godly character, resulting in the performance of a variety of good works (e.g., Titus 2:14).
How does one grow in such virtues? The way you make progress in these areas is by pursuing a series of virtues such as love, faithfulness, godliness, and self-control in your own personal life (aided by the Spirit of God) as well as in community with others, especially in your church. No matter where you are in your growth in Christian maturity, remember this: No one is perfect, and all of us are sinful; and yet, because of our relationship with God in Christ, we each have the Holy Spirit living inside of us who is eager to help us become more like Christ as we continue to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God: “For God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).
Note: I originally gave this talk (and the first related post) at a men’s Saturday morning Bible Study at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Both posts are edited slightly. The present post adapts small portions of my blog post titled “A Theology of the Letters to Timothy and Titus: The Christian Life.”